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Ashton Applewhite

Guest Post: Lazy Journalism and the Fallacy of Gerontocracy  

Journalist Paul Kleyman has been covering the “age beat” for almost 50 years, and no one is better at it. I’m indebted to his e-newsletter, Generations Beat Online for countless thoughtful analyses of aging-related social and economic policies, and as well as how these stories get covered. In the current issue (29.7) Paul tackles the current outbreak  of major media stories that propose fixing our broken democratic system by replacing older politicians with younger ones.  (This gripe is cyclical; see  my 2019 post, “Here we go again with “too old to be president.”) Here’s his critique, slightly edited, with emphasis added. It’s long. I strongly recommend the whole thing. If you only have time for one sentence, here it is: “Changing the guard from the gray to the dark or ropey blonde locks of youth would not alter the structural templates of power.”

While the hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol have provided the nation riveting testimony guided by RepresentativesBennie Thompson, D-Miss., age 74, and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., 55, there’s been a quieter kind of insurrection in the nation’s capital. It’s a bipartisan tsunami of ageism in politics and national media, conspiring to remove longstanding politicians, not based on their individual competence, but on the peculiar presumption that a sweep of generational replacement will somehow clear the path for positive change in Washington.

The current rash of age-centered political writing fails both in its demographic premise of inevitable stagnation in later life, and in meeting any reasonable standard of journalistic inquiry. One article in particular, in New York Magazine, by Rebecca Traister has received wide media attention. The article ostensibly profiles one individual, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., 88. Although her behavior has prompted justifiable concern for her leadership capability, the piece makes two unsubstantiated leaps.

First, the author jumps from the senator’s apparent confusion and reported memory lapses to speculation that she may have dementia. She states in the article, “It seems clear that Feinstein is mentally compromised, even if she’s not all gone.” Traister’s expert sources, though, are not geropsychiatric authorities, but a link to a newspaper article and a statement by “one person who works in California politics.” 

Provocatively, Traister suggests that Feinstein is declining from an organic brain condition, but offers no medical corroboration or discussion of alternative explanations for the senator’s slow or seemingly distracted comments. Grief, perhaps? Feinstein’s husband died shortly before their  half-hour interview. Gerontologists explain that often temporary memory impairment may follow such losses. The writer, though, doesn’t indicate whether the considered this or alternative explanations.

More disturbingly, the article metastasizes its speculation about Feinstein’s mental health into an attack on the entire body of older political leaders as the principal source of congressional gridlock. Traister, 47, seems to believe that a wave of Harry Potter’s youth wand over Capitol Hill would override the Senate’s 50/50 split and expunge the filibuster, thus setting sorely needed progress in motion. 

‘Dysfunctional’ Age Reporting

Preceding Traister’s grievance against Washington’s immobility, in May major media spotlighted similar charges by Republican éminence grise David Gergen, in his new book, Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made (Simon & Schuster).  Among his countless national interviews, such as with Walter Isaacson on PBS’s Amanpour & Company, he attributed the dysfunctional divisiveness gripping Washington, once again, to that ill-defined canard, “gerontocracy.” 

Gergen, noting that he recently turned 80, commented in the interview, “I can just see, you lose some of your focus, you lose some of your memory, your brain. It does not bring quite the same way.” He added, “There’s a lot of things that begin to happen to you in your age, and indeed in your 70s that I think the leaders who are in charge today– we shouldn’t be ruled by them going forward.” Revered in the nation’s capital as a stalwart of bipartisanship, having advised presidents of both parties, Gergen pointedly suggested that it’s time for the likes of former President Donald Trump, 76, whom he has long derided, and especially Sen. Feinstein, to make way for “fresh blood.” Most of those mentioned in this segment, though, are graying on the Dem side of the congressional aisle. 

Of course there are capable younger officials in leadership, such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 40, a Democrat. Perhaps, though, Gergen could recommend a worthy younger member of his party who hasn’t been drummed out of the GOP. Or does he have in mind the leadership potential of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., age 48; Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., 40; Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., 36; or Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., 59, an alleged tour guide for the insurrection. 

As someone who just turned 77, I’ll allow that age does matter—but in both directions. Top-gun reflexes may flag, and energy levels noticeably dip, but as much research has shown, one’s ability and drive often recharges with purposeful goals and a little help from one’s friends. As experience kicks in, people compensate for changes and may excel.

Among those Gergen and others believe are candidates for retirement without regard for their mental capacity have been Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 80; and House Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 82. These and others anyone might mention are as keen of mind as their voters may want representing them – or want to unseat for their political prowess and experience. What about the chair of powerful Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 80. Earlier in June, Sanders vigorously challenged GOP establishmentarian, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, 67 in a debate on Fox News, of all networks. Agree with Sanders or not, no one would ever accuse the consistently progressive Sanders of toeing the party line. 

The ‘Silver Tsunami’

In her new bookBreaking the Age Code  (William Morrow/Harper Collins)Yale social psychologistBecca Levy, PhD., observes, “Some politicians, economists and journalists are wringing their hands over what they call ‘the silver tsunami,’ but they’re missing the point. The fact that so many people are getting to experience old age, and doing so in better health, is one of society’s greatest achievements. It’s also an extraordinary opportunity to rethink what it means to grow old.” 

