• djhotaling

Is This Ageist? Interview with Ashton Applewhite

Ashton Applewhite is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and the co-founder of the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse. An internationally recognized expert on ageism, she speaks widely at venues that have included the TED mainstage and the United Nations, has written for Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and is the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist? Ashton is a leading spokesperson for the emerging movement to raise awareness of ageism and to dismantle it.


Debra:

Hello, and welcome to The Dareful Project. I'm Debra Hotaling. We're talking today about ageism, which our guest Ashton Applewhite is working to make as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice. She's the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, and she has a really terrific TED talk that I encourage everybody to find on YouTube. She also has a really smart, funny Q&A blog called Yo, Is This Ageist where people can write in and talk about what they're seeing, what they're feeling and have a frank discussion about ageism in our lives, in popular media, in the workplace. And we have questions too. So Ashton, welcome. Thank you.

Ashton:

Thanks!

Debra:

The last year, how has it shaped or evolved the way you think about ageism?

Ashton:

I just turned 69 or I guess, 68 or even 67 when the virus showed up. And it was the first time that I had been in sort of the officially vulnerable group. And I have to say that was a little unnerving. I'm hesitant to speak of good things that came from the pandemic because of course they came at hideous human costs, but I do think COVID brought age and aging and ageism out of the corners and into a million public conversations in a way that was actually a really good thing, because we need to talk about these things.

Debra:

Tell me more about that. What were the green sprouts, maybe of hope and other, other things that you found yourself curious about?

Ashton:

Well, I'm speaking abstractly…one of my many pet peeves about the way people talk about age and oldness is that it's almost invariably with sort of this hand-wringing or, you know, gloom and doom. And let me say right up front that there are plenty of challenges around population aging and plenty of things to be legitimately apprehensive or concerned about when it comes to getting older, but that's all we hear. We only hear the scary part. We only hear the fears, we never hear the other side of the coin. And one of the hand-wringing things was, oh, COVID has made age-ism so much worse. COVID, didn't make ageism worse any more than it made racism, worse. It exposed what has been all around us all the time and not least the intersection of ageism with racism and in particular ableism, you know, treating people who have cognitive or physical impairments differently than else in valuing their lives less. So it really, I think, brought all that stuff out of the shadows and forced people who just want things to get back to normal, to confront the fact that normal was pretty awful for a lot of people. And that that's not in my opinion, what we should aspire to getting back to.

Debra:

I had the same moment thinking about that. I'm 63 and I did really a kind of embarrassing mental dance when I realized that I was approaching being part of that vulnerable group. And I said to myself, but I'm super young, but I am really healthy. I don't have any medical conditions. Am I really part of that group? And I had to come to terms with the fact that, yeah, I, I am. I know though that it is just a number and you write some really smart things about what that number means and that it doesn't capture everything that we are.

Ashton:

Well, good for you, first of all, to get to that embarrassing place, because two thoughts on that. Social change doesn't happen without starting with your own discomfort by doing exactly the thing that you did. We have to take that most uncomfortable first step to look at our own attitudes towards age and aging, because we are all biased. And most of that bias is unconscious. When it comes to age, we simply haven't thought about it as much as we have about racism and sexism and, you know, aging intersects with every domain of our lives. It intersects with biology, with politics, with sociology, with economics. So everything connects to everything. There are always two sides to things, but age is, I would say, not just a number because that implies that we can sort of dismiss it your age. Anyone's age is a very real number that indicates how many times we have circled the sun.


And it's important to name it and claim it as you and I just did. On the other hand, it's really important to push back against the fixed meanings that we attach to that number. And when we get into our 60s, it's a very fraught time. At 65, you're officially old, but when you’re 64 you're not old yet. So we need to question at the same time that we claim it, question what the number means. If someone asks your age, I say, “I'm happy to tell you how old I am, but I want you to tell me, why are you want to know? Let's talk about that.” Or I want you to tell me what changed in your mind once you had a number, right? Let's question why we're so hung up on the number.

Debra:

You are so right. It always feels like you get written off. Once you have the number, they're like, okay, I know who you are. And I can now fill in the blanks of everything else about you without being curious. I feel the same way about the retirement question. It really freaks me out because it never occurs to me to retire. And I work in an industry where people might have joined the industry right out of college. And so when they're in their mid-50’s, they could be ready to go off and do something else. So I tend to be way older than a lot of other colleagues because everyone leaves by the time they’re my age.

Ashton:

Well, it's a deeply ageist question. And, by the way, here’s a really good, all-purpose reply. When you can't think of the snappy answer, ask “what do you mean by that?” What do you mean by that? Not in a gotcha way. But just, what do you mean by that? Because if we want to change the culture, it's going to take millions of us asking people, starting with ourselves, to reconsider the fixed notions we attach to age. And when you say, what do you mean by that? You were asking the person to do that and then let that silence sit there.


