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It’s about competence, not age. And voters have a right to know more.

Last week a gratuitous swipe ramped up the ongoing discussion about Biden’s age to a fevered pitch. When the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the President for his handling of classified documents, the special counsel went on to call Biden a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who had “diminished faculties in advancing age.” Ouch! Biden didn’t like it. Neither did the progressive commentariat, which cried foul. 

Let’s get a couple of things straight:  

  • It’s not ageist to call Trump and Biden old. They’re old!
  • It is ageist to call someone “too old” for a job. Plenty of younger people aren’t up to a given task. Plenty of olders are. Age-based assumptions are as harmful and ignorant as racial or gender stereotypes.
  • It’s ableist to shame people for memory lapses, as special counsel Robert Hur did.
  • The conversation shouldn’t center age. It should center capacity.

If a candidate loses an election because they’re perceived as “too old,” don’t blame age.  Blame ageism. Blame ableism too. Blame a culture that stigmatizes and discriminates against people who are no longer young and people with disabilities.

Age and ability are different. That distinction is fundamental. The current discourse conflates the two, making it far harder to get to the heart of the matter: is the person mentally and physically up to the job? That’s why questions about candidates’ competence are completely legitimate. That’s why geriatrician Louise Aronson (and countless other experts on aging) recommend focusing on cognitive and physical health instead of age when evaluating leadership ability.

Voters are entitled to be informed about the health of the people who represent them.

Testing is not the answer. Even doctors have a hard time assessing cognition. No test is neutral.  Biden is a terrible campaigner and a skilled legislator. Trump is the reverse. How to evaluate those skills and deficits? How to compare the results? Team Biden vehemently maintains that the President’s strengths as a diplomat more than compensate for his shortcomings as a debater. Let us see those strengths in action. More interviews. More events. A world leader needs to be able to communicate. Voters can forgive a stutter. Silence, not so much.

Brushing these concerns under the rug, or dismissing them as ageist or as partisan, does no one any favors. It makes it harder to challenge ageism and ableism on legitimate grounds. It’s not good for democracy. And enough with the headlines about age! They’re a distraction from things that actually matter: stopping a genocide, mitigating climate change, and preventing World War III.

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What a waste.

The luxury skincare firm Estée Lauder just announced a partnership with the Stanford Center on Longevity. According to the press release, the goal of this new “longevity expert collective” is to “reframe the conversation from anti-aging to visible age reversal.”

Let’s be clear: “anti-aging” and “age reversal” are the same. “Age reversal” is just the latest beauty-industry buzzword for the latest anti-aging trend. Take Kim Kardashian’s announcement of her new luxury skincare line, for example: in the same article she renounced the term “anti-aging” and offered to “eat poop every single day” if it made her look younger. I call bullshit.

Nothing in the universe is getting any younger. But the promise of “agelessness” moves a lot of product, especially in the beauty industry. Companies target ever-younger demographics with the same message: aging is to be feared and fought. And what a market! “Anti-aging is the ultimate capitalist goal, because it’s physically impossible,” observes beauty culture critic Jessica DeFino. “To try to anti-age is to be a consumer for life.”

It is demoralizing to see the Stanford Longevity Center sign on to help a multinational cosmetics company acquire customers for life. Stanford’s stated goal is different: to support discoveries and practices that enable healthy aging. That’s the mission of their new Aesthetics & Culture program, where the cosmetics giant will be funding research activities and post-doctoral fellowships. It must be lot of money. Because the notion that these goals genuinely align—that  “age-reversing” skincare will encourage healthy aging—is, to put it mildly, a stretch.

Little of the Sanford Center Director Laura Carstensen’s statement [italicized] about the new partnership holds up under scrutiny:

“We know that aging well involves feeling good about ourselves.”

 True. But no one makes money off satisfaction. People who feel good about themselves have made peace with how they look. They don’t invest in expensive “remedies” for a “problem” invented by an ageist, sexist capitalist society: looking your age. The beauty industry feeds and profits from age shame and age denial. Those are polar opposites of what actually make us feel good about ourselves: confidence and authenticity.

Yet, little research has explored links between appearance and well-being.

On the contrary, If we’ve learned anything from the body acceptance movement or the proliferation of social media, it’s that a focus on appearance is detrimental to mental and physical health—especially to self-esteem, and especially for women.

