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If aging is so awful, how come no one wants to be younger?

You hear people say, “I wish I were young again,” all the time. Yet I’ve never met anyone who would actually choose to move their game piece back on the board unless they could transport their present-day consciousness along with it. No one actually wants to be younger, despite a lifetime of being bombarded by messages that old = awful and it’s all going to suck. Even the most frightened and unenlightened know otherwise: that despite the inevitable loss of cartilage and comrades, aging is different—and way better—than the way it’s portrayed in the culture. That is powerful fodder for a movement to end ageism.

Imagine less fear: have the things you dreaded come to pass? Imagine more awareness: understanding that appeals to look or act “younger” are bigotry. Imagine learning these things earlier in life, so the generations that follow are liberated from needless dread. Imagine coming together at all ages to make it happen.

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Guest post: “There is no justification for hiring based on age stereotypes.”

This post consists of career civil rights lawyer Laurie McCann’s written testimony before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on May 16, 2016.  McCann is Senior Attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation, which she represents on a broad range of age discrimination and other employment issues, and a noted speaker on issues related to an older work force. The footnotes are useful too.

Chair Yang, Commissioners Barker, Feldblum, Lipnic and Burrows, thank you for inviting AARP to discuss the issue of diversity in the technology industry and in particular the problem of age discrimination. On behalf of our more than 37 million members and workers age 40 and older who constitute roughly 55 percent of the labor force, AARP appreciates this chance to share our views at today’s Commission meeting. We welcome the opportunity to work further with the Commission as its work proceeds.

Age Discrimination is Pervasive in the Tech Industry

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), ageism, unfortunately, remains pervasive in the American labor force. In a 2013 AARP study, nearly two-thirds of older workers reported witnessing or experiencing age discrimination in the workplace.1 Of those, 92 percent said such discrimination was very or somewhat common.2 It would appear that age discrimination is very prevalent in the technology sector of the economy. According to a recent Fortune magazine article,3 the median age of employees at Twitter is just 28, and at Facebook and Google, the median age is 29. When compared to a median age of 42 for the workforce overall, the message is stark – older workers are persona non grata in technology.

While those statistics are stunning, the most amazing fact is that the industry is so unapologetic about it. Rather than try to hide or explain away the lack of age diversity in the sector, they boast about it. For example, in 2011, Vinod Khosia, co-founder of Sun Microsystems declared, “. . .people under 35 are the people who make change happen; people over the age of 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”4 In his New Republic article about ageism in the tech sector, Scheiber quoted Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital, who unabashedly stated that he was “an incredibly enthusiastic fan of very talented twentysomethings” because they “have great passion” and “don’t have distractions like . . . children.”5 Scheiber also reported that the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara-based IT services company declared prominently on its website’s careers page that “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.” And, perhaps the most cited and the most telling comment came from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2007: “Young people are just smarter.”6

As Bill Maher recently commented, “Ageism is the last acceptable prejudice in America.”7 If these remarks are any indication, nowhere is that more true than in the technology industry.

The rampant age discrimination in the technology sector is perhaps most evident in companies’ hiring policies and practices, which are designed to attract and hire younger employees. Job postings declaring a preference for new or recent graduates are common and some companies have actually specified which graduating class they are seeking.8 For example, in 2013, Facebook settled a case with the California Fair Employment and Housing Department concerning a job listing for an attorney position that noted, “Class of 2007 or 2008 preferred.”9 More recently, many employers have started to require job candidates to be “digital natives.” A digital native is an individual who grew up using technology from an early age whereas a “digital immigrant” refers to someone who adopted technology later in life. This distinction is clearly age-based and can be used to screen out older applicants.10 To date, however, the practice has not been challenged in court.

Many online applications also can screen out older applicants. Some require applicants to include dates of birth or graduation dates in fields that cannot be bypassed. In other words, the applicant cannot submit the application with answering the questions. These practices deter older individuals from applying as many will wonder why they should bother trying when their age will be obvious to the employer. Some companies even go so far as to require potential employees to be affiliated with a college or university in order to submit an application.11 These practices prevent older individuals from applying or at the very least deter them from applying. They also color hiring managers’ perceptions of candidates and cause employers to select from an unrepresentative pool of applicants with disproportionately fewer older applicants.