Unlike any other consumer-press book on how to age richer, happier and sexier, Breaking the Age Code is researched-based at every step, often with Levy’s own widely replicated studies over the past quarter century. Most prominently, she has shown that the pervasive negativity about aging, in American culture in areas from media to health care, actually limits people’s health status and longevity. 

Levy’s milestone research, which she presented to the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 2002, showed that people who reach late life with positive age beliefs live on average 7.5 years longer those with a dismal view of the years ahead for them. Among her later findings, negative attitudes often can be reversed with measurably positive results. Optimistic research on aging, such as by Levy, or in Tracey Gendron’s new book, Ageism Unmasked  (Steerforth Press/Penguin Random House), do get coverage in feature pages or specialized media. For instance, Gendron’s work, was just featured in a blog). 

Also, Newsweek and other outlets, such as the “Get What’s Yours” blog on Substack, by respected retirement finance writer, Phil Moeller, just wrote up the new study published in JAMA  finding that 93% of a sample of 2000 older Americans said they “regularly  experienced some form of ageism.” The researchers show that continual ageist slights, intended or not, may damage one’s health over time because many people internalize the constant negativity.

But the exciting findings from them or other experts, frequently reported by generations-beat journalists, seldom gets into the top news sections, or on online landing pages. So evidence-based research on aging (and ageism) is easily outshouted in age-biased news or opinion pieces. At the New York Times, for example, although Paula Span’s fine “New Old Age” column  appears biweekly in the “Science Times” section, this story ran on the front page:  “Should Biden Run in 2024? Democratic Whispers of ‘No’ Start to Rise,” by Washington reporters Reid J. Epstein and Jennifer Medina (June 12, 2022). 

The story reads in part, “Interviews with nearly 50 Democratic officials, from county leaders to members of Congress, as well as with disappointed voters who backed Mr. Biden in 2020, reveal a party alarmed about Republicans’ rising strength and extraordinarily pessimistic about an immediate path forward. . . . To nearly all the Democrats interviewed, the president’s age — 79 now, 82 by the time the winner of the 2024 election is inaugurated — is a deep concern about his political viability.’”

Epstein and Medina include this apt defense from David Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama: “Biden doesn’t get the credit he deserves for steering the country through the worst of the pandemic, passing historic legislation, pulling the NATO alliance together against Russian aggression and restoring decency and decorum to the White House,’ Mr. Axelrod added. ‘And part of the reason he doesn’t is performative. He looks his age and isn’t as agile in front of a camera as he once was, and this has fed a narrative about competence that isn’t rooted in reality.’” White House coverage does show him handling a grueling global workload without the record number of tee-times logged in by his predecessor.

The bulk of the article quotes reactions to Biden’s age … [from various people calling for] “a younger person” and “fresh, bold leadership.” The Times article defaults to what social scientists call “the fundamental attribution error,” as Yale’s Becca Levy put it in her book “The popular narrative of aging as a time of inevitable mental and physical decline is incorrect,” Levy writes. She adds, “This line of thinking gets cause and effect mixed up.”

OK, Boomer Basher

A more plainly prejudicial piece is“Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old?” by Yuval Levin (June 13, 2022). One would expect a conservative viewpoint from someone like Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a regular NYT Opinion contributor. But why do the editors allow such prime space for writing critically of people based on their demographic category while providing no factual basis for its assertion of fated decline with years?

Levin’s article begins, “America’s top political leaders are remarkably old. It then itemizes the ages of people in key federal leadership roles. Would the Times run a comparable essay if it opened, instead, “America’s top political leaders are remarkably ethnic”?  Arguing that there’s poor age balance among top government leadership, Levin, 45, particularly champions more inclusion of Gen Xers. Perhaps, he’s too embarrassed to mention the waffling over Trump’s Big Lie by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., 57. Levin declares, “Middle-aged leadership may be exactly what we now require.” How about January 6 rally speaker Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, 58? Not who he had in mind? What other qualifications might Levin and his conservative thinktank colleagues like to see in charge?

Rebecca Traister’s profile of Sen. Feinstein so excited mainstream media colleagues, that Time’s liberal columnist Jamelle Bouie devoted his June 14 entry to her story, headlined, “The Gerontocracy of the Democratic Party Doesn’t Understand That We’re at the Brink.”  Her article also garnered effusive praise at CNN and a lengthy interview by Mary Louise Kelly on NPR’s All Things Considered (“Why a phone conversation with Sen. Feinstein Worried This Reporter” (June 13, 2022). 

Raising longstanding Washington concern over congressional seniority rules, Traister told Kelly, “The Senate works by offering increased power to those who’ve been there for the longest. It’s not necessarily just individuals who want to stay and increase their own authority. It also is an enticement for the states that wind up electing them and reelecting them,” as those officials deliver increasing appropriations back home. Traister, though, did not pursue that promising direction, such as by delving into an analysis of rules and policies that tend to cement certain people as decisionmakers. Instead, she descended into a generational smear. Her article fails to demonstrate persuasively the functional, operational harm that younger leaders or a more age diverse leadership would moderate.

