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Ashton Applewhite

Hot off the press: News from Old School

I don’t post about every issue, but October’s Old School newsletter is well worth it:

Check out our newest consciousness-raising guide, Ageist? Sexist? Who Me?

Announcing Office Hours: in session every Wednesday from 1:30-2:30 ET Ask one or all three of us, in private or include the group, any question about how to address ageism in your personal or professional life. Starts Thursday, November 3

Save the date(s) for the next Movement-Builder’s Convenings

Register for my next free public appearance.

And, as ever, help yourself to the best collection of free, vetted anti-ageism resources on the web.

Recalculating . . .

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this, and coming up with a title reminded me of something my sister used to laugh about. When she moved to New York City, she worked for a visiting-nurse program and her clients were strewn across all five boroughs. The job came with a car and a navigation system, and every time she made a wrong turn, which was often, it would somberly intone, “Re…cal …cu…lating.”  My sister called it her Higher Power. These days, I’m calling on it too.

This was supposed to be a pleased-as-punch announcement of Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me?, Old School’s new guide to starting a consciousness-raising group, this one around the intersection of ageism and sexism. It’s very good. As an older woman, there’s no intersection I inhabit more fully. As a writer, there’s no intersection I know more about. I’ll go to my grave proud of the fact that my first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, earned me a place on Phyllis Schafley’s Eagle Forum Enemies List.

The guide contains a section I’m especially pleased with, called Learning from the Women’s Movement. It’s about how the movement has centered whiteness and failed to address issues faced by more marginalized women, and how middle-class white women need do to better. I invoked it at length last month at the inaugural meeting of The Biddies, a group convened by Old School to bring ageism into the many emerging conversations around women and aging. Yet the attendees were overwhelmingly white, cis, older women. Called out by allies of color—special thanks to Mariann Aalda for doing so during the Zoom and to Alejandra Garcia for offering to reach out to Latinx and college groups—and realizing that to proceed would be to perpetuate the very system I hope to help dismantle, I am recalibrating.

We (the three co-founders of Old School) are starting with a meeting that a small group of women of color have generously agreed to attend, to talk about making our work more relevant to their communities. We’ll listen hard and hope to emerge with next steps for diversifying the Biddies, or whatever the group becomes, and for applying those lessons to the anti-ageism movement as a whole.

I know you can’t retrofit diversity. I’ve been talking the talk for a long time. But when it came to walking the walk, I screwed up. I’m fine with admitting that, but tongue-tied and miserable when the screw-up involves blindness to my own white privilege. “It takes practice,” says my colleague Ryan Backer, a long-time anti-racist activist, both encouraging and gently admonishing me. I’m lucky to have Ryan, and many other non-cis, non-white, non-straight, non-old friends and allies. Stay tuned to see where this takes us.

One place it’s already taken me is into a radical reconsideration of whether our consciousness-raising guides are the best tool to catalyze intersectional activism. Can we do better? What might that look like? More to come on that in Recalibrating, Part Two.

Happy International Olders Day!

In 1990, the United Nations made October 1 the International Day of Older Persons. It’s a big deal in ageland, but especially this year, because it’s the day the World Health Organization’s six-week Ageism Through the Ages campaign kicks off. (I’d have called the campaign Ageism Across All Ages just like I’d dub October 1 International Olders Day day, but I quibble.) It’s a fantastic campaign designed to expose the effects of ageism on everyone, starting with olders and ending with the way it harms kids and young people. Follow this link for dozens of ways to get involved—whether you’re a storyteller, a scholar, an organization, or a budding age advocate—and all the tools you need.

To mark the day, Australia’s EveryAGECounts campaign has created the first ever Ageism Awareness Day, with the unbeatable slogan “Ageism. Know it. Name it’

Because achieving equal rights across the lifespan, and around the world, means dismantling ageism. Talk to someone about ageism today.

