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posts are up on the Silver Century Foundation website

 

I’m delighted to be joining Margaret Morganroth Gullette, among other writers, on the website of the Silver Century Foundation, which has an excellent mandate. The foundation “challenges entrenched and harmful stereotypes, encourages dialogue between generations, advocates planning for the second half of life, and raises awareness to educate and inspire everyone to live long, healthy, empowered lives.”

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on “queering” gerontology

Writing in the new journal Age Culture Humanities, Chris Gilleard of London’s University College salutes the cultural turn in age studies and its attendant view of aging as socially and culturally constructed (along with race, gender, disability, and sexuality). Within this broader framework, aging studies “queers” its older and more established partner, gerontology, Gilleard observes. He also raises interesting questions about the risks of taking this too far. “Is it really only the state that makes our date of birth an unchanging aspect of our identity? Is it only the market that tricks us into fearing growing old? Is it just the operation of bio-politics that divides up our lives into distinct sequences? Can we risk ignoring the corporeal systems we have in common with other living beings?”  Good stuff.

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Silicon Valley’s white, male elite is encountering discrimination for the first time. Guess what kind?

Ageism in Silicon Valley has been all over the news lately. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story titled “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem.” Male engineers in their twenties are getting botox and hair transplants before key interviews. “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” a feature story in the New Republic, described a swelling cohort of “highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers” sidelined “for reasons no one can rationally explain.” 

Prejudice is irrational. Age discrimination is illegal. It’s bad for business: diverse workplaces are more productive and profitable; good hardware projects (not sexy!) don’t get funded; consumers lose out. The underlying industry premise that youth drives technological innovation is baseless. All this has been documented for decades. Why the attention now? Because for the first time in their lives, people at the top of the food chain—smart, skilled, straight, well-paid, non-disabled white guys—are experiencing discrimination. It happens to be because they’re old enough to have kids. Or mortgages. Or receding hairlines.

“Welcome, men to our world,” writes Ann Friedman in a terrific piece in New York magazine called “Silicon Valley Disrupts Discrimination: Now it’s for Middle-Aged White Guys, Too.” That would be the world of women huddled behind office doors hooked up to breast pumps trying to play down the fact that they’re parents, not whiz kids, or reluctantly learning golf in order to meet male clients, for example: “the world of being hyperaware of how you’re perceived, every moment of every workday.” As she notes, the burden of trying to conform to the dominant culture applies doubly and triply for people of color and gay people and people with disabilities. Friedman also notes that when women face bias, we tell them to lean in, and when it happens to people of color we barely notice, but that when men confront biases, we look for what it reveals about the bigger system.

Ageism is still so unexamined that age doesn’t make Friedman’s short list of discriminatory categories; for her the big win in all the media coverage is a fresh take on “now-familiar Silicon Valley sexism”. It’s not missing because these are stories about age discrimination either. It’s missing because most people think of aging only in biological terms (and within those confines, only as decline). It never dawns on most of us that the experience of reaching old age—or middle age, or even just aging past youth—can be better or worse depending on the culture in which it takes place. (Hint: steer clear of the United States, especially Hollywood and Silicon Valley.) Like racism and sexism, ageism is a socially constructed idea that has changed over time and that serves a social and economic purpose—to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. These prejudices aren’t about how we look, they’re about how people in power assign meaning to how we look. These tech guys have lost their grip on power merely because they are no longer in their twenties

Friedman suggests that Silicon Valley may inadvertently have produced an innovation here by “disrupting” discrimination itself. (In industry parlance, a “disruptive” innovation unexpectedly displaces an established [older] technology.) For the first time people are looking at the underlying values of tech culture and questioning its obsession with youth-and-hipness. The Bay Area’s extreme manifestation of this mindset doesn’t make it any more palatable than garden-variety discrimination on the basis of having dark skin or a wheelchair or a vagina or actual gray hair, but that’s what finally garnered some attention. The coverage is revealing cracks in the “meritocracy” that has served this elite so well on all other fronts. Let’s hope it jimmies them wide open, and brings ageism into the discussion.

 

 

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Comparing ageism and ableism—what are some lessons?

Disability rights activist Simi Linton’s memoir, My Body Politic, shook up my thinking on topics ranging from sex to suicide, and got me comparing ableism and ageism. We act as though old people never become disabled and disabled people never grow old, despite the fact that one third of disabled Americans are sixty-five or older, and that the same medical advances that have swelled the number of people with disabilities are keeping more and more of the rest of us alive long enough to join their ranks.