Traister commented to Kelly, “Diane Feinstein is not alone. We are run by a gerontocracy on both the Democratic and Republican sides.” That is, journalists from at least two major news organizations failed to question the writer’s leap from a specific critique of one person to a sweeping indictment of the political system based entirely on age. If merely eliminating people of a certain age would curtail the entrenchment of misguided policies, what about Rep. Elise StefanikR-NY, 37. A Trump supporters who embraces conspiracy theories and voted against confirming President Biden after personally witnessing the January 6 attack, she remains on a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, which Congress chartered to promote democracy around the world.

In her article, Traister wrote, “But the fact that many of her colleagues, on their best days, are less acute than Feinstein on her worst is exactly the kind of dismal, institutionally warped logic that has left us governed by eldercrats who will not live long enough to have to deal with the consequences of  their failures.” Some people, at least, resonate more with the story of an elder who was asked why he bothered to plant an acorn for a tree he’d not live to enjoy. He replied, “So that my grandchildren will someday think of me as they sit in its shade.”

One who has famously said she’d like to retire is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As a nonpartisan San Francisco voter who has taken many issues with her leadership over the years, I’ve not been alone in feeling grateful that Pelosi has been at the helm through the passage of the Affordable Care Act, two impeachments, pandemic relief and more. Even her toughest detractors can’t deny her legislative skill, and, I’ll add, her moral integrity.

A Journalist’s Non-Diagnosis

I’ve also had the chore of deciding whether or not to mark my ballot for Feinstein since her years on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisor. Traister’s review of the senator’s dogged liberalism is often astute. But nothing in the article justifies her crossing into speculation that Feinstein’s slow responses and apparent memory lapses result from “dementia,” even after she disingenuously told Kelly, “I’m not in a position to diagnose here.” Many San Francisco voters would share Traister’s dismay over how out of touch the senator can be, but that sentiment goes back for decades, as it would the constituents of many long-time politicians. 

Traister was particularly appalled by Feinstein’s compliments to Sen. Graham, after he championed the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Appallingly fawning but was that any more than standard political collegiality for a friendly face across the aisle. Remember how the diametrically opposed judicial forces of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg bonded in friendship at the opera? 

The writer told NPR’s Kelly how Feinstein’s “sunny and impervious optimism about the progress that’s being made” in their half-hour interview “betrayed a kind of disconnection from our current circumstances.” Or, perhaps, a wary official was merely parsing her words in a short interview with a reporter. Only last week President Biden spoke of his “optimism for the future.” That’s what politicians do. Reporters may judge, but a mental-health evaluation requires evidence Traister’s piece fails to verify.

By What Standard?

However prejudicial (and lazy) the ill-applied language of “gerontocracy” may be, these journalists have yet to provide a meaningful examination of the deep and self-perpetuating flaws in the US political system in ways pointing to solutions. Changing the guard from the gray to the dark or ropey blonde locks of youth would not alter the structural templates of power. 

Writers as capable as Traister, Bouie, Epstein, Medina, and especially the journalist-historian Isaacson, are likely aware of political science and organizational theories of congressional structure that may suggest at least some realistic approaches for restraining perverse incentives while also optimizing democratic engagement. What questions might good political writers and editors ask about the basic standards of integrity for evaluating office holders and seekers? Beyond the obvious, such as investigating corruption, what essential questions should media entities frame in assessing the effectiveness of individual political actors or decisional bodies? 

What list of functional questions might prompt writers toward second thoughts that might turn a cooler eye on their own emotional responses? For example, I’ve often consulted guidelines in judging reporting competitions and either elevated or reduced my initial level of enthusiasm for an entry when nudged to think more objectively about a proposal’s reach and impact. Regarding politics, at the outset, I suggest borrowing from Hippocrates with: “First, do no harm.” 

One guideline I’ve long kept in mind was recommended by the late editor and publisher Robert Maynard, namesake of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. He urged reporters to view every story through the spectrum of class, race, gender, geography and generation. (I’d add religion.) What other standards of conduct and social impact might fairly swab the nostrils of politicians to determine whether their rules or operations need to be vaccinated for our political health? 

Fifty years ago this summer, I began writing my book, Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously (Glide,1974) on the politics of aging. While I’ve seen considerable advances on racism and sexism–including exposures of underlying prejudice–I’ve been amazed and, with deepening sighs, dismayed about the many permutations of bias toward people strictly based on their age. It’s nothing less than scapegoating. What’s worse is that facile blaming obviates honest queries into problems that might lead to a genuine understanding of society’s problems, such as entrenchment that regiments people, lockstep in the wrong direction, regardless of their demographic identities. It’s the job of journalism to peel back the superficial, the opaque, the skin-deep distractions to expose the sinew of our problems. How else might real solutions be exposed to light?