An expert’s take on the standard definition of “ageism”

This guest post is by Toni Calasanti, a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech. She has long been passionate about fighting ageism, advocating for “our right to grow old in diverse ways without facing mockery, stigma, or exclusion, however grey-haired or wrinkly we become; and whatever care or support we need at any time.” Professor Calasanti generously served as an expert reader of Old School’s forthcoming consciousness-raising guide to the intersection of ageism and sexism, Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? In it, we relied on the dictionary definition of ageism as stereotyping, prejudice and/or discrimination based on age. Here’s why she thinks we can do better:

“Personally, I would not include these all together; and I find it useful to take them apart. Stereotypes are just that, group-based generalizations that are applied to individuals; they can be positive, negative, neutral. And in and of themselves they are not problematic, i.e., stereotypes often are rooted in “reality” at least in terms of the majority. As a group, old people ARE weaker than are younger people, or are more wrinkled, or whatever. At issue is how we EVALUATE these stereotypes, which is how I think of prejudice–a negative assessment of those stereotypes. But this is also different from discrimination–i.e., exclusionary behavior. This latter is how I choose to define ageism, drawing on [Dr. Robert] Butler’s work and even more, the comparison between ageism and other forms of oppression, such as sexism. So yes, old people are more marginalized; this is not because of stereotypes per se (or even prejudice; policies or laws can protect disadvantaged groups such that they can evade discrimination).

“These distinctions are important to me for the reasons implicit above; but also they do not allow us to get at the deepest level of ageism, i.e., what if a stereotype is true, or is true of an individual? What if they are frail, or wrinkled, etc.? Does this mean that they should be excluded/marginalized? If we are going to fight ageism, in my opinion we need to be able to validate those stereotypes in the sense of being able to say that a person is valuable regardless of the extent to which it fits them.”

announcing The Biddies

The next Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse newsletter is out. It’s an especially good-looking issue if you ask me, thanks to the portrait of Sir Richard Steele, but here’s the bit I’m excited about:

Announcing The Biddies—women bringing ageism into the conversation around aging—and our new consciousness-raising guide

Hundreds of groups now celebrate women’s voice and visibility as we move into midlife and beyond. Many have emerged in recent years to bring menopause out of the closet and support going gray. Others have been around for decades. Many are ageism-aware, while others aspire to be “still young” and “still sexy.” 

Growing older is different for women because we face the double whammy of ageism and sexism. Old School’s new consciousness-raising guide, Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? addresses how to recognize this toxic intersection and come together to undo it, starting between our ears. Consciousness-raising is the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement. 

Please join us at noon ET on Thursday 9 September for the launch of Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me?  and the inaugural meeting of The Biddies. During this two-hour workshop, we’ll collaborate on personal and collective action plans to raise consciousness of ageism in women’s groups. Register here.

Join us!

Let’s Climb Out of the Generation Trap

This piece first appeared on NextAvenue. It’s about why I’d like people to use “generation” less. A lot less.

When The Who howled “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” in 1968, they were referencing a group of people born and alive at about the same time. That’s what the word means to most of us: generations in a family and, more generally, age contemporaries at different stages of life.  But we use it to mean lots of other things too, and that’s a habit we need to break.

The word sure comes in handy. Belonging to a generation contributes to a sense of personal and collective identity. It’s attractive to social scientists, who look for demographic patterns, and useful to the media because it lends itself to storytelling. We use “generation” to describe not only who lived through what and with whom, but also the meaning and values we attach to those experiences — individually and collectively. That’s a hell of a mandate! But precisely because “generation” refers to so many different things, we use it too much and too carelessly. That’s the problem.

We may think we know what generation”means, but the concept has no scientific basis. Generational durations and beginning and end dates vary. It’s mathematically almost impossible to distinguish between age, period and cohort effects. This leads to unfair representations, like tarring Millennials as disloyal job-hoppers. But that’s an age effect, not a generational effect; it’s how people may behave when they enter the job market, no matter when they were born.

Because it’s vague, convenient and ubiquitous, “generation” is easy to use — and misuse.