It doesn’t take much head-scratching to figure out that a tremendous amount of ageism is rooted in fear of becoming disabled. It didn’t really surprise me when a 38-year-old friend stuck to crutches after foot surgery rather than switch to a cane; all those old-people-with-cane signs cast a long shadow. The stigma is so powerful that it’s not uncommon for olders to refuse to use walkers or wheelchairs—even if the alternative is being homebound. A geriatrician at Weill Cornell bemoaned the fact that many of her patients shun walkers, including a 78-year-old patient who’s disabled by MS and keeps falling, yet who snarls when offered a seat on the bus. My partner’s parents weren’t happy renting wheelchairs during a trip Iceland for his mother’s 90th birthday last June, because we wanted to see more than their painfully slow—and painful—gaits would have allowed.

 This seems nuts. The bull looks different, I know, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to love having my grandchildren scoot me around Helsinki or the Hermitage. Wheelchairs will be cooler after we boomers fully commodify them, and they go way more places thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But I have a lot to learn, so I was thrilled when my partner’s high-school girlfriend offered to introduce me to Linton, her friend since childhood. (New Yorkers all, but still, what are the odds?)

 Simi took an evening off from promoting her wonderful new film, Invitation to Dance, to have dinner with me and had the best opener ever: “This chair rocks, and”—pointing to her wheelchair—“this chair rolls!” (That night she also tweaked the excellent disability rights motto, “Nothing about us without us” that night by simplifying it to “Nothing without us.”) I peppered her with questions, her answer to many of them was “Read Chapter Two,” so I did. This second book, Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, is a call to incorporate disability studies into the liberal arts. A little specialized for me, but the book’s broader intent is anything but.

 Linton rejects the medicalization of disability, and writes that the ways in which disability is covered over, layered with meaning, and rendered invisible are “not inevitable reactions to human conditions labeled disabilities but devices used to sort human beings according to the social and economic needs of a society. She also challenges the centrality—even the possibility—of “normalcy” as a universal position from which disabled people deviate. “Rather, it is a category of people whose power and cultural capital keep them at the center,” Linton writes. So, too, with race. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley says: “Race was never just a matter of how you look, it’s about how people assign meaning to how you look.” So too with age . . . or only to some degree? Since everyone ages, the binary operates differently. On that axis we all move into and out of the group with the cultural capital. What are the implications—for identity, visibility, coalition-building? I’m chewing on it. Analogies between “isms” are inherently complex, and problematic in ways that I’m just beginning to understand. 

 All, however, are socially constructed ideas that have changed over time and serve a social and economic purpose. Each “is a linchpin in a complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and government policies.” Those are Linton’s words, about disability alone. Nevertheless they explain why so many people in aging policy, indoctrinated by the deficit model on which their salaries and dogma depend, are deaf to the argument that the biggest impediments to a decent old age are prejudice and structural discrimination. When it comes to late life, the overlap with ableism is huge. Yet this goes unstated, by Linton as well.

 Most of us will age into some degree of disability, which is why I used to quote the saying, “We’re all disabled sometime.” I don’t say it any more, because Linton feels that until ableism is in full retreat, it’s important not to blur the line between those who identify as disabled and whose daily lives are affected by it, and the rest of us. In the same vein, since the early 90s the term “disabled people” has supplanted “people with disabilities” in disability rights circles because it highlights the identity that the group wishes to call attention to. “I started calling myself a disabled woman because it influences my life in so many ways,” Linton told me. 

 I’ve proposed a diametrically opposite approach when it comes to age as an identifier, because it plays a far bigger role than it should. Let’s downgrade it. Let’s omit it from newspaper stories unless they’re obituaries or describe prodigies. Let’s omit it from dating sites as first-order screening information. Let’s follow the example of gender-nonconforming people and start identifying as age-nonconforming when filling out anything except on legal forms, suggests social worker Natalia Granger. Let’s identify as age queer, proposes environmental activist Colin Beavan, who “isn’t comfortable with the roles and stereotypes associated with the age of the body I was born into.” He acknowledges that it’s appropriation, which will both attract and repel, and points out that it suggests solidarity. Or make like biochemist Silvia Moreira, who refuses to give her age, not because she wants people to take her for younger but because she is acutely aware of how age functions as a shorthand, a way to contextualize accomplishments and calibrate expectations, and refuses to be pigeonholed in that way. Her consciousness makes it a radical act. I think it’s important to claim my 61 years, but at the same time challenge its primacy and value as a signifier. Identity is tricky.

 Do Linton’s and my narratives diverge because of inherent differences between ageism and ableism, or because a radical aging movement has yet to develop? Linton is at the forefront of a movement that has won significant civil rights victories and created a community of people with disabilities, >no small feat given the hetereogeneity of the population. The new century has seen the emergence of disability pride: “I’m disabled, hear me roar.” Age pride has yet to come into being. It will.  