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day: it’s a thing. It shouldn’t have to be.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which was launched in 2006, falls on June 15th. That happens to be my mother’s birthday, which I find darkly amusing and which probably has something to do with my ambivalence around the event. It’s terrific that World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is a thing. It’s awful that it has to be.

Every year an estimated one in ten Americans over age 60—over seven million people in the US alone—experiences some form of abuse. (This can take many forms—financial, emotional, physical, or sexual—as well as exploitation and neglect.) Those numbers were undoubtedly worsened by extreme isolation during the main COVID19 pandemic. We’ve also seen a chilling increase in hate crimes targeting Asian-Americans, many of whom have been older.

A staggering 95% of elder abuse cases go undetected. Nonetheless, unlike domestic violence or child abuse, we don’t talk about it much. Neither do many victims, who are embarrassed by their vulnerability, ashamed to ask for help, and—worst of all—think they may not deserve it. Over half of abusers are family members, which doesn’t make it legal but does make it harder to report.

What else underlies these appalling statistics? Ignorance and aversion on the part of the general public. Raised to value youth and speed, we grossly underestimate the quality of life of older people, as well as its value. We project our fears. We turn away, reluctant to acknowledge that we, too, are aging and some impairment awaits us all. And when we see people as “other” than ourselves, their welfare seems less of a human right.

Ageism (discrimination on the basis of age) is a new idea to lots of people. Many are even less familiar with ableism—discrimination on the basis of how our brains or bodies function. Ageism and ableism underlie the belief that being non-disabled is “normal” and that leading meaningful, desirable lives means staying youthful and disability-free. These prejudices inform and compound each other, the “ugly dance” to which the title of my new talk refers: “The Ugly Dance How Ageism and Ableism Enable Abuse.” (For the full description of the talk, and/or to hire me for your event, please contact the Lavin Agency.)

Ageism and ableism stand between everyone—especially the most vulnerable among us—and the safe and comfortable old age we all deserve. We have the skills and the tools to disrupt this dance. In a world of longer lives, we can’t afford not to

“Age Against the Machine – Ending Ageism in the Workplace”

That’s the kickass-if-I-say-so-myself title of my new talk, which debuted earlier this month, in real life, at the annual conference of the Financial Planners Association. The catalyst was my pre-event call with the organizers. “There’s grousing from our older members, who pretty much invented the field and feel their contributions aren’t acknowledged,” they told me. “Meanwhile the Millennials think their older colleagues should get out of the way.” Sound familiar?

I’ve been on a tear for a while now about the need to wean ourselves off generational labels in general. Once I started digging into research on age bias in the workplace, I realized there was plenty more to say about why generational finger-pointing is so widespread. It’s convenient, it’s tempting, and it’s lucrative. A whole industry has sprung up urging worried managers to consult pricey experts about how to cope with real and significant generational differences. In fact, most needs are universal. Work-life balance is no more important to Millennials than it is to other employees. Everyone needs mental health days. Everyone appreciates flexible work schedules.  Age has far less to do with affinity than we think it does. Although tensions are real, an ageist culture makes it easy to blame conflicts on age differences instead of considering other explanations for what employees do, or don’t, have in common.   

Generational stereotypes contaminate every corner of the workplace, from decision-making to how colleagues perceive and treat each other. They obscure the rich and complex reality. They foster scapegoating—”Gen Z is so picky, what’s a manager to do?” They make people feel devalued and excluded. They undermine the solidarity and collective action necessary to implement any social good, including work-related fundamentals like affordable child care and a decent retirement. Discrimination in the workplace provides ideological cover for a whole set of unacceptable business practices that enable employers to take advantage of workers at both ends of the age spectrum. It’s not a too-many-old people problem, it’s a disposable-human problem.

There’s plenty more in “Age Against the Machine,” including ten ways to detect and eliminate age bias in your organization or workplace. For a full description, and/or to book me for your event, please contact the Lavin Agency.

Age ≠ affinity. (Except when it does.)

            I often point out that age has far less to do with compatibility than we think it does. There are exceptions, of course: reproduction is largely a young-person’s game, along with extreme sports. Age differences can’t be wished away, nor should they be. But hanging out mainly with people our own age has more to do with comfort and inertia than with actual affinity, and the habit costs us.

            I still think that’s the case. But a question that came in to my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog tempered my thinking. It came from a woman in her late 50s who belongs to a cancer survivors group.The admins regularly schedule events ‘for survivors under 40’ or for ‘young survivors,’” she wrote. “So far they’ve involved trivia games and making appetizers, which would be interesting for just about any adult. I politely pointed out that what they were doing was ageist and suggested they reconsider, but they went radio-silent. It’s so frustrating and demoralizing to be left out simply because of my age. Do I just let this go?”

             My first reaction? Hell no! Perhaps the admins were assuming younger members wouldn’t want to hang out with older ones. Even if so, better to call it out, because when we remain in age (and race and class) silos, prejudice persists. Besides, wouldn’t it make more sense to form affinity groups around commonalities like shared diagnoses or treatments?

            But not so fast. Before responding, I had the good sense to query two thoughtful younger friends, also breast cancer survivors. Their responses took me by surprise.