There is no justification for hiring based on age stereotypes. Hiring should be inclusive and should focus on the job skills needed for the specific position. Employers need to focus on skill sets and qualifications, not solely on demographics. While employers should be able to employ candidates that they consider to be a good fit, they must not let industry and personal stereotypes influence their hiring decisions and recruiting strategies. They should not assume older workers won’t be able to “fit in” with younger colleagues. They should not presume that older workers learned their skills years ago and have been simply coasting ever since. Older engineers and programmers are often up on the latest technology, and what they don’t know they can quickly learn. They should not presume older workers are not creative or innovative; in fact, studies show that workers can be equally or more innovative as they get older.12

If an older employee is able to find employment in the industry, they are still not home free. Instead, discrimination can take other forms including layoffs, and fewer opportunities for advancement and professional development, which then increases older workers’ vulnerability to layoffs. In 2004, Brian Reid, then 52-years-old, alleged that he lost his job at Google because of his age. He was called a poor cultural fit, an “old guy” and a “fuddy duddy with ideas too old to matter.” The case was ultimately resolved out of court after the California Supreme Court refused to consider these comments “stray remarks” and instead held that the comments, if actually made, were evidence of discrimination. AARP filed an amicus curiae brief in this case. Google was sued again recently for age discrimination in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.13 Apparently, there is still a problem. One tech industry survivor, Dan Lyons, has recently recounted his experiences as an older employee working for the software company, HubSpot. 14 Lyons was 52-years-old and the average HubSpot employee was 26. But, the most telling fact was that this age imbalance was intentional. In an interview with the New York Times, HubSpot’s CEO and co-founder, Brian Halligan announced that he was “trying to build a culture [at HubSpot] specifically to attract and retain Gen Y’ers,” because, “in the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated.”15

Barriers to Redress Age Discrimination in Hiring

Given the ADEA’s clear directive that it is unlawful to fail to hire an individual because of their age, why is age discrimination in hiring so prevalent? There are many obstacles to challenging hiring discrimination, and applicants, especially those among the long-term unemployed, are more focused on their primary concern – finding employment.

Hiring discrimination is notoriously difficult to challenge because it is difficult to detect. Jobseekers lack sufficient information about a company’s hiring processes and the relative qualifications of their competition to confidently suspect a potential claim. They may have a “gut feeling” or “hunch” that their age is preventing them from finding employment but that is not enough to establish discrimination, and filing a complaint takes time and energy away from the primary task at hand: finding a job.

Even easily detected forms of bias, such as that found in job postings that specify age-related requirements, often deter older job-seekers from applying, but go unchallenged. Only a miniscule number of charges – only 15416 of 20,14417 age discrimination charges in fiscal year 2015 – alleged unlawful advertising. Current regulations governing employment advertisements and pre-employment inquiries18 are weak, and so do little to deter improper employer behavior and protect the rights of older workers.

Another barrier to addressing hiring discrimination is that although the disparate impact theory is often the best – if not the only – means of challenging such discrimination, employers are mounting an offensive to convince the courts that job applicants may not bring disparate impact claims under section 4(a)(2), 29 U.S.C. 623 (a)(2) of the ADEA. There are already two decisions supporting this position – Kleber v. CareFusion, Corp., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 157645 (Nov. 23, 2015, N.D. Ill) and Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30018 (Mar. 6, 2013, N.D. Ga) – although the Villarreal case is under en banc review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Both AARP and the EEOC have supported the Villarreal plaintiffs with amicus briefs. Clarity that applicants may bring disparate impact claims under section 4(a)(2) will be crucial in combatting some of the most pernicious hiring practices such as maximum hiring ages and exclusively on campus recruiting.