In an ageist world, this has far-reaching implications. Generational framing sanctions and supports age segregation, which makes us more likely to accept age divides and inequities as “just the way things are” instead of questioning the grip of age-group groupthink on our policies and prospects. It also fosters age stereotypes — how could any generalization about millions of similar-age people possibly be accurate? — which delude and divide us. Most damagingly, “generation” is used to exaggerate what age cohorts have in common and how they differ, in order to encourage conflict and legitimize inequity: the myth of intergenerational conflict.

Generational framing pits old against young.

Invented by right-wing strategists in the 1970s, the myth of intergenerational conflict holds that the interests of old and young are inherently opposed, there’s not enough to go around and olders and youngers will soon be at each other’s throats. The media promotes this notion because conflict sells. It’s easier to point fingers than build bridges, and when times are tough, we look for scapegoats. This works in both directions, with olders bashing youngers for being lazy or disloyal and youngers blaming their elders for wrecking the planet, vacuuming up government benefits and sticking around in jobs. The song that started the #OKBoomer meme described boomers as racist, fascist Trump supporters with bad hair. It’s tempting to rise to that hateful bait, or to go on the defensive. But then everyone loses, and the planet smolders.

Generational finger-pointing obscures the struggles that confront every human being as we move through life, carrying a unique set of advantages and disadvantages into old age. It makes equity across the lifespan harder to envision and execute, by undermining the solidarity and collective action necessary to implement any social good, from affordable child care to a decent retirement. What we need now, especially in the pandemic’s wake, is support for young people around education, job training, health care, housing and family services and support for Social Security and Medicare for their parents and grandparents. The reality is that nothing matters more to most olders than the welfare of the younger people they love; there is no evidence that young people want to throw Granny to the wolves and it is grotesque to propose that the interests of old and young are inherently opposed.

Generational framing obscures the far larger role that class, along with race and gender, plays in shaping our lives.

Age plays much less of a role in shaping our paths through life than we think it does — far less than social factors like socioeconomic status, geography, ethnicity and gender. Falling into the “generation trap” distracts us from deeper questions of power and privilege. Yes, Congress is filled with people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, for example, but railing about age obscures the roots of the real problem: a political system that enables the wealthy to purchase political office and corporate interests to maintain it.

Applying a generational lens obscures the multitude of inequities that exist within age cohorts and also cut across them. Both the 1% and the 99% are made up of all ages. Net worth increases with age because people tend to acquire assets over time but maps far more closely to education level (a proxy for class). This reflects the legacy  of systemic racism as well as the gender wage gap, which cuts across all age groups and demographics and widens significantly for women of color. Claims of shared status on the basis of age ignore or erase these important distinctions.

Everyone ages. Age is easy to establish. It’s easier to delineate than the more fraught and messy variables of class, race and ethnicity. It’s less uncomfortable to address, because ageism is less examined; we’re only now beginning to call it out. But if we want a more equitable world, we have to wrestle with these commingled aspects of identity and opportunity and give age no more than its due.

Generational framing fosters stereotypes.

Another problem with making claims about an entire age cohort —whether about how much one “generation” has in common with another or how little —is that it invariably results in crude generalizations which undergird all prejudice. Plenty of olders are in better health than millions of youngers. Saints and sinners come in all ages. And so on. The only characteristic older people share, along with diminishing physical capacity, is ever-increasing heterogeneity: the longer we live, the more different from each other we become and the less our age reveals about us. As they say, if you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.

As with national-culture models, there’s more variation within a given group than between groups, whether the group in question is adolescents or Albanians. We tend to think of Boomers as white and middle class, but most of their age peers are neither. Individuals and communities like people of color, queer people, disabled people and immigrants hold multiple identities that have a much greater effect on their trajectories than the decade in which they were born. Historical events that mark boundaries between life stages may not be shared by everyone in the same age group. Roles and rituals that signify life transitions are far from universal across class and cultures.

Age differences are real. It’s about not weaponizing them.