“Yes it’s helpful for people who identify as cancer survivors to join all different kinds of groups,” responded Dorian, who joined a bunch of them. “They were mostly older women (because that’s the biggest demographic), weeping because they might not have grandchildren, while at 26 I was wondering whether I’d even have a child. Or a career, or a life.”

It was a group for young adults and partners that Dorian found head and shoulders more helpful than any other. Members had different types of cancers, treatments, and prognoses. The only thing they had in common was the emotional experience of being a young person with cancer, and in the end, for Dorian, that mattered most. “They addressed things like dealing with parents swooping in at a time when you’re trying to establish independence, breastfeeding; and the future [emphasis hers]. One of the things cancer takes away from you is your future, and I think your perspective on that may be different as a 20-something than as a 60-, 70-, or 80-something.”

            Pam concurred, summing up the issue “in one word: envy. Younger women diagnosed with breast cancer are envious, for many reasons, of women who’ve had more time to establish their lives before this disease creates chaos.” She found it helpful to sit with women of all ages, but also joined the Young Survival Coalition for women diagnosed at age 40 or younger. “It was, and continues to be, a very important experience,” she wrote. Members were desperately trying to figure out how the diagnosis would affect their fertility, eligibility for adoption, and employment and financial prospects. “Cancer can be like a bomb hitting your life,” she explained, “and how much you’ve been able to prepare does make a difference.” And while Pam thought all survivors should have the chance to play trivia and make appetizers, “if some of groups are just for youngers, I hope you can understand why.”

            I do now. Even if I didn’t, I’d respect these younger women’s perspectives because it’s their truth. In any case, their response raised new questions. I posed one of them to Lori, the woman whose letter kicked this off: would she like the option of joining a group of older survivors?  “I’m just not seeing any advantages for us older people beyond specific topics,” she replied. A group for people who were losing partners of many decades might be for olders. Another, for fertility issues, would target younger people. A third, for caregivers, would be age-agnostic. Trivia and appetizers optional. Clearly the admins could have done a better job of addressing her query, but that was just the tip of just one iceberg.

            I reflected some more. Like many age-related questions, the deeper I went the more complicated and interesting it became. How could it be otherwise when trying to distinguish what’s rare and what’s shared in the context of the one experience—growing older—every human shares? Answers may vary, as they say, depending on the circumstances, number of people, culture, and on and on. But I did arrive at a couple of general observations:

  • Affinity seems to relate more to life stage than to age: to shared experiences and transitions rather than to the chronological age at which they occurred.
  • The connection between life stage and age is far from fixed.
  • The value of same-age groups is not evenly distributed across the lifespan.  

Chronological closeness is more significant early on, when even a small age gap looms large because each year makes up greater percentage of our time on Earth. This limits perspective and point of view: our grasp of our capacities and potential. As Pam and Dorian poignantly attest, time itself is more salient for young people, especially ones confronting a life-threatening diagnosis. This makes age is a better predictor of genuine affinity among youngers than it does among olders.

For those fortunate enough to move into adulthood, chronological age becomes less salient over time. We age at different rates—physically, socially, developmentally—and become more different from each other. The older the person, the less their age reveals about them. Consequently, as the booster stages of reproductive capacity and peak physical performance detach from the rocket of life, age and stage also disengage.

As trajectories become more diverse, so do the points at which we enter various life stages—if, indeed, we enter them at all. No doubt there’s an average age range for people immersed in toddler-wrangling, or transitioning genders, or starting businesses, or learning to sing or code or cook. But loads of people do none of those things, or some of them, or stop and start. Examples of age-based affinity groups may come readily to mind: new moms, perhaps, or club-goers. But we can become mothers at 15 or at 50, and you’ll find olders on the dance floor if you look.

Age-diverse groups would be far more numerous if:

  • we didn’t tend to head for people our age in social situations, because we falsely assume that’s who we’ll have the most in common with, or that we won’t be welcome otherwise.
  • we weren’t barraged by ageist clickbait about what’s “age-appropriate.” (For adults, there’s no such thing.)
  • we weren’t brainwashed by an ageist culture into believing age shapes affinity far more than is actually the case—far less than class, race, gender and ethnicity, not to mention personality.

            Similar-age groups are socially sanctioned. They’re familiar. It’s easier to hang with people who look like us than to bust out of age- or race-based silos. But “age fit,” like “culture fit,” which is workplace code for “people like me,” is more about habit and comfort than actual affinity. That overlap is greater among younger people, because school is an age-sorting mechanism and because they’ve had less time to develop diverse interests and perspectives.

Age is never irrelevant. It is a key identifier lifelong, connecting us forever to people who’ve lived through the same historical events and share cultural references. At times, this matters most. It’s the point of reunions, for example. The pleasure of being with people we’ve known all our lives is acute, and grows more precious over time.