Extended life expectancy offers us the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding about how people subjectively experience vitality and communicate this experience to others.

            Um, okay.

We believe that skin, as the largest organ, plays a sizeable role in conveying this vitality.”

I don’t envy Carstensen for having to come up with this formulation. I can’t say it out loud with a straight face.

No doubt this new “skin longevity platform” will yield luxury regimens that enable wealthy people to stay slightly less wrinkly for slightly longer. They are no recipe for enhancing vitality and well-being over the long lives we all hope to enjoy. We age well by adapting to change, not by struggling to stop the clock. Imagine the enormous, evidence-backed health benefits of spending those millions on ageism awareness education instead.

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More research showing ageism shortens lives

“Ageism, and an older person’s perception of aging, may hold the keys to a longer life.”  That’s the first sentence of Why age bias has real world health effects, just published  by the Association of Health Care Journalists, which supports excellence in their field.

The catalyst was a new study published in The Gerontologist. The two-year study monitored 5,483 New Jersey residents ages 50-74 and assessed their risk of dying over a 9-year period. The researchers used a metric called “subjective successful aging”:  subjective criteria used by older people to assess how well they are aging. (The lower the score, the less satisfying the person’s experience of aging.) Researchers found a significant association: “People with low scores (0-5), had a 45% chance of dying within nine years, while those with high scores (25-30) had less than a 10% chance of dying.” In other words, the olders who were least satisfied with their aging experience were more than four times more likely to die over the next nine years than those who felt the most satisfied.

These findings add to the growing body of evidence that ageist attitudes harm our health and actually shorten lives. Much of the research has been conducted by Yale’s Becca Levy, author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. It was her oft-cited finding, published over two decades ago, that people with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who equated aging with loss and decline.

It’s not just about living longer. It’s about enjoying better physical and mental health. People with more positive attitudes towards aging—fact- rather than fear-based, that is—are less likely to develop dementia, even if they carry the gene that predisposes them to the disease. (Levy again.) A study led by Julie Ober Allen, published in JAMA Open Network last summer, studied levels of exposure to “everyday ageism” (minor but pervasive forms of age discrimination, or microaggressions). Participants were asked to assess their health in four ways: overall physical health, overall mental health, number of chronic conditions, and whether they were depressed. The investigators found those who reported more exposure to demeaning messages about aging faced higher health risks on all four measures. Also out last summer, another study led by Levy and published in Social Science & Medicine examined “whether negative age stereotypes contribute to the chronic pain of older persons.” Yes, they do.

Encountering bias is stressful, and stress contributes to many health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. Age stereotypes become more relevant as we get older—and thus more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies. People with negative self-perceptions around aging are less likely to engage in healthy practices like having regular checkups, controlling weight and diet, and exercising. The reverse is also the case.  

Want to stay healthy as you age? Check your age bias.

Want everyone else to age as well as possible? Join the emerging movement to end ageism. It’s gaining ground around the world.

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Think “too many old people” will swamp social welfare programs? Think again.

Since the 1970s, population aging—the proverbial “gray tsunami”—has been used to justify “pension reform,” austerity, and privatization across the wealthy nations. Alarmist projections have long fueled neoliberal, small-government policy reforms. In the Fall 2023 issue of Jacobin editor-at-large Seth Ackerman argues that it’s time to quit the hand-wringing and look at the data. (See The Welfare State Can Survive the Great Aging; paywall, alas.) The “staggering” increases in pension costs that have people so worried “are only staggering because of how shockingly small they are,” he writes. Every G7 nation except Germany is projected to see pension spending rise by less than 1 percent of GDP. In France and in Japan, the “oldest” country in the world, spending as a share of GDP is set to fall. How can this be?

The answer is simple: around the world, the four-decade-long wave of pension cutbacks has already programmed so many increases in retirement ages and reductions in earnings replacement levels that the impact of rising life expectancy has been almost completely neutralized. The long-advertised crisis of the welfare state supposedly rendered inevitable by the pressures of population aging has now been almost entirely averted.”

Ackerman reaches this conclusion despite relying without interrogation on  the “old-age dependency ratio” as his key metric. This loaded term compares the number of people ages 15 to 64 (workers) with people 65 and older (dependents). The “old age” modifier starkly separates older Americans from the general population, labeling them economic dead weight the day they hit 65. In fact Americans draw heavily on their own resources in retirement. Many people require benefits well before they turn 65, and a growing proportion remain employed long after it, both by choice and by necessity. (The World Bank has developed a long-overdue alternative formula, called the adult dependency ratio, which takes these trends into account.) This metric also overlooks the “longevity economy,” which contributed $45 trillion to the global GDP and generated $23 trillion in labor income in 2020 alone, according to AARP’s Global Longevity Economy Outlook.