Companies – even Tech Companies – Benefit from Age Diversity and Having an Intergenerational Workforce

Technology firms that ignore the talents of older workers are doing themselves a disservice. Age is positively correlated with engagement — the 50+ segment is the most engaged across all generations19 — and engagement is positively correlated with higher productivity and higher revenues.20 And contrary to common perceptions, 50+ talent does not cost significantly more than younger workers. Changes in wage structures and benefits offerings have significantly diminished differences in compensation costs for older and younger workers. Marginally higher costs to recruit and retain older workers are offset by lower and more predictable turnover, as well as added knowledge and experience.21

Unfortunately, however, few companies include an age component in their diversity programs and all too often, perversely, companies justify their age-discriminatory practices on the need to bring more diverse candidates from other protected groups. Moreover, employers are not required by federal law to include age in diversity reports. This makes it difficult for them to self-examine their policies and practices for discrimination based on age and makes it difficult for victims to establish age discrimination as well. The high-tech industry would benefit from taking steps to examine its performance on achieving an intergenerational workforce, and to take steps to correct any shortcomings uncovered, such as by incorporating age diversity into its diversity practices.


A few years ago, when the EEOC District Offices in California were developing their Complement Plans to the national strategic enforcement plan, AARP’s California state office submitted comments urging particular attention to hiring issues, including age-related job postings and application procedures, and urged the Commission to pay particular attention to problem industries such as Silicon Valley.22 AARP is pleased that the EEOC is including age diversity in its examination of inclusiveness in the high tech industry, and stands ready to be of assistance in addressing this serious and pernicious problem. Thank you again for the opportunity to participate in today’s discussion.


1 AARP, Staying Ahead of the Curve 2013: The AARP Work and Career Study, Older Workers in an Uneasy Job Market 28 (January, 2014), available at

2 Id., at 30.

3 Verne Kopytoff, “Tech Industry Job Ads: Older Workers Need Not Apply,” Fortune (June 19, 2014), available at [hereinafter Tech Industry Job Ads].

4 Vivek Wadha, “The Case for Old Entrepreneurs,” Washington Post (Dec. 2, 2011), available at

5 Noam Scheiber, “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” New Republic, (March 23, 2014), available at

6 Andrew S. Ross, “In Silicon Valley, Age Can Be a Curse,” SFGate (Aug. 20, 2013), available at

7 Josh Feldman, “Maher Rants against Youth Culture, Ageism: ‘Last Acceptable Prejudice'” (Nov. 7, 2104), available at

8 Tech Industry Job Ads, supra n. 3.

9 Id.

10 Vivian Giang, “This Is the Latest Way Employers Mask Age Bias, Lawyers Say,” Fortune (May 4, 2015), available at

11 See e.g., Complaint in Rabin v. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, 3:16-cv-02276-JST (filed Apr. 27, 2016, N.D. Calif.).

12 Stefan Theil, “Innovation Grows among Older Workers,” Newsweek (Aug. 20, 2010), available at

13 The complaint in Heath v. Google, Inc., 5:15-cv-01824-HRL (filed Apr. 22, 2015, N.D. Calif.), alleges that the company violates the ADEA and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) through its hiring and employment practices.

14 Dan Lyons, “When It Comes to Age Bias, Tech Companies Don’t Even Bother to Lie,” (Apr. 5, 2016), available at

15 Adam Bryant, “Brian Halligan, Chief of HubSpot, on the Value of Naps,” New York Times (Dec. 5, 2013), available at

16 EEOC, Charge Statistics, Statutes by Issue: FY 2010 – FY 2015, available at

17 EEOC, Charge Statistics: FY 1997 Through FY 2015, available at

18 29 C.F.R. §§ 1625.4 and 1625.5.

19 AARP, A Business Case for Workers Age 50+: A Look at the Value of Experience 2 (2015), available at

20 Id., at 18-19.

21 Id., at 46.

22 Letter from Katie Hirning, [then] State Director, AARP California, to EEOC Los Angeles and San Francisco District Offices, re: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Local Complement Plans to National Strategic Enforcement Plan (Feb. 27, 2013) (on file with AARP).


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Let’s get intergenerational

A century ago Americans didn’t need programs to connect the generations: homes and communities housed people of all ages. But as people started living longer and moving into cities, we started thinking differently about people at both ends of the age spectrum. Schooling became mandatory, child labor was outlawed, and Social Security and Medicare made a secure retirement possible for millions. The benefits were significant, but so was the downside: the natural order of things was subverted, and the generations lost contact. Our society is now acutely age-segregated.