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program notes for the Second Wind Tour

Every speaker on the tour gets a two-page spread in a fat print program.  Some entries are formal, others touchy-feely. Mine’s below. How refreshing not to have to soft-pedal my bio or my politics; the choice of the pull quote (in bold) was theirs.

 

I didn’t set out to become a writer. I went into publishing because I loved to read and didn’t have any better ideas. A funny thing happened on the way to a respectable editorial career. I had a weakness for the kind of jokes that make you cringe and guffaw at the same time, my boss kept telling me to write them down, and the collection turned into the best-selling paperback of 1982. I was a clue on “Jeopardy” (“Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes?” Answer: “Blanche Knott.”), and, as Blanche, made publishing history by occupying four of the fifteen spots on the New York Times bestseller list.

I am unafraid of running against the cultural current. My joke books came out during the heyday of political correctness (My favorite rejection letter read, “Publish this? We can’t even Xerox this!”). My first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, was rejected by 12 publishers in 36 hours before being published by HarperCollins in 1997. (Yes, I was one of them.) Ms. magazine called Cutting Loose “rocket fuel for launching new lives,” and it landed me on Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum enemies list. More importantly, women from all over the country thanked me for saving their lives. The book also got me invited to join the board of the  Council on Contemporary Families, a group of distinguished family scholars. I also joined the Artist’s Network of Refuse & Resist that originated the anti-Iraq-invasion slogan and performance pieces titled “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” As a contributing editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine, I went to Laos to cover a village getting Internet access via a bicycle-powered computer. Since 2000 I’ve been on staff at the American Museum of Natural History, where I write about everything under the sun.

The catalyst for Cutting Loose was a chance comment by my attorney that more and more of his clients were like me — women who realized they didn’t have to stay in unhappy marriages. After two minutes online, I was astonished to learn that women initiate two-thirds of divorces. Was marriage so terrible, or divorce not so bad? Why the discrepancy between our notion of how women fared and the happy and energized reality? 

A similar question gave rise to my present mission: why is our view of late life so unrelievedly grim when the lived reality is so different? Just as it’s hard to have an egalitarian marriage in a patriarchal culture, it’s hard to age well in a profoundly ageist one. Ageism—discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age—relegates older Americans to second-class status. Few even blink when older people are described as worthless. Or incompetent, or boring, or sexless, or even repulsive. 

We all internalize these attitudes, and they make growing older in America much harder than it has to be. The more clearly we see these social forces at work—in ourselves and the world at large—the easier it is to envision alternative, more positive, more accurate narratives. So I’m on a crusade to raise awareness of ageism in America and get people young and old to join me in speaking out against it.  (Ageism also affects young people: “kids are like that,” for example.) I’ve been thinking out loud about aging and ageism since 2007 on my This Chair Rocks blog where you can also find my research. I started speaking on the subject in July, 2012, which is also when I started the Q&A blog Yo, Is This Ageist? Go ahead, ask me. 

When I started this project, I was in Terror Mode: I saw aging as a grim slide into depression, diapers, and dementia. To my surprise, the more I learned about late life, the better it looked. I slid to the other end of the spectrum: “Successful Aging” Mode: enough spinach, Sudoku, and speed-walking can “put old on hold.” Eventually I figured out that all aging is successful, otherwise you’re dead. I’ll probably end up with the vast majority in the middle: muscles and memory slowed, but able to function effectively and enjoy life to the end. It’s a work in progress. Come on in, the water’s fine.

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I’m on the bus!

Exciting news: I’ve been invited to join Dr. Bill Thomas’s national Second Wind Tour May 5-8. Columbus, Chicago, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Minneapolis, here I come! Speakers, multimedia, film, music, rock & roll bus! Thomas is an articulate, charismatic geriatrician and eldercare expert who thinks big. I first encountered him through his TED talk, which got my attention not just for its positive take on late life but because it foregrounds ageism. I contacted his Changing Aging site last spring but got not very far. Two weeks ago Thomas re-tweeted a quote from my Senior Planet talk that night (“Fear of dying is human, fear of aging is cultural”). I wrote suggesting he might like Yo, Is This Ageist? The next morning, a tweet in response: “It’s official, I want to marry this blog!” and an invitation to the kickoff event in NYC on March 31. And yesterday, an invitation to join him and his team on the road for its swing through the midwest. The tour is to promote Thomas’ new book, Second Wind: Navigating the Passage into a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life,  and also to kickstart a national conversation about what he calls the baby boom’s “second tumultuous coming of age.” Thomas thinks my anti-ageism message is perfectly aligned with his vision and I’m very glad he does.

 

 

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“Gray tsunami,” really? How about “gray swell,” or even “gray bloom?”