Another problem with this model it that it frames older people as economic burdens: “greedy geezers” who profit at the expense of the young. This feeds the false and corrosive narrative of “generational conflict.” Families and communities are made up of all ages. We’re in the middle of the biggest wealth transfer in history, as the baby boom dies off and passes its assets on to their successors, who have outnumbered them since 2019. Only some have assets to pass on; destitution awaits many retirees. Treating “the old” or “the young” as homogenous groups obscures the far larger role that class plays in shaping life trajectories. Humans are born into vastly unequal circumstances, and inequalities tend to increase as cohorts age—especially in the absence of social welfare programs designed to mitigate those circumstances. (This is the theme of Dutch gerontologist Jan Baars new book, Long Lives Are for the Rich.)

The so-called tsunami is upon us: worldwide, people over age 60 already outnumber children under age 5. It’s no tsunami; it’s a demographic wave that scientists have been tracking for 70 years. It’s increasingly clear that the socioeconomic threat posed by population aging has been overstated to justify shrinking the welfare state and public assistance programs. Nor have other demographic horror stories predicted by conservatives in the 1990s come to pass, as Dean Baker observed on 11/2/23 in Counterpunch. Healthcare costs have not exploded. (The notion that older people are an inevitable sink for healthcare dollars is incorrect.) Most of the baby boom has already reached “retirement age” and the sky has not fallen. Adjustments to Social Security have already accounted for increased longevity.

That longevity is not evenly distributed: almost all the gains in the last half-century have gone to the well-off. That’s why Baker’s article is titled “The Return of the Aging Crisis: A Diversion from Inequality.” Shamefully, although life expectancy since 2020 has rebounded in other wealthy nations, in the US it has dropped dramatically. Americans who live less long are disproportionately black, brown, and indigenous, because they experience the highest levels of poverty, face the most food insecurity, and have less or no access to healthcare.

Blame COVID19. Blame drug overdoses. Blame the shrinking of public assistance programs, although the opposite is called for if the country is to meet the needs of its poorest and oldest citizens in the years to come. Blame the systemic racism, ageism, and ableism that underlie these policy choices. Don’t blame “too many old people.”

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“Rejected.” The human cost of ageism in the workplace

On Saturday I received this note via LinkedIn from a woman named Amy Claire Massingale. Massingale has a background in business development and marketing, and is also a published poet. She had applied for a position as a business development director for a medical manufacturing company. Her story bears eloquent, maddening testimony to the job discrimination that older people, and women of all ages, continue to confront.

“I was rejected yesterday. After an interview with the decision-maker and then a second interview with his younger male counterpart, I was told that they were looking for someone with “less experience.” A candidate better aligned with their salary range. He wished me all the best in my search.

“I beat myself up for a little while after reading the email. I found myself wishing I had dumbed down the interview so I that I could have made it to the next round. And then crying because that thought had actually crossed my mind. I also feel like crying every time I revise my CV or my LinkedIn profile. Every time I list jobs only within the past decade, like the woman at the unemployment office told me to do. Or when I delete the word “Caregiver” from my bio and type in “Tech” instead.

“We had not actually discussed the salary but the truth is, I would have made it work somehow, because I have a 17-year old daughter at home and I want her to go to college if she chooses to go. She won’t see this, so she won’t know that the real reason I want her to attend college is not necessarily for the job it might land her. Because that could or could not happen and it may or may not make her happy. Who knows what to expect in the gig economy and beyond.

“It is because I want her to see that the world is bigger than the high school “friends” that bullied her and the system that tried, but failed, to accommodate her learning challenges. That it is both more tender and terrible than her toxic social media will ever reveal. That it is more courageous than the men who walked out when teenage feelings and behavior got too big and scary. And that it is more hopeful than the year of childhood the pandemic stole from her. What I want her to see is the resiliency of women. Of any woman, who cares for, and then buries, her family with her dreams. Working full time and writing poetry at night. And then is told that she looks too tired. Or too this, or too that.