What’s the harm?  According to I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, The Old, and What We Can Achieve Together, a terrific new report from Generations United & the Eisner Foundation, age segregation:

  • Gives rise to ageism.
  • Makes social solidarity more elusive.
  • Perpetuates racial, ethnic, and political divides.
  • Wastes taxpayer money
  • Denies old and young crucial opportunities to learn from and help one another.

I’m glad to see ageism top the list, and I’m excited the way initiatives to connect the generations are cropping up. Generations United has been at this a lot longer than I have, although I learned about their work early on in this project, when Executive Director Donna Butts spoke at a seminar for journalists in 2008. “Thomas Jefferson said the web of relationships between generations is essential to civil society,” she said. “Why do we keep trying to unweave that web? Because it’s easy to default to intergenerational conflict mode than to deal with the real problems.”

What role does age segregation play? If the generations have little opportunity to get to know each other, it’s easier for “us vs. them” ways of thinking to get a foothold.  Zero-sum reasoning doesn’t just distract us from the underlying issues and pit us against each other. It’s unethical. We know it’s not OK to allocate resources by race or by sex, so why should it be acceptable to weigh the needs of the young against the old? Look, for example, at the way generational revenge is being invoked to marshal the youth vote in the upcoming UK General Election. Or how the latest Republican budget is being framed as benefiting olders at the expense of the poor—as if no poor people were old and Social Security didn’t buttress millions of families. In nearly half of those families, grandparents are helping raise grandchildren.  That’s according to a 2016 survey by, which found that Americans have little appetite for a “generation war” and view intergenerational interdependence as a source of unity and mutual benefit—especially in these difficult and divisive times.

The synergies are obvious, especially as the number of Americans over 65 swells. Many are keenly interested in supporting and guiding those who come next. “Why not match talent with need, tap experience for youth, connect supply with demand? Why not activate this solution hidden in plain sight?” asks Marc Freedman, the founder of Encore, which launched the Generation to Generation campaign last November to mobilize a million people over age 50 “to help young people thrive and unite all ages to create a better future.”

Another indicator of more cross-generational thinking?  The emergence of “all-age-friendly” (as opposed to “age-friendly”) community-planning initiatives is. As this smart post about the “All-Age-Friendly City” observes, “building trust between generations” is key to creating safe, green, accessible, communitarian living spaces. Here’s an actual sign, the name of a joint healthy aging initiative in South Orange and Maplewood, NJ, where I spoke last Thursday.

And here’s a list of intergenerational programs in healthcare, infrastructure, and education.

Remember the old brain teaser about the man and his son who are in a bad car accident? The father dies and the son is rushed to the hospital. The doctor on duty blanches and says, “I can’t operate on this boy—he’s my son!” Who is the doctor? Answer: the boy’s mother. Women doctors aren’t rare any more, but this stumped me when I was a kid. Fast forward to last summer, when two friends of my daughter Morgan struck up a conversation with my friend Cory in a B&B upstate—all hip NYC lesbians in their early 30’s, as it happens. Morgan’s friends figured out the connection, but not without a jolt of surprise when they realized that it was through me, Morgan’s mom. That’s because it’s so unusual to be friends with people more than 10 years older or younger than ourselves. Won’t it be great when such friendships are as ordinary as women doctors?  That’s the world all these great programs are working to bring about.


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NY Times to older people: Get off social media

Would the New York Times make the same case when it comes to women? Or Muslims, or Latinos? They shouldn’t get away with it when it comes to olders either.  Let’s hope they print the letter I just submitted:

To the Editor:

In “Social Insecurity? Internet Turns Boomers Into Twits,” [May 5, 2017], Future Tense columnist Teddy Wayne urges older people to get the heck off social media. His position is both ageist and clueless, not to mention downright nasty. The problem isn’t that Trump is tweeting, it’s what he’s tweeting. Sure, Cher’s post is dopey; who cares? Like love, social media can make fools of any of us. The same day’s “Modern Love” column describes a college student trapped by her carefully cultivated Instagram persona.