We can’t wish age differences away, nor should we want to. Likewise, every generation points fingers at those who came before them and finds fault with “kids these days.” I was born in 1952, into a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for white, middle-class Americans, and youngers have many reasons to envy my extreme demographic good fortune. But  we “greedy geezers” are enacting the greatest wealth transfer in history. Families and communities are interdependent. As economics professor and longevity expert Andrew J. Scott puts it, “It’s only zero-sum if we all die young.”

The old are not the enemy. Age is not the issue. The issue is equity across the lifespan, and the stakes have never been higher. The emergence of four — even five— living generations in the 21st century is a tectonic shift. It’s happening at a time of profound uncertainty, in a world riven by deep divisions of class, race and gender. We cannot afford to add age to the mix. The alternative is solidarity across the years: coming together at all ages to tackle these wicked problems and create a more equitable and inclusive future.

Let’s break the “generations” habit unless we’re using the term  specifically —to describe immigration trends, for example, or family trees or genetic patterns.

Try “age group” instead, or “age cohort” if you want to sound like a demographer.

Try “mixed age” or “age-diverse” to describe events that involve an age range, instead of letting “intergenerational” do all the lifting.

Try describing what people are doing or saying or listening to instead of using their age or age cohort as a key identifier.

Instead of referring to yourself as a boomer, Gen Xer or Millennial, try Perennial — writer Gina Pell’s witty suggestion for what those of us who don’t want to be constrained by generational moats start calling ourselves.

Generational framing serves serve marketers, reactionaries and vested interests, but not Perennials—or the public good.

Letter to the Editor of the NYTimes Sunday Magazine

To the Editor:

This week’s Sunday Magazine features photographs of the city’s reopening taken by people age 25 and under (“The City Awakes,” 6/13/21). The introduction to the print edition explains, “We wanted to see all this from the perspective of the city’s younger residents, whose lives have been most upended by the past year and who will be the most profoundly affected by the renewal and rebirth of the next decade.”

Featuring young people’s work is fine, but your rationale for doing so is flawed. As your reporting has made abundantly clear, the people whose lives were most upended by the pandemic were the poor. It is their economic circumstances that will shape New Yorkers’ next decade, not their ages.

Ashton Applewhite

Old School’s May line-up is our busiest ever

Don’t miss this month’s Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse May newsletter. We’ve added tons of new resources on topics that range from cyberbullying to intergenerational solidarity to age privilege, including Io, Un Ageista?—our guide to starting a consciousness-raising group around age bias now in Italian! And we’re hosting more activities than ever: two Movement-Builders Convenings, a free screening of the documentary film Duty Free (meet the star and the filmmaker), and our first Ageism and the LGBTQ+ Experience workshop!

Ageism in Museums — Everywhere and Nowhere

This guest post, which first appeared on Medium, is by Jennifer L. Riddell, a museum specialist and writer whose work involves engaging people with the visual arts. She is interested in how shifts toward a more caring and inclusive organizational culture can positively affect the experience of museum visitors.

Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially ‘normalized’ of any prejudice and is not widely challenged — like racism or sexism. – World Health Organization, 2016

Museums have stepped up when it comes to engaging older audiences, from lifelong learning opportunities to programs for those experiencing memory loss, institutions are making note of the continued growth of the demographic in their visitorship. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people, including older art enthusiasts, have benefitted from the increased availability and accessibility of online programs. The American Alliance of Museums also has recognized the importance of older museum visitors and cultural consumers, and the need to extend the reach of programs tailored for them. Yet AAM’s stated aim in this arena, “How museums can foster curiosity, growth, and social connections among people ‘fifty-five and better,’” leaves the subject of ageism in the museum workplace unspoken.

There is a dissonance between the institutional support for such public-facing programs for older adults — and the aspiration toward public service that museums represent — and the lack of support, or even acknowledgement, of age bias and discrimination that exists within the museum and cultural institution workforce. Successful and inclusive creative aging programs may, in fact, obscure the presence and recognition of internal issues.