“I want her to understand that though many people in life may try to dim her light, or silence her, or make her feel not good enough, inside her is a voice that is her very own unique and beautiful truth. Her job – my job – and the only job that really matters for any of us – is to listen to that voice and tell its story…its “experience” if you will. It’s the only way we’re going to find any meaning in this mayhem, the only way we’re going to find our way back to each other, and the only way this very sick and precious planet is ever going to heal.”

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Women in the workforce are *never* the right age.  (Or “right” anything else.)

Why are women still so underrepresented in positions of power?  In the US, for example, why do women still make up only a meager 10% of people running Fortune 500 companies? Take heart, there’s always a reason. (Content warning: this article, just out in the Harvard Business Review, may raise your blood pressure.)

The authors of “Women in leadership face ageism at every age” surveyed 913 U.S. women leaders across four industries (higher ed, faith-based nonprofits, law, and health care). Their conclusion? “There was always an age-based excuse to not take women seriously, to discount their opinions, or to not hire or promote them.”

• Women under age 40 are patronized or face a “credibility deficit.” That’s what happening “if ever you’ve been asked, ‘Are you sure that’s right?’ or been disbelieved after making a statement,” explains researcher Amy Diehl,  who coined the term with Leanne M. Dzubinski for their book GLASS WALLS. The two coauthored this study with Amber L. Stephenson.

• Hoping for a sweet mid-career spot? For women there’s no such thing. “Women between ages 40 and 60 in our study fared no better than their younger or older counterparts,” the authors found. Fertility’s a problem (“too much family responsibility”), as is its demise (“menopause-related issues” could be “challenging to manage”).

• Over 60? Expect to be passed over. Because you’re unworthy, unattractive, “not vital,” outdated …  

In other words, “No age was the right age to be a woman leader.”

One clarifier: the authors describe this discrimination as “youngism,” “middle-ageism,” and “oldism.” Those categories distract and divide. It’s all ageism—which is any judgement on the basis of age—and as this study  documents so well, all women are up against it, all the damn time. Unlike our male counterparts, who spend decades “in their prime,” women get no prime time. First we’re too cute; then we’re too fertile; then we’re not cute or fertile and that’s all he wrote.

But wait! It’s not just age. Women are often perceived as “never quite right” across a range of other traits as well. As the researchers wrote in a separate article for Fast Company, “30 critiques holding women back from leadership that most men will never hear,” just about any characteristic was used to question a woman’s competence and leadership potential. They were “too short or too tall, too pretty or too unattractive or too heavy. They had too much education or not enough.” Women lost out because they were single. Or married. Or divorced. Introverts didn’t have what it takes to run an organization, and extroverts were “aggressive.” Racial bias made barriers to promotion even higher for women of color. Ableism was yet another hurdle.

The authors of the study urge individual women not to take this personally. To resist our conditioning to internalize criticism as something to “fix” about ourselves. To contextualize the comment by “flipping” it:  Yes, men face workplace bias too, but when when’s the last time one was be asked to smile more? Or denied a promotion for becoming a father?

Yes, organizations can do better. They can recognize gendered ageism, which is still largely absent from DEI agendas. They can focus on actual skills (imagine that!) when hiring or promoting. They can foster age-diverse teams.

But the workplace won’t change without culture change. If men were gonna change things, they woulda. “The personal is political” was a feminist rallying cry in the 1970. In other words, don’t take it personally, take it politically. It’s so not about you. It’s about the double whammy of gendered ageism, which disempowers all women. It’s about patriarchy: a system in which men have more power and use it to hold onto it. And it’s about prejudice, which pits us against each and distracts us from the fact that all women face the same barriers all our lives—ageism, sexism, and patriarchy. That’s what’s going on when women vie for the few “seats for women,” instead of going after all the damn seats. Or when older and younger colleagues treat each other badly because they resent how unfairly social and professional capital are allocated. Being young is hard! So is aging while female! What makes both so much harder than they ought to be? Overarching systems:  ageism, sexism, and patriarchy.

Solidarity is a pact, a commitment to taking responsibility for each other and joining forces across difference. The sisters of this sisterhood must represent all ages. All races too, I hope. The women’s movement has long focused on issues that predominantly affect white women. We white women need to change that.

