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As our populations grow ever older, our thinking should evolve with it. Ashton Applewhite believes that age is only a number, but it holds infinite value because it is real.
The economic potential of a fast-moving world is running up against the demographic dynamic of ageing populations. According to the UN Population Division, Europe’s low birth rates will see its work force shrink nearly 12% by 2060; 20% of America’s population will be over 65 by 2030; and in Japan and the Republic of Korea, over a third of the population is expected to be 60 years or older by 2050.
Making these older populations part of more productive and gender-equal workplaces will be essential to future economic prosperity. Yet most governments and societies still see themselves threatened by the reduced workforce and stressed pension systems of a “grey tsunami” that they fear will make it impossible for them to compete in the global economy.
Ageism doesn’t make economic sense.
“We do everything to extend life – through cures, medication, sanitation – and then resent the results.”
That inclusivity of older populations in the workforce is butting up against ageism is the central thesis of American author and activist Ashton Applewhite, whose 2016 book, This Chair Rocks, argues that employment structures and institutions need to “adapt and catch up to the evolutionary shadow” of the new era in which human beings have never lived so long. “We do everything to extend life,” comments Applewhite, “through cures, medication, sanitation – and then resent the results.”
An expert on ageing, and named on lists of influencers of social change, Applewhite argues that engaging an older workforce can help redefine traditional notions of economic growth which fail to measure a country’s greater wellbeing.
“GDP is not purely a function of how much barium we’re pulling out of the mountains and shipping to Shanghai,” quips Applewhite. She reminds me that “human capital is real,” and keeping as large a swathe of society as possible connected, stimulated and financially independent is the most sustainable method of maintaining a stable and happy environment for all.
Add to this that Americans over 50 control approximately 70% of their country’s disposable income, and marginalising the old through stigma, says Applewhite, “is unacceptable from an ethical point of view and dumb from a financial and social one too.”
According to a 2017 marketing survey by Brandon Gaille, 58% of workers today believe that ageism begins when they reach the age of 50, and only one in ten people between the age of 65-69 is gainfully employed.
At the same time, the Canadian Institute for Health reports that public spending on seniors is not increasing more than the population at large, and older people provide as much or more care than they receive. Applewhite’s own research shows that only 2.5% of Americans over 65 live in nursing homes, increasing to 10% for those over 85.
Significantly, the length that a person is sick, and not their age, most affects medical spending, while chronic diseases such as anxiety, obesity and drug addiction are prevalent in all age groups.
“Fear of dying is human but fear of ageing is not.”
Ageism, Applewhite continues, is not embedded in a Darwinian rejection of the less fit, or “because someone looks at older people and says, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die soon, I can’t be near them’.” It is a societal construct of entrenched discrimination. “Fear of dying is human but fear of ageing is not,” and standardising the latter ends up re-enforcing the cult of the young in societies that then dread being old.
Applewhite concludes that, “if work and life were more co-mingled – with funding for intergenerational housing and programmes and with young and old living and working together – we wouldn’t have a cliff edge between retirement and oblivion, but rather models of how to leave the work force by gradually training younger employees.”
She compares discrimination against the old based on their physical impairment to that of people with disabilities, whom “we know now to live incredibly rich lives with an enormous amount to contribute.”
But don’t comparisons between the old and the disabled risk creating new tensions? “Of course,” she replies, “people with disabilities can be as ageist as anyone else.” The conflation of oldness with disability is similar to that of disability with illness; “‘I am not sick!’, cry the disabled, as the older person shouts out, ‘and I am not disabled!’”
Yet catering for both the old and disabled can have positive knock-on effects for all; installing ramps and lifts in buildings can make sense for everyone, as can better acoustics and lighting. And inter-generational workplaces can have a positive impact on younger people whose own mental and physical health ailments are not always visible or openly addressed.
Applewhite admits that the old can also be ageist, especially “because they’ve had a lifetime of it.” Offering a seat to an older person on public transport is a generous gesture. The stigma is when older people are then “terrified of being perceived as old, or weak, or disabled or lesser” which makes the offer hard to accept. Applewhite believes that, “these are complex social questions about what we see and value,” and, “those who complain about being treated as old should get to grips about looking old, not sink into silent oblivion and misery.”
Changing perception and stereotype through language
“I’ve never heard anyone call themselves elderly. And a really good rule of thumb is not to call people something they don’t call themselves.”
Key to changing cultural perceptions about ageing is getting rid of stereotypes around physical and mental capacity. “Limited mobility is not the same as helplessness,” says Applewhite.
Dementia may mark some people’s old age, but “it’s not typical of ageing, and anxiety over getting Alzheimer’s actually increased our risk of cognitive decline.”
When an older person “can’t remember where they put that envelope, it shouldn’t mean that they can’t learn new skills, or that there’s no point in applying for that job.” Language can also play a part in creating disadvantage when there is none. Instead it should be “value neutral and emphasise that age is a spectrum.”
The term “elderly” is Applewhite’s least favourite word; it implies “membership of a homogenous group and a respect for wisdom that many don’t deserve. A lot of older people are idiots and a lot of young people are wise”. Applewhite adds, “I’ve never heard anyone call themselves elderly. And a really good rule of thumb is not to call people something they don’t call themselves.”
Agelessness should be “agefulness”, the elderly should be known as “olders”; these are terms that do not require translation because “everyone knows what they mean”. Similarly, the term “ageing” is a misnomer; “population ageing is a demographic phenomenon, but ageing parents and ageing celebrities is meaningless. Everyone is ageing, your child is ageing. Ageing is breathing as we move through life, so when we mean ‘older’, let’s use it.”
Ignoring numbers and role models
“The longer we live, the less that number says about us, physically, cognitively, and biologically.”
Even though journalists may “flinch like worms on a hot plate” at the criticism, Applewhite insists that the “who, what, when, where and why” of a story should not have to include someone’s age, unless it denotes “an academic prodigy, a physical feat, or an obituary.”
Contextualising through age feeds stereotypes; “The longer we live, the less that number says about us, physically, cognitively, and biologically.” If that sounds like a difficult ask, Applewhite observes, “once we used to put race in stories and now we don’t.” By banishing the age number no-one need succumb to preconceived notions of what they can or cannot do.
Equally, celebrating older role models should not rely on images “of octogenarians jumping out of planes”, which only re-enforce the idea that ageing successfully should be benchmarked against younger counterparts.
Like confronting segregation and sexism, it “will take time to develop a culture that acknowledges the emerging meanings of longevity.”
But let there be no doubt, says Applewhite, treating older people as lacklustre versions of their younger counterparts, and pointing out “how amazing someone looks – for their 79 years”, is the same inherent prejudice that singles out how “well-spoken Obama is – for a black man, or how well someone manages a wheelchair – for a disabled person.”
“What kind of world do you want your children, who will live to be a hundred, to inhabit?”
The persuasive arguments that validate olders as active contributors to society are a smaller leap than 60 years ago, when women were still proving their own competence over men. Applewhite remains upbeat: “This an exciting time for redefining how we relate to each other – steps towards anti-ageism could be the connectors and facilitators between groups that can’t find commonality.”
Besides, Ashton asks, “What kind of world do you want your children, who will live to be a hundred, to inhabit? Do you want them thrown on the scrapheap halfway through?”
In Applewhite’s own words, “Well, hell, no!”