I mean, I'm, can't imagine retiring either, but I am very lucky. I do something I love, I am my own boss. I make my own hours and I have money in the bank where I have to watch being judgy is people my age and older, or even younger, who have retired. I find that I can be judgy about it. And I don't think that's appropriate. There's no right way to do this. If you can afford to stay home, maybe you're growing gardenias, maybe you're hiking in Tibet. Maybe you're watching your grandchildren. Or sitting on the porch swing there. You know, we live in a society that says you need to be productive. Hello capitalism! Especially women who are supposed to keep busy. Right. This notion about idleness goes back to Protestantism and all sorts of creepy stuff. You know, there shouldn't be anything wrong with sitting in the swing and reading a novel, or perhaps trying to write a novel or maybe not even trying to do anything. Right. It's important to try and not be judgmental around any of this stuff.


Debra:

This is why I love talking with you today and reading your book, This Chair Rocks, because you're very gracious in sharing your own journey, your feelings through your research and your own awakening. And I super appreciate that.

Ashton:

We all are on it and everyone and wakes up a day older.

Debra:

And they age rapidly. And this is the whole plot. We are all in it but then you look at popular culture…there's a new movie that's coming out, a horror film, and it’s called Old. The plot has a couple of families on a secluded beach, something happens:

Ashton:

Yeah, someone submitted that to my Yo, Is This Ageist blog. Where I came down on that it's a perfectly legitimate, intriguing premise for a movie. All of a sudden time speeds up, you know, time travel like Benjamin Button. Time travel is a staple of the movies and horror. But the premise of the movie…would they make a movie where those perfect Hollywood faces morphed into weird versions of themselves and call it Ugly?

Would they make a movie where everyone gained 300 pounds in the course of an afternoon and call it Fat? No. And so to use old the word “old” as a synonym for awful or yucky or scary is not okay. I don't object to the premise of the movie, but I do object to the title. And I'm not a fan of horror movies. One of my friends is a movie fanatic and she made a really interesting point. She said, horror is a way is a unified unifying human experience. And I said, why don't you watch it and write me a smart critique. So I'm waiting to see what she says.

Debra:

Love that. Tell me more about some of the questions you get in Yo, Is This Ageist. They’re fun to read.

Ashton:

Oh, thanks. I try to make them fun to read. I will tell you, they are very hard to write because they're really ethics questions and my values might not be the same as yours so it can get complicated. One that was a beast to write was when a guy wrote in saying I work at an organization that has an employee resource group and I think there should be more younger people in the group. When the discussion came up about creating a leadership position, I withdrew from consideration saying that it should go to someone younger. And he asked, is this very ageist? Sort of ageist? And I said, it's very ageist, but after days of pounding my head figuring out an answer.


It's very ageist because the essence of ageism is ascribing value or subtracting value from someone based on age alone, whether it's directed at yourself or others. He's saying I am worthless because I am 66. Right. It works both ways; ageism can be self-directed. Also appointing someone to a position just because they're represent a marginalized group is tokenism. And I suggested that instead of withdrawing, he step up and try and involve more younger people in the group and then nominate younger people for qualified positions as they emerge, because of course leadership is better. What we want is, is genuine diversity.

Debra:

But so much of it, as you're describing it, is much more inside my head. It’s what I assume happens next when I’m in my seventies, eighties, and nineties, much more than what the outside world tells me. I ascribe it to the outside world, but it’s me. I love surfing, but I always feel like when I, you know, when I talk about it with folks, my instinct is to say, but I'm not very good. That's partly a girl thing, but it's also because I'm thinking that they're thinking, oh my God, she's 63 and she's doing this.

Ashton:

There are not a lot of 63 year old surfers out there. So your observation is accurate. And this gets into one side of the coin, which is that age is real. And to some degree, your gender also makes you unusual out there. My partner and I go clubbing. We are so much the oldest people out there and I hate being so conspicuous because of my age, but I don't want to stay home. And it's also reminding me, I went to Baja and someone asked me if I wanted a surf lesson and I blurted out I'm too old to learn to surf. You know, even after all the work I've done. And then I was like smack myself on the head. The fact is that I am too uncoordinated.


I don't have enough upper body strength and I'm way too chickenshit. But, but all those things don't have to do with my age. So, a thing to do is to look at all the things we attribute to age back to my earlier point age so often has nothing to do with it. But what is really at play here is when we are worried about or discussing physical capacity. That is not actually ageism, it is ableism, which stereotypes and discriminates on the basis of how our minds and bodies work. And so much of what we think of as ageism is concerned about. What's going to happen to my brain. What's going to happen when I can't drive at night and run up the stairs. So that's actually ableism.


And we saw this during COVID, when so many people who died were people in congregate care. Those are people with disabilities of all ages. You don't go into a nursing home because you're old. You go in because you're disabled. Of course, a lot of people are both. They overlap increasingly as we move through life, but they are not the same. So what you are talking about really, I think, has to do it's gender, because we, we, women tend to be much less good at saying, aren't I awesome. I stood up on this board for 10 seconds. Or I pitched 10 ideas and the boss liked one of them and women are going, the boss hated nine ideas. What's up with that. Sorry to digress, but this is why I love what I do because for a generalist like me, it does touch on everything. And it's really interesting, especially at a time when so much in our culture about bias and prejudice and identity is in flux and being claimed and explained in new and really interesting ways.