Like everywhere else, the internet needs to be a place for all ages. Yes, millennials led the development of social media, but they stood on the shoulders of those who invented the internet and consciously brought it online in 1964 as a way to connect people. Generational divides aren’t just contrived, they undermine a thriving and equitable culture.

Ashton Applewhite

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According to TED, I “burned the house down”

Yay and phew, in equal measure. Luminaries at TED2017 in Vancouver last week included athlete Serena Williams, grandmaster Gary Kasparov, megastar Shah Rukh Khan, entrepreneur Elon Musk, and, oh yeah, Pope Francis. High point for me? When fellow speaker (and my predecessor as Next Avenue Influencer of the Year) Atul Gawande congratulated me on my standing ovation. “Let’s make it happen!” I ad libbed to the crowd before leaving the stage. Yes, let’s.


photo: TED2017 Instagram feed

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Dementia rates are falling.

I can’t say that often enough, so I’m going to say it again: dementia rates are falling. Previous small studies have found the same trend, and a large national survey recently confirmed it. The total number of cases will rise along with the number of older people in the population, but the likelihood of any given person getting dementia has dropped—significantly. Lead author Dr. Kenneth Langa estimates the decrease at 25 to 30 percent compared with the rate in the early 1990s. And people are being diagnosed at older and older ages.

This comes as a surprise to epidemiologists along with the rest of us, especially give a surge in diabetes among older Americans, which significantly increases the risk of dementia. It’s part of a larger trend that that New York Times has dubbed a “medical mystery of the best kind”: common diseases of aging are in retreat in the United States and some other wealthy countries.

A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms it: “the increase in life expectancy in the past two decades has been accompanied by an even greater increase in life years free of disability.” In other words, although longer lives mean spending more years with disease, “disability-free life expectancy” has risen faster than lifespan. Better treatments for heart disease and for vision problems—cataract surgery, that is, which has become a simple outpatient procedure—are responsible for much of the improvement, as are better diagnoses, but they don’t explain the trend. Although Parkinson’s, dementia, and diabetes remain huge concerns, even the rate of “all-cause mortality,” which lumps together chronic diseases, is falling. And every one of those diseases links to aging. Perhaps, all these degenerative diseases share something in common, something inside aging cells themselves, suggests Dr. Steven R. Cummings of the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute. The cellular process of aging may be changing, in humans’ favor. That seems like a stretch, but more research into the biology of aging is definitely welcome and badly needed.

Why don’t more people know these things—especially the good news about dementia rates? A 2012 Marist poll found that Alzheimer’s had edged out cancer as the disease Americans fear most. Part of the reason is just human: fears loom large because danger affects survival. Part of it is because of media coverage: scary stories pull people in, and dementia is a terrifying prospect. And the alarm garners research dollars. In the words of advocate Christine Bryden, who lives with dementia, “What is the cause of the stigma and fear? It’s the stereotype of dementia: someone who cannot understand, remembers nothing, and is unaware of what is happening around them. This stereotype tugs at the heartstrings and loosens the purse strings, so is used in seeking funds for research, support, and services. It’s a Catch-22, because Alzheimer’s associations promote our image as non-persons, and make the stigma worse.” What age scholar Margaret Gullette calls “our irrational fear of forgetting” has made such deep inroads into our psyches that routine memory lapses provoke terror, and diagnoses invoke thoughts of suicide.

The odds of dementia increase with age, but the illness is not typical of aging. Our fears are way out of proportion to both the scale and the nature of the threat. Falling dementia rates ought to reduce those fears, as should the fact that the world is becoming a better place to be a person living with dementia, thanks to the work of remarkable advocates like Bryden, grassroots movements like Momentia in Seattle, and geriatrician and thought leader Bill Thomas. Thomas proposes an approach based on his Eden Alternative nursing homes, humane communities where people with dementia thrive. Since there’s no cure for the disease, Thomas point out that, “the tool we have is culture.” Few of us are medical researchers, but each of us has the capacity to reduce the stigma and suffering associated with dementia through culture change. What can we learn from people living with dementia, how can we learn to face the disease on an emotional level, and how can we change the culture to become more inclusive?