In the meantime, museum workers are increasingly asking for a culture that is externally and internally consistent with the values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) — and cares about visitors and staff equally. Greater institutional self-awareness of these issues has come with the ongoing crises of racial injustice and social inequality, intensified by the pandemic.

Recently instituted and often publicly available museum DEAI policies, alongside executive-level positions to support them, admit culpability for largely race-related biases and propose actions and remedies. The Getty’s statement of January 2021, for example, states frankly, “racism has stained all of our institutions, including museums and Getty, and must be confronted and eliminated.”

As a baseline and perhaps starting place, DEAI policies usually itemize the list of the seven legally protected employment statuses– race, gender, disability, religion, ethnicity, genetic/medical information, and age (over 40). Workers who believe that they have experienced discrimination may pursue remedies through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While legal and civil rights are fundamental, they do not always protect individuals from the structural imbalances and implicit biases and conditions in the work environment. What DEAI policies can do is address that gap by bringing awareness, education, empathy, and action to creating a more just workplace. Yet, right now, most of these policies are fundamentally silent on age bias and discrimination. Why does ageism continue to be overlooked in DEAI?

Age Bias — Are We Still in Denial?

Age discrimination achieved legal recognition 54 years ago. Even then, and certainly since, there has existed a societal resistance to acknowledging its effects and pervasiveness. President Lyndon Johnson fully intended that age be enumerated in Section VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: It was Section VII that included the establishment of the EEOC and outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, sex (later expanded to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy/childbirth), religion, and national origin. Age was omitted. Instead, a skeptical Congress commissioned the Labor Department to study the matter. The resulting 1965 report was unequivocal: it found that fully half of U.S. employers stipulated in job postings that those over 55, or in some cases, over 45, need not apply. These blatantly discriminatory conditions led directly to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), made law in 1967. The ADEA’s explicit purpose was “promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age [and] prohibit arbitrary age discrimination.”

Yet, a look the EEOC website in 2021 currently offers this advice on age and harassment:

Harassment can include, for example, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s age. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision.

“Simple teasing and offhand comments?” The language essentially ratifies a concise, present-day description of microaggressions that would be unacceptable in practically any other context with respect to gender, race, or religion.

Our daily life, language and behavior incorporate so much that is ageist that further normalizes it and makes it socially acceptable. Visual ageism refers to the ever-decreasing visibility of older people in society. Stock pictures of workplaces that would suggest, as existed pre-1967, that no one over 45 is employed. A collaborative project between the style media channel Refinery29 (changed to Refinery59 for a day) and AARP found that 61% of women surveyed did not see female aging represented in the media. Age denial is rampant in the promotion of an endless array of “anti-aging” products. Other actions like making assumptions about technology skills (the use of the term “digital native” is widespread in employment advertising, even though it constitutes age discrimination since it refers to a specific age cohort of people) or presuming that older workers are “stuck in their ways” and resistant to change and innovation are similarly insidious (despite the uncontested value of “lifelong learning”).

The steady drip that erodes the value, competence, and credibility of older people has concrete effects. These include decreased leadership opportunities and visibility in the workplace, and on a personal level, psychological harm from the tolls of stress, self-doubt, isolation, and even internalization of the very stereotypes others cast upon them. The association between aging and diminishment is so pervasive that people believe it is an intrinsic part of getting older. (Please let President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Fauci and the spirits of pioneer activists John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg know.)

Evidence shows otherwise. The process and effects of getting older are as varied as the people experiencing it. Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist, notes that research demonstrates that people over 50 show more diverse physical, developmental and social traits than people under 50 (the younger we are, the more homogeneous we are). Instead, judge people on their abilities, not on stereotypes and prejudices — whether race, gender, age or any other marker of identity, visible or not.