In October 2010, demographer Philip Longman warned of a “’gray tsunami’ sweeping the planet.” The phrase summons a frankly terrifying vision of a giant wave of old people looming on the horizon, poised to drain the public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations out to sea. Journalists jumped on it, and “gray tsunami” has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.

I hadn’t used the phrase but I hadn’t given it much thought either, until I heard a fascinating podcast by Andrea Charise, Assistant Professor of Health Studies at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, about why it’s such a dangerous metaphor. (Link here; Episode 3.) “Is the progressive aging of society really equivalent to the instantaneous devastation of cities?” asks Charise. “What’s at stake when they’re held up as equivalent?”

Drawing on examples from three different Canadian media outlets, Charise points out that this language divides society into two opposing groups: the “needy old” and everyone else. Conflict grabs eyeballs, of course, and this frankly terrifying metaphor “traffics in the politics of panic” so successfully that all other narratives are effectively pushed aside. It wouldn’t be the first politically charged use of this kind of language. In the late 19th century the influx of Asian immigrants was referred to as the “yellow peril” or “yellow flood,” Charise notes. A “rising tide” was used to describe a whole host of diseases deemed threatening to society, from tuberculosis and syphilis in the19th century to HIV-AIDs in the 20th century and Alzheimer’s Disease in the 21st.

Language is not neutral. “Gray tsunami” rhetoric justifies prejudice against older people, legitimates their abandonment, and fans the flames of of intergenerational conflict. It also obscures the fact that what we’re facing is no tsunami. It’s a demographic wave that scientists have been tracking for decades and that society proved capable of accommodating when it was in diapers the first time around. It’s washing over a flood plain, not crashing without warning on a defenseless shore.

“What if we were to talk of a ‘grey bloom,’ or an ‘elder swell’? What about an ‘elder surge’?” Charise suggests. None quite hits the spot, but each makes space for a more balanced and realistic story about the implications of the longevity boom. This, she argues, is the perfect opportunity “for a concerted partnership between the humanities. medicine, and health policy—an active collaboration that might ensure that the language we use reflects the nuance of aging that makes geriatric such a compelling profession.”

For more from this provocative thinker, check out her dense and imaginative manifesto about the emergent nature of age studies for the new interdisciplinary journal Age Culture Humanities.

 

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An aging population = higher healthcare costs, right? Nope.

 As the Affordable Care Act rolls out and some healthcare costs spike, conservatives have a scapegoat and an unrelenting message: old people are responsible for rising costs and will not pay their share. It’s an all-too-familiar alarmist forecast: a “gray tsunami” of greedy, needy olders will drain the public coffers and consign the next generations to indentured servitude.

 At heart is that pesky philosophical divide: why should communitarian good trump individual liberties?  It’s what underlies the brouhaha over the individual mandate (which requires most Americans to enroll or pay a tax): why should the young and healthy be forced to pay for coverage if they don’t want to? The fact is that Americans of all ages pay the price of a broken healthcare system. It’s not broken because more people got old, but because of the way the system is organized.

 This “grey tsunami” rhetoric, as Martha Albertson Fineman and Stu Marvel write in Slate, “obscures the fact that Americans are paying the price for the lifelong effects of poor or absent healthcare options.” Compare the U.S. to Canada, whose citizens have free universal healthcare. In 2012 the Canadian Institute for Health Information reviewed 35 years of healthcare costs with a focus on the effect of an aging population. Contrary to the conventional belief that an aging population will overrun hospitals and drain healthcare budgets, the CIHI reported that elderly-related care actually added less than 1% to public-sector health spending each year, despite the fact that olders are proportionately higher users of hospital and physician services, home care, and prescription drugs. In other words, spending on seniors is not growing faster than spending for the population at large. A lifetime of governmental assistance has reduced the vulnerability of older Canadians to illness and disability in old age. Their American counterparts evidence the lifelong effects of a system that leaves the poor in the lurch, whether old or young: the people who need health care the most, so that they don’t get sick and stay sick. Note: lifelong. The consequences simply manifest over time.

The notion that older people are an inevitable sink for healthcare dollars is incorrect. Medical expenses are highest in the period just before we die, but that’s true whether we die at 18 or 80, and evidence suggests that how long we’re sick affects spending more than how old we are. The baby boom is the healthiest generation in history. One study of 22 wealthy countries (including the U.S.) actually found population aging negatively correlated with health expenditures. Rather it was people with debilitating illnesses or injuries—regardless of age—who drained the coffers. Preventive care mitigates or prevents debilitating disease. Fixes, some instituted in the Affordable Care Act and focusing on preventive medidine, will benefit all Americans.