Thomas is taking this idea on the road with his Disrupt Dementia tour, which advances the idea that a dementia-inclusive world is a human-inclusive world. That world, says tour member and psychotherapist Kyrié Carpenter,  “offers a cure of sorts for what we currently call dementia.”  The tour blends film, music, story-telling, and cutting-edge research into an event that turns conventional thinking on its head in a very welcome wayThe tour kicked off in California this week, and it’s probably coming to a city near you. Check out the itinerary here. And be less afraid.


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It’s official—I’ll be speaking at TED2017 in Vancouver in April

That’s big, no-suffix TED mainstage—a thrilling opportunity to introduce ageism as a global human rights issue on the world stage, and it’s damn exciting. It’s also a perfect fit with this year’s theme:

It’s also terrifying, especially the part about not using notes, and I hope the hell words come out of my mouth. Then again, almost all the speakers are terrified, and it’s quite a crew. I’m especially looking forward to meeting Atul Gawande, the author of Being Mortal (and my predecessor as Next Avenue’s Influencer of the Year), and I’m sure Elon Musk is thrilled I’ll be there. Only people who’ve ponied up $8500-$17000 to attend the weeklong conference (no pressure!!!) get to hear talks live (make that competed to pony up—no pressure!!!), and TED decides when (and whether—no pressure!!!) to post each talk online over the course of the year.  Of course I’ll let the world know as soon as it’s available. If words come out—yikes!  And yay!!!


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Guest post: Silicon Valley’s unspoken, dirty little secret (hint: it’s not what you think)

This post is  by Jessica Orkin, a President oSYPartners, where she helps people see new possibilities – for themselves, for their organizations, for society – and then create the strategy, experiences and platforms needed to support ongoing transformation and behavior change at scale. For the last four years, she has partnered with AARP and its visionary CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, to challenge outdated beliefs on aging. This post first appeared on Fox News Opinion.

Recent media coverage has begun to highlight the ageism that is prevalent, but largely unacknowledged in Silicon Valley.  Yes, Silicon Valley is ageist. But the truth is, we all are. Even you. Even me.

Ageism is one of the last “isms” so embedded into our culture that we rarely recognize it in our daily lives. Every day, we draw conclusions about other generations. Boomer employers want to solve the “Millennial problem.” Millennials want the older folks to get with the new program.

My deep desire is to end this generational standoff. It is not doing us any good.  It hurts us personally as we unwittingly limit the things we go after citing our age as a reason.

It hurts us as a society as we limit the ingenuity and innovation that comes from age-diverse workplaces.

It is time to tap into the value brought by bringing generations together, rather than focusing on the differences that divide us.

Consider that a 10-year-old in the U.S. today has a 50 percent chance of living to 104. The implications of this are staggering for how we live, how we learn, and how we work.

Ten thousand people in the United States turn 65 every day — and yet, most of the technology and tools at the frontiers of innovation are designed for and by young people. This gap represents a huge opportunity.

The tech industry has the opportunity to lead the way by taking on two major blind spots:

1. The value of designing for the entire age spectrum: Human-centered design is great, but let’s make sure some of those humans we are designing for are older people. There’s money in it. The annual economic activity generated by people 50+ account for $7.6 trillion in the US alone. And, bringing the best of design and technology to edge cases can drive unexpected innovation.  Consider that Oxo Good Grips created an entire market category – high end, stylish, user friendly kitchen gear designed for people with arthritis but used by everyone.

2. The value of the intergenerational workforce: Scott E. Page’s research has proven that teams of people with diverse backgrounds find better solutions than brilliant individuals working alone.

We often consider gender, race, ethnicity as contributing to diversity. But rarely do we include age.

Yes, we protect against age discrimination, but we don’t yet value age diversity as a thing to strive for.

The companies that figure out how to make the most of intergenerational teams will unlock huge competitive advantage.

There are more older people, living longer than at any other time in human history.

We need more solutions for this new reality. And the first step is to take on our own ageism.

I came to this realization at age 40, through my work with AARP and its visionary and straight-talking CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins. She has invited us all to challenge outdated beliefs about aging and to spark solutions so people can choose how they live as they age.