White women need to relinquish our white privilege; keep in mind that problems play out differently for different people; learn how to be allies; accept that outcomes will differ from what we might have chosen; and act in ways that that don’t come at the expense of other women. Recent US history offers harsh lessons. Middle-class white women were instrumental in electing, and attempting to re-elect, an overtly racist president who bragged about degrading and sexually assaulting women. The  people who’ve benefited most from the affirmative action policies struck down in June by the Supreme Court are white women, yet most white women oppose it. They see race before gender. They choose the shelter of whiteness over liberation for their sisters—and true liberation for themselves. “Leaning in” to crack the glass ceiling perpetuates patriarchy; it will never set us free. The gender wage gap, for example, has barely budged in decades. Shocker: it widens as women age.  

Those of us who want equal rights for all women need to come together in outrage, resistance, and ongoing collective action. A workforce—and a world— that advances women of color is better for everyone.

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Enough with the headlines about age! Not for the reason you think.

Age and age discrimination have never gotten more media coverage, especially in the wake of President Biden’ announcement that he’s running for re-election. If there’s anyone who should be delighted, it’s me. I’m in the age-and ageism business, after all.

Instead, it’s making me mad.

Many of the headlines are alarmist clickbait. (“Biden Would End His Second Term at 86. What Could That Mean for His Brain and Body?) Many of the stories, like that one, which ran the in the New York Times and another that ran in the Wall Street Journal, say little more than what I and countless geriatricians have to say: if you’ve seen one octogenarian, you’ve seen one octogenarian.

There are countless reasons to ignore age when it comes to choosing political candidates. More consequentially, these stories distract us from real issues that actually matter. Climate disasters. The economy. Racism. School shootings. Police brutality. Forced pregnancy. World War III. Why are obsess over age? It’s an ignorant, biased, costly smokescreen.

I have a policy of not following elections until the calendar year in which they take place. Most of the coverage up until then is side-show stuff (and it’s a real time-saver). If that’s too much to ask, how about holding the media accountable for the coverage we—and the real issues—deserve? There are so many more important things to think about.

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Becoming less ageist can *reverse* cognitive decline.

A growing body of fascinating research shows that attitudes towards aging have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how our minds and bodies function. People with more positive feelings about aging—fact- rather than fear-based, that is—walk faster, heal quicker, live longer, and are less likely to develop dementiaeven if they carry the gene that predisposes them to the disease. Much of the research has been conducted by Yale’s Becca Levy, the author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live.  Her latest finding, published on April 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is remarkable: positive age beliefs don’t just help prevent cognitive decline. They can reverse it, and improve memory. Not only that: participants who had positive beliefs about aging were also significantly less likely to experience cognitive impairment at all.

Scientists tracked 1,716 individuals aged 65 and up, for twelve years, to see if they could predict who would experience MCI as well as who was most likely to recover from it. MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) refers to “mild changes in a number of cognitive functions, including memory and attention,” Levy explains. “It’s a performance-based measure, and cut-off points have been established and validated.” Participants were tested on how well they performed at various cognitive tasks at different points over the twelve years. People with low scores who felt good about aging were more likely to return to the “normal cognition” range.

Does feeling good about aging seem like a reach? If so, it’s because we live in an ageist culture that barrages us with negative messages about growing old—like the myth that cognitive decline is inevitable. Confronting ageism means changing the culture. That’s why Levy is “very interested in social movements to overcome ageism.” That’s why I do what I do.

Many aspects of aging aren’t under our control, but we can control our attitudes. Unlearning isn’t easy, but it’s free and it’s doable. How about aiming for an accurate understanding of the years ahead—an attitude based on facts rather than fears? Based on an understanding of where the myths and stereotypes come from, and what purpose they serve. Based on the abundant evidence that late life is a time of growth and meaning.

Where to begin?

  • Levy recommends keeping an age belief journal for a week: recording how age is represented on television and in social media and conversations, and whether and how olders are part of the conversation.
  • Noodle around the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse:  hundreds of free resources to educate people about aging and ageism.
  • Read about Levy’s study showing that more accurate age beliefs protect against Alzheimer’s disease.  
  • Check out a 2022 National Poll on Healthy Aging, published on June 15 by JAMA Open Network that linked exposure to “everyday ageism” to higher levels of mental and physical health problems.
  • Reflect on your own attitudes towards age and aging. Ageism harms our health, and we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it.

If you aspire to a long and healthy life, it’s worth it. Equating aging with disease and decrepitude makes us more vulnerable to exactly what we fear.