But genuine affinity based on chronological age is the exception, not the rule. If that seems improbable, it’s because so few of us have friends much older or younger than ourselves, not because age segregation is “natural” or destined. The more time we spend in mixed-age company, the more evident that fact becomes. So if most of your friends are your age:

  • think of something you like to do and find a mixed-age group to do it with. Strike up a conversation with the oldest or youngest person in the room.
  • question age-based assumptions. Yes, someone might look askance across an age gap—jerks are everywhere—but they’re a small minority and deserve to be ignored.
  • question habit. (Why, for example, does it seem so important to learn the age of a new acquaintance?) If everyone on the team or the guest list is the same age, ask why. Occasionally there’s a legitimate reason, but not very often.
  • push back against age apartheid, personally and professionally.

The sooner we emerge from our same-age silos, the richer our lives become, the more accurate and nuanced our grasp of what it means to grow older, and the more attainable the solidarity these times demand.

More recognition (!) — the Maggie Kuhn Award

I’m thrilled to announce that on May 12th I’ll be receiving the Maggie Kuhn Award from PSS as “a visionary leader, author and advocate in combating ageism” for my “tireless efforts in the tradition of that great champion for older adults.”

I have two pictures over my desk. One is of Robert Butler, who invented the word “ageism” and to whom I dedicated my book. The other is a photo of me in front of a poster of Maggie Kuhn, presenting the same award to the Gray Panthers NYC in 2016. That’s my mom on the right, whose moral compass was as clear as a lightning bolt, gesticulating at something she wanted to change. These are the activists who most inspire me. Unfortunately, I never got to meet Kuhn, but she was a fearless trailblazer and a free spirit and it is a great honor to be recognized as following in her footsteps. “Speak the truth,” she urged us, “even if your voice shakes.”

PSS, which stands for Presbyterian Senior Services, has supported my work from the get-go, and I theirs. Buy tickets or donate if you’re in NYC, feel like supporting an esteemed nonprofit, and want to see me blush.

40 Over 40 – The World’s Most Inspiring Women

I’m delighted to be included in the first international edition of 40 over 40 – The World’s Most Inspiring Women, a list announced by F10 Fe:maleOneZero and sponsored by Capgemini.

As a feminist, it’s an honor to kick off Women’s History month by joining a group of extraordinary women around the world “who have one thing in common: they change the world for the better.” As an activist, I see my inclusion as a welcome, long-overdue indicator that global conversations about inclusion and equity must include age. W00t!

In January, I landed on HelpAge USA’s inaugural 60 Over 60 list. Can 20 Over 20 be far behind?

Kidding, I swear.

Jan Baars on the paradoxes of aging—with assists from Thomas Cole and Eric Weiner

I recently came across a passage about contemporary aging so concise and insightful that I had to post it. It’s from a review by eminent gerontologist Thomas Cole of Aging and the Art of Living, by Jan Baars.

We live in an era when ever-faster, ever-larger flows of information and images fly around the globe, leading to a cultural acceleration of everyday life. When this acceleration meets chronometric time, Baars notes, two paradoxes emerge: (a) “premature cultural senescing” in which individuals live longer but are called old at earlier ages; and (b) the desire to stay young but grow older, which is the cultural creation of a huge antiageing industry in medicine and in commercial products that promise to maintain youth. These paradoxes result from the contradictory desires of long life and infinite youth. Our culture produces them because it suppresses and tries to control finitude and our increasing vulnerability over time—those things that in Baars’s view are the condition of our “spontaneity, discovery, creativity and uniqueness.” (p. 84)

Yes, yes, yes. I already knew of Baars, whom Cole describes as “the premier philosopher of aging.“ Possibly my favorite quote in my book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, is his:  “Autonomy requires collaborators.” What brought him back to mind was a wonderful essay by “philosophical traveler” Eric Weiner called Old Age Is Not a Pathology, which contains another passage well worth quoting:

Old age is not a disease. It is not a pathology. It is not abnormal. It is not a problem. Old age is a continuum, and everyone is on it. We’re all aging all the time. You are aging right now as you read these words — and not any faster or slower than an infant or a grandfather.

Agreed, and beautifully put. I take issue, though, with another point Wiener makes:

Philosophy helps us define our terms. What do we mean by “old”? Chronological age misses the mark. It is meaningless. It tells us nothing about a person, says the contemporary philosopher of aging Jan Baars. “Chronological age is not the cause of anything.”

Chronological age tells us far less about a person than we think it does, and the older the person the less the number reveals. But it is not meaningless. Being young is different from being old, and age is a key component of identity. Baars, on the other hand, nails it again. Myriad factors shape our lives—benefactors and tormentors, hardships and windfalls. Age marks when we encounter them, but no more.

The mainstream women’s movement has centered whiteness. The anti-ageism movement cannot.

Last fall, as I wrote about here, the Old School Clearinghouse hosted the inaugural meet-up of a women’s group called Biddies, a name I came up with and thought was hilarious. It turned out to be not just our first meeting, but our last.       

We created the group to take advantage of two things: the launch of Ageist? Sexist? Who Me?, Old School’s guide to starting a consciousness-raising group around the intersection of ageism and sexism; and the fact that so many conversations have emerged in recent years around women and aging—whether about bringing menopause out in the open, or going gray, or refusing to become invisible and shuffle offstage. Some of these conversations are ageism-aware. Others center “staying young,” or “still sexy,” or doing better than those women . . .