This work has changed my life. It has changed how I see age and aging.

It has changed how I am parenting my 12-year-old son, as I look ahead to helping him lead a purpose-driven, adaptive, resourceful 100+ year life.

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Ten myths about ageing and health, ranked by the World Health Organization

All around the world, people are living longer—a basic hallmark of human progress, and a triumph of public health. The World Health Organization (WHO) is in the public health business, and no organization has done more to raise awareness of ageism—the biggest obstacle to meeting the challenges of population aging, and also to capitalizing on the “longevity dividend.” Part of the WHO’s global anti-ageism campaign  is a new list of ten common “misconceptions on ageing and health.” The global perspective is instructive, and it’s making me rethink some things—including the burning question of whether to start spelling “ageing” the logical, British-and-Indian way.

  1. There is no typical older person.

That would top my list too. Stereotyping—the assumption that all members of a group are the sameunderlies all prejudice. Of course stereotypes always a mistake, but especially when it comes to age, because we all age in different ways and at different rates. As geriatricians put it, “Heterogeneity is the hallmark of ageing.” Or, less formally, “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.”

  1. Diversity in older age is not random.

Spoken like a tactful epidemiologist! WHO is pointing out that the playing field is far from level: “The physical and social environments in which we live are powerful influences on Healthy Ageing” and are further shaped by “our sex, our ethnicity, and financial resources.” As I write in the my book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, “The way we grow old is governed by a whole range of variables, including environment, personality, and genes, compounded by class, gender, race, luck, and the churnings of the global economy—over which we have varying degrees of control.” The effects compound each other and add up over time, which is why the poorest of the poor, all around the world, are old women of color.

  1. Only a small proportion of older people are care dependent.

“Care dependent” is a great way to put it. I tend to frame this in terms of the percentage of Americans over 85 who live in nursing homes (10 percent) and who can go about their everyday activities without any personal assistance (over half).  The WHO frames this in economic terms as well, drawing on recent research showing that the contributions of olders in the UK “were worth nearly 40 billion more than expenditure on them through pensions, welfare and health care combined”—a figure set to nearly double by 2030.

  1. Population ageing will increase health-care costs but not by as much as expected.

The notion that older North Americans are an inevitable sink for healthcare dollars is incorrect, and the WHO makes the international case. “In high-income countries, there is growing evidence that at around age 70, health-care expenditure per person falls significantly,”the WHO observes, though expenditures made outside the traditional health system increase. So it makes sense to invest in long-term care. Aging influences health care expenditures far less than other factors, especially expensive medical technologies. Related predictions that “too many old people” will tank the economy—debunked here—are biased, outdated, and just plain wrong.

  1. 70 is not yet the new 60.

I take issue with claims like “60 is the new 40!” because they’re based in denial—60, no matter how active, is still 60—but I’ve been assuming that we’re generally healthier and more vigorous than the generations that preceded us. Not so, says the WHO. Although severe disabilities may be less common, “no significant change in less severe disability has been observed during the past 30 years.”

  1. Good health in older age is not just the absence of disease.

“The combination of a person’s physical and mental capacities (known as intrinsic capacity) is a better predictor of their health and wellbeing than the presence or absence of disease,” notes the WHO, suggesting that we focus on improving intrinsic capacity rather than on specific ailments.  As I write in my book, “While physical decline is inevitable, poor health is not.” People get chronic conditions but we learn to live with them. We find ways to keep doing the things wel love—versions of them, at least. No single age-related condition affects most older people. Some of the oldest of the old live well not by avoiding illness but despite it.

  1. Families are important but alone cannot provide the care many older people need.

“While families will always play a central role in long-term care, changing demography and social norms mean it is impossible for families alone to meet the needs of care dependent older people,” the WHO points out, calling for training and supporting caregivers and for the government and other sectors to share responsibility. It’s the absence of publicly funded support that turns caregiving into a burden—one that falls largely on women. How about paid family leave and subsidizing care for people of all ages? How about a guaranteed, collective, universal right to long-term care that gives women the same options that men—white men with good jobs, at least— have always enjoyed? How about providing decent wages, health and unemployment insurance, and a path to citizenship to those we pay to do this intimate and important work? Which would allow families to do what they do best: be family instead of nurses and administrators.