Debra:

Ashton, make us smart…what's a handful of things that we could start reframing in our head or doing right now that would make us better humans?

Ashton:

Geez. Don't kick dogs. I'm not in the better, better human business. But I suppose I am in some narrow sense. Something you said reminded me back to the idea around age is just a number. You know, my poor friends and family are so gun shy. If they say happy birthday, they’ll follow up with oh, is that okay?


You know, there's an absolutely nothing wrong with claiming age. It's important to claim age as a key identifier, but I would suggest that people think about how we use the word and why and what purpose, cause we often stick it in there when it doesn't isn't necessary. A good example is newspaper stories. I would like age to be omitted from newspaper stories, unless it's an obituary or a story about someone doing something physically or cognitively remarkable for someone their age. If a seven-year-old plays Carnegie hall, that's amazing. We should know they're seven. If a 107 year old climbs Everest, that's amazing. We should know they were 107. By and large though, it has nothing to do with the story. And the minute we have that number that Mrs. McGillicuddy, 56, was hit in the intersection or wrote a book, it’s all about preconceptions and no judgment.


We all have those preconceptions. You already referenced them and they frame whatever decision we make, depending on how old we are, depending on our class, depending on our life experience. Another example in that vein is that we used to include race in newspaper stories, and they stopped doing it because they realized exactly that, that the minute we had racial information, our bias, whatever it is, floods in because we're human because of the way our brains work.


Another thing that's incredibly important is to make friends of all ages. We live in a shockingly age segregated society, and that cuts us off from most of humanity. And it allows us to imagine that we don't have much in common with people who are not our age cohort. And that's just not true.


Again, unless you're climbing Everest, unless it comes to extreme sports, age says very little about what you're interested in. Class says far more gender says far more, geography says far more than age.

Debra:

So how do you find friends of different ages?

Ashton:

That's a great question. And to me, it just seems easy. My short answer for your listeners is think of something you'd like to do and find a mixed age group to do it with. And I would say going and jumping around to electronic music is a really good example because everyone doing it is 20 or 30 years younger than I am, which is not why I do it, but it is one big reason that my social cohort in one domain is mixed up. But if it were easy, my friend group would look like the rainbow coalition, and it's still pretty white, which embarrasses me and means I am need to do more to reach across race and ethnic lines. And it reminds me to stay humble.


It is not easy, but seriously, think of something you like to do and find a mixed age group to do it with. Here's a trick: when you get to a social event, we all tend to make a beeline for a group of people our own age. Break that habit. And don't yield to that little voice that says, oh, if they see you tottering over to them, maybe, maybe one of them will be, think disparaging thoughts. Most people won't care. And some people will think it's cool. Right?

Debra:

All right, I'm going to take that and I'm gonna work on my cross-pollination friendship skills. One of the positive parts, if we can say that, from COVID is that I feel permission now to go into my old Rolodex and look up friends that I haven't talked to in 15 years, reaching out to say, Hey, do you want to go have lunch? Real people face to face. And I've had more fun than summer just reconnecting with old friends of all ages. And it doesn’t feel awkward.

Ashton:

I have a more bold initiative for you if you're up for it. And I don't mean to put you on the spot. With two colleagues, I created a site called Old School, and it is a clearing house, a repository of free, vetted anti ageism resources of all types. And one of the things we do is create consciousness raising guides, because consciousness raising is the key, a key tool of movement building. The term came into its own during the women's movement at the second half of the 20th century. And what happens during consciousness raising is that people come together and compare personal experiences.


And we discover its not our fault, right? It's not our feelings. It is a result of social and political systems and that we can come together and do something about. So for free download and you can adapt it in any way you see fit. I'm just in the final review of a series of guides, one called Ageist, Who Me?, and another called Sexist, Who Me? At the end of last year, we released Racist, Who Me? So look at it and think about starting a consciousness raising group of your own. And I urge you to do it with all ages if you can. And if you ideally, you know, the more diverse the group that it's more complicated, of course, it's a little bit harder to find common ground, but, but if you stick with it for a while and establish trust, uh, the, the more diverse the group, the richer the outcome.

Debra:

My hunch is that if you are a millennial or a gen Z gen X, that you feel just as uncomfortable with your age, as sometimes we do with ours, When I'm hanging out with my younger friends, they feel way more uncertain about their own age and what they're doing than even I do and they kind like hanging out with olders, because we kind of got our act together a little bit more and it's, you know, it's okay. Are you finding that to be true?

Ashton:

I'm laughing because my daughter is…how old is Morgan? She broke up. She happens to be a lesbian and she broke up with her girlfriend of 11 years. She's 36, I think. And she was just on a dating app and someone said that she was a sexy older woman. And I'm like, oh my God, I can't believe my daughter is an older woman. Which is not really relevant, except it calls me on my own ageism because I sort of, you know, think anyone, my