We thought, “How about using our network to tap into those networks in order to introduce ageism into those conversations?” I loved this idea, so did a lot of others. Almost 150 people showed up to that first Biddies meeting in September.

The consciousness-raising guide contains a section I’m especially pleased with, called Learning from the Women’s Movement. It’s about how the mainstream movement has centered whiteness and failed to address issues faced by more marginalized women, and how middle-class white women need do to better.

At that meet-up I invoked it at length.

The attendees were overwhelmingly white, cis, older women—like me.

I didn’t even notice it until a Black friend said “Where’s the diversity?”

One thing I know, which I’ve been writing about for years, is that you can’t retrofit diversity.  It can’t be an add-on. I realized, with a gulp, that the Biddies couldn’t go ahead like this. To do so would reinforce the behavior I was preaching about putting an end to. The realization felt right and felt awful.

I spent the fall listening to a small group of women of color who generously advised us on next steps, reading, and reflecting. I dug into how and why the mainstream women’s movement has centered whiteness. Much of what follows is addressed to white women; if you don’t identify that way, I hope you’ll still find it compelling.

* * *

            Being white women isn’t a problem. It’s a problem when white women fail to acknowledge the privilege that comes with being white. It’s also a problem if we fail to recognize that our causes and concerns are not universal—that women who don’t share our racial and class privilege may not share our priorities.

It’s harder to see privilege if we’re born into it, and it’s easy to get stuff wrong. My failure to think these things through before announcing the Biddies is a pretty glaring example, and I’ve made plenty of other missteps. I’m not saying this to beat myself up, or to feel virtuous. Those feelings aren’t useful, or helpful. They’re beside the point. The point, as I see it—and believe me this is a work in progress—is to:

• become more aware of our history;

• learn to collaborate in ways that don’t center whiteness; and

• build an anti-ageism movement that includes all women. Because if it’s valuable to women of color—including women who are poor or queer or trans or disabled—it’s good for everyone. That’s the movement I want to be part of.

* * *

Here’s some of the history I’ve come to understand better:

• One reason so many prosperous white women supported abolition was because they wanted access to education and to careers outside the home—to be more than wives and mothers, the only roles they were permitted. They couldn’t imagine challenging sexism within their marriages. But they learned how to do it within the anti-slavery movement, and the experience soon proved invaluable in the emerging struggle for women’s rights. But many white women firmly opposed Black men getting the vote, because it would make those men superior. And many supported suffrage for women as a way to offset the Black vote and bolster white supremacy.

            • Despite their contributions to the fight for women’s rights, not a single Black woman attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which is widely regarded as the birth of the women’s movement in the US. Even the most radical white abolitionists failed to see that the oppression of Black people under slavery and the oppression of women under patriarchy (white supremacy and male supremacy) were related. This failure on the part of abolitionists to be explicitly anti-racist carried over into the nascent movement for women’s rights.

• Many of the suffragists we honor when we celebrate the passage of 19th amendment every August held racist views. Leading figures, including Susan B. Anthony, justified indifference to the cause of racial equality on the catch-all grounds of “expediency.” When it came time to woo Southern support, even though lynchings and mob murders were on the rise after the betrayal of Reconstruction, Black women proved expendable. Once Black women won the right to vote, they were violently prevented from exercising it until after the Civil Rights movement led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. These rights are again in jeopardy.

• Historically white women, feminists included, have been reluctant to acknowledge the struggles of household workers, who are predominantly Black women and immigrants. Why? Because so many depend on this easily exploitable labor to clean our houses and look after our children.

• Historically, white feminism has valued credentials and expertise over stories and lived experience. For any number of reasons, it’s easier for white women to acquire those credentials. This leads to what author Rafia Zakaria calls “a kind of gatekeeping.”[i] We use our credentials to delegitimize projects or priorities that are different from ours, and tend to perceive them as misguided or inferior.

            • By 1967 a majority of Black Americans supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Opposition focused on traditional gender roles and the belief that the ERA would eliminate laws designed to protect women. That protection is tainted, because it requires us to agree that women are weaker than men and require their protection. I call this the “shelter of patriarchy.” Phyllis Schafley a white lawyer and doctor’s wife, organized the “STOP ERA” campaign. STOP was an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”. That kind of says it all.

            Over half a century later, the ERA remains bogged down in a procedural quagmire. The U.S. Constitution still does not formally recognize the full equality of more than half the people in this country.

            • Feminism’s next wave introduced the need for reproductive rights, but abortion-rights activists never addressed the nightmarish fact that for centuries Black women have been forcibly sterilized. Consequently the movement was lily-white. Sterilizations continue to be federally funded and free, to poor women, on demand. But not abortions. This is overtly racist.  As activist Angela Davis explains, “While women of color are urged, at every turn, to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves.”[ii]

• Third wave feminism did a great deal to increase the number of women in positions of power. But when white women land jobs once held only by white men, and celebrate breaking them as feminist milestones, it’s not a victory for all women. I’m lookin’ at you, Sheryl Sandberg. No amount of leaning in will enable the millions of women juggling low-wage jobs without healthcare or childcare to “have it all.”  Corporate feminism is inherently conservative. It maintains the status quo and helps white men get richer.