  1. Expenditure on older populations is an investment, not a cost.

Programs that help olders stay mobile and functional require funding, but what’s often omitted from the accounting is the cost of not making such investments. “These investments can yield significant dividends, both in the health and well-being of older people and for society as a whole through increased participation, consumption and social cohesion,” says the WHO. Some of the return on investment is direct. For example, better healthcare leads to better health, which saves money, improves lives, and allows people to contribute to what AARP calls the “longevity economy.”  Some is indirect, helping societies protect the human rights of their older members and enabling them to live with dignity.

  1. It’s not all about genes.

According to the WHO, “While Healthy Ageing starts at birth with our genetic inheritance, only approximately 25% of the diversity in longevity is explained by genetic factors.” I remember how surprised I was to learn that, from none other than geriatrician Robert Butler, who coined the term “ageism” and founded the National Institute on Aging. “It’s really never too late to reinvent yourself and to invent different health habits. Only about 25 percent of our health appears to be due to genes. Seventy-five percent is environmental or behavior,” Butler told me. That why WHO recommends that policies “address these person-environment interactions across the life course.”

  1. Mandatory retirement ages do not help create jobs for youth.

“Policies enforcing mandatory retirement ages do not help create jobs for youth, but they reduce older workers’ ability to contribute. They also reduce an organization’s opportunities to benefit from the capabilities of older workers,” write the WHO. Indeed: the exchange of skills across generations is the natural order of things, but in much of the developed world age discrimination in the workplace has subverted it. Another false dichotomy is that older workers take jobs away from younger ones. Economists call this the fallacy of the “lump of labor.”When jobs are scarce, this is true in the narrowest sense, but that’s a labor market problem, not a too-many-old-people problem. A 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts study of employment rates over the last 40 years found rates for younger and older workers to be positively correlated. In other words, as more older workers stayed on the job, the employment rate and number of hours worked also improved for younger people.

Want older people to be healthy?  End ageism

A growing body of evidence shows that attitudes towards aging have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how we age. People with more positive feelings about aging behave differently from those convinced that growing old means becoming irrelevant or pathetic. They do better on memory tests and are less likely to develop the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. They can walk faster and are more likely to recover fully from severe disability. And they actually live longer—an average of seven and a half years. Everyone agrees that health has the biggest effect on how we age—and how much it costs. Think what a global anti-ageism campaign would do to extend not just lifespan but “healthspan.”


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Envisioning Elderhood—This-Chair-Rocks style

This email came in a few days ago from gerontology professor Elizabeth Bergman, and it made very happy—almost as happy as the video beneath it, which was created by her student, Anne Qu. It’s smart and funny all the way through, but I especially loved the part where Qu rearranges photographs of all the people she’s already been—a perfect representation of the book’s epigraph: “We contain all the ages we have ever been”—and anticipates the wrinklier incarnations to come. Also, I admit, the scene with the two guys on the sofa talking about the “old guy in the club,” which made me laugh out loud.

Hello, Ashton,

I’m writing to tell you how much I appreciate your book. As a gerontology educator at Ithaca College, my primary endeavor is to teach “traditional age” college undergrads about age and the aging process. Most of my students will only ever take one such course in their entire educational career, so I strive to make as much impact as I can in the course of one short semester! I am using This Chair Rocks for the second time this semester in a course I teach called “Age Matters: Discovering the Possibilities beyond Midlife.” Your book is so accessible and my students really connect with your message.

Students conclude the semester with an “Envisioning Elderhood” presentation, in which they reflect on the development of their thinking about age and aging and imagine their own experience of aging. They are given several prompts to which they must respond in the presentation, including how they plan to “Push Back” and how they are an “Old Person in Training.” Here is a link to the presentation created by Annie Qu last semester (she was happy for me to share with you). You’ll see the influence of This Chair Rocks all over it!

AQu Envisioning Elderhood Pres.1 from Ashton Applewhite on Vimeo.