Reality Check: Experienced Workers Add Value

The benefits that experienced workers offer are real, studied, and documented. Experience does matter — as does perspective and knowledge in navigating communication, strategy, and leadership — which makes it actually faster, not slower as many presume, to cut through workplace thickets. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2018 research summarizes that “older workers represent a largely untapped opportunity . . . . The older labor pool represents a proven, committed, and diverse set of workers” who can be a valuable resource for training, a source of institutional knowledge and come to the table with “more knowledge, wisdom, and life experience.”

Numerous management and organizational studies underscore the benefits of age- and otherwise diverse work teams as being more creative and productive. Teams built around an in-group of generational peers, for instance, may provide its participants a greater comfort level, consensus, or affirmation of viewpoint. Such choices may read as benign sociality, however, in-group favoritism is exclusionary and ultimately, inhibits original thinking and creativity. The tendency to this form of favoritism declines as workers move through their career and generational experiences.

We can no longer continue downplay the real impacts of ageism or maintain dismissive and one-dimensional attitudes about age status. Ageing happens to everyone and ageism can occur at any time of life as a mutable set of generational biases and presumptions. It is in the interests of all to cultivate a greater understanding of why we need to collectively inform ourselves about age bias and make conscious decisions to act against it.

Larger Trends Demand Age Inclusivity

The demographic shifts that have prompted museums to recognize the value and needs of older visitors are the same ones that add to the case for clarity and urgency in addressing age bias internally, in the museum workforce. The 55+ cohort of the workforce and population is projected to increase significantly as birth rates decline and life expectancy increases — 1 in 5 Americans will be over 60 by 2030. This means that all people, and especially young and recent entrants to the working world, now will need to plan on underwriting more years in retirement by working longer, or in many cases, not retiring at all. The changes will skew the generational composition of the workforce older, as well as encompass a range of five generations in the workplace (which is already happening). In such a scenario, cross-generational recognition, support, and understanding will be key to a generationally non-adversarial work environment.

The economics and social impacts of age redistribution are a matter of global scale. The United Nations and World Health Organization has designated 2021–2030 a “Decade of Healthy Ageing” to drive public awareness, policy and structural change. The initiative’s platform includes combatting ageism, as well as community, long term care, and mobility supports for an increasingly older population. The benefits of structural improvements for older people are shown to benefit people of all ages, including families and people with disabilities.

Ageism in the Museum Field

The experience of museum and cultural professionals of age bias aligns with these larger issues and trends. I wonder if the tendency toward age-denial may explain museums’ avoidance of internal age bias issues, while practicing age affirmation within (safely) contained public programs. An informal survey that I posted to several networks for museum professionals showed that 81% of a sample of museum and cultural workers based in the U.S. and Canada have experienced ageism in their workplace. The survey is not age-delimited and includes responses from “under 30” through the “over 60” categories. For purpose of definition here, ageism or age bias can be experienced by people of any age, while age discrimination is experienced by people over 40 who are legally protected from it.

A bar graph showing percentages of people who have experienced different forms of ageism in museum and visual arts workplace.
Ageism in the Visual Arts/Museum Workplace Survey, 2021

Making Progress against Age Bias

A bar graph showing percentages of people surveyed who believe older staff are making a positive contribution to their organization.
Ageism in the Visual Arts/Museum Workplace Survey, 2021

One way to make progress is to simply and explicitly acknowledge the value that older workers can bring to the museum, alongside the practices of affirmation and acknowledgement of diverse workers that are already developing and becoming, hopefully, commonplace.

In 2020, legal decisions regarding age discrimination with respect to two very large employers — IBM and the federal government — are positive signs. In one case, the EEOC found that IBM systematically forced the resignation of or laid off older, experienced workers to make way for younger hires, while at the same hiring back the older workers as contractors at lower pay rates. And, a 2020 Supreme Court decision, Babb v. Wilkie, was decided 8–1 in favor of a female federal employee claiming age discrimination. The case actually lowered the bar for evidence of age discrimination after decades of cases that imposed increasingly stringent standards on discrimination claimants. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that, “A personnel action must be “made,” namely, in a way that is not tainted by differential treatment based on age. Thus, the straightforward meaning of … the statute does not require proof that an employment decision would have turned out differently if age had not been taken into account. Instead, if age is a factor in an employment decision, the statute has been violated” (my emphasis).