• Fourth wave feminism is more consciously intersectional—progress! A hallmark was the #MeToo movement to raise awareness of sexual harassment. However, discussions of #MeToo typically focused on white celebrities and overlooked the fact that a Black woman named Tarana Burke launched the movement in 2006 to assist survivors of sexual violence, especially women of color.

• Organizing feminist history into waves, as I have just done, itself centers whiteness. The struggles of feminists of color and in the majority world don’t fit that framework.

* * *

Enough history. I raise these points as what scholar Joy Carillo calls an “act of love” in the context of women criticizing each other: “It is an act of love to take someone at her word, to expect the most out of woman who calls herself a feminist—to challenge her as you yourself wish to be challenged.”[iii] I hope that feels right to you. This is the work of a lifetime. We have to support and challenge each other.

It’s uncomfortable to explore how white privilege has shaped Western feminism.

It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge our complicity: the fact that failing to act protects our privilege in a racist world, and ensures our second-class status in a sexist world.

 Relinquishing the advantages of being white and the shelter of patriarchy involves risk  and loss. It breaks white women’s historic alliance with white men, who may withdraw their support. Other white women may distance themselves. It may be safer or easier for women of color to do the same instead of collaborating. In comparison to what they risk, what we white women have to lose is a drop in the bucket. Be prepared to feel rejected, tired, foolish, embarrassed.

Be prepared to let go of the outcome. That’s one point that came through loud and clear from the women of color who met with Old School last fall. If you actually cede voice and authority, you can’t pursue the exact same agenda. Outcomes will change. Those outcomes will be harder to arrive at, and they will be better ones.

Another lesson was the importance of supporting work by more marginalized people, becoming better allies. In the context of Old School, this means prioritizing showing up for others over launching Shiny New Things (like Biddies Take Two) . Honoring the second part of Old School’s mission statement, which was originally “to raise awareness of ageism and how to dismantle it”. After we’d been going for a while, we added, “To educate others about the intersectional nature of age bias and the need to ally explicitly with other social justice movements.”

Being anti-ageist means supporting every struggle for equal rights—especially being anti-racist because of the uniquely ugly way racism is embedded in American history, including the women’s liberation movement.

Aging is the one universal human experience and ageism the one bias everyone encounters. The movement to dismantle it must represent us all. Otherwise it will perpetuate hierarchies of human value, as the Biddies would have.

            As of now white people are overrepresented in anti-ageism advocacy, especially straight, middle-class, white women. Yes, that’s a problem. It’s also an an opportunity. Because we white women are uniquely positioned to maintain white male power or to shake things up. To quote professor Sarah Brazaitis: “Were White women to disrupt the system, change their position, renounce unearned White privilege, and refuse the role White men have prescribed for them of being a complicit partner in maintaining the status quo, the entire structure of race relations might be altered.”[iv]

            I find that a very exciting idea. I hope you do too.

Co-creating a genuinely diverse and inclusive anti-ageism movement is going to take longer, and it’s going to be messier and harder. Here are a just a few of the ways it will benefit us all:

• People of color won’t have to be the “diversity expert” any more, and can do stuff they’d almost certainly rather be doing.

• White women will gain agency on our own terms, and white men be freed of toxic roles.

• We can bring our full, authentic, creative selves to the table, instead of being constrained by hierarchies of age, race, gender, and class.

• We will all be liberated.

To paraphrase “A Black  Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective,[v]  achieving freedom for Black women means destroying all systems of oppression. In other words, if Black women were free, everyone else would be too. It’s time for their white sisters to puppy up. (A feminist friend came up with that phrase as an alternative to “man up,” and I recommend it.)

[i] Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition, p. 9.

[ii] Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class, (New York: Vintage Books, 1983) p. 127

[iii] Joy Carrillo, “And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 4thEd. Edited by Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua. (Albany: State University of NY Press, 2015), p. 58.

[iv] Sarah J. Brazaitis, “White women—Protectors of the Status Quo; Positioned to Disrupt It” in Group Dynamics, Organizational Irrationality and Social Complexity: Group Relations Reader 3, Edited by Solomon Cytrynbaum and Debra A Noumair. Portland, OR: A.K. Rice Institute, 2004

[v] Combahee River Collective, “A Black  Feminist Statement” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, op cit, p. 215.

60 Over 60 – Not Your Same Old List

That’s how HelpAgeUSA describes their inaugural compilation of 60 Americans over 60 “who are making significant contributions to society at the local, national or international level. I have long supported and admired the organization, and it’s an honor to appear on the list—at the very top, no less, thanks to sheer alphabetical and birthdate chance—alongside luminaries like Dolly Parton and Anthony Fauci, activists I admire such as Imani Woody and Dolores Huerta, and age advocates I’m lucky enough to consider friends as well: Sister Imelda Maurer, Elizabeth White, and Frances Zainoeddin. Huzzah!

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.