Age is an inseparable part of our shared humanity alongside race, gender, ethnicity, ability, and the many markers that frame who we are. Perhaps we need to let go of our cultural obsession with naming, defining, and policing generational boundaries. The researcher Gina Pell has proposed an alternative term that can encompass people of any generation:

Perennials … describe[s] an ever-blooming group of people of all ages, stripes, and types who transcend stereotypes and make connections with each other and the world around them.” They are, “People of all ages who continue to push up against their growing edge, always relevant, and not defined by their generation.”

Remediating Age Bias in Museums

A bar graph showing percentages of people surveyed who believe older staff are making a positive contribution to their organization.
Ageism in the Visual Arts/Museum Workplace Survey, 2021

My survey of museum and cultural workers, which encompassed respondents from under 30 through over 60 years of age, also show most supporting remedies for ageism. The following steps can increase understanding, awareness, and spur action around age-biased practices.

DEAI: Spell it out

Do all workers in your museum know what is meant by diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in your institution and how it applies internally and externally? The American Alliance of Museums advises that it often said that there are as many different definitions of these and related terms as there are people in the conversation. Developing written definitions of your terms can bring clarity and be a means of assessing who may still be excluded by the language you are using.

Adding descriptions of the forms that age bias and discrimination take to your institutional DEAI policy lends immediate legitimacy to the issues. Staff training in which age bias is integrated into discussion the multiple forms of discrimination and how they are experienced is key.

Multigenerational work and collaboration

Do you look up in a meeting and see a roomful of people representing a very narrow age range? Make an explicit assessment of the composition of teams, committees, and leadership in terms of diverse age representation and other qualities. Foster a multigenerational culture that recognizes ability regardless of age and rejects age stereotypes, just as it would reject stereotypes involving race, disability, national origin, religion, or gender. Stop policing and reinforcing generational definitions and boundaries.

Assessment

Age 50 is an early “expiration” date to pin on people, but sadly, it is an age by which many begin to experience structural obstacles in the workplace that become increasingly difficult to surmount. Assess aspects of your organization’s culture, the association of specific organizational roles with certain age brackets, and anti-age practices or policies.

Organizational assessment tools, such that offered by The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College in partnership with AARP, can help establish a baseline.

References

Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. (New York, 2016: Celadon Books).

Robert N. Butler, MD. “Age-ism: Another Form of Bigotry,” The Gerontologist, 1969. Winter; 9 (4):243–246.

Peter Gosselin, “If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t be Yours,” Pro Publica, December 28, 2018.

Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin, “Cutting Old Heads at IBM,” Pro Publica with Mother Jones, March 22, 2018.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Statement by the President After Signing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Tay K. McNamara, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Natasha Sarkisian, Elyssa Besen, and Miwako Kidahashi, “Age Bias in the Workplace: Cultural Stereotypes and In-Group Favoritism,” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 2016.

Meetings of the EEOC Meeting of June 14, 2017 — The Age Discrimination in Employment Act @ 50 — More Relevant Than Ever Written Testimony of Laurie McCann, Senior Attorney, AARP Foundation Litigation

Hunter Moyler, “What Wednesday’s Supreme Court Case Could Mean For Age Discrimination in the Workplace,” Newsweek, January 14, 2020.

Gina Pell, “What is a perennial?,” presentation, UC Berkeley Arts + Design Lecture Series, March 5, 2018.

L. Trawinski, Disrupting Aging in the Workplace: Profiles in Intergenerational Diversity Leadership 3 (AARP Pub. Policy Inst., Oct. 2016)

United Nations Decade of Healthy Aging (2021–2030)

Joan C. Williams and Sky Mihaylo, “How the Best Bosses Interrupt Bias on Their Teams,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019.

World Health Organization, Populations are Getting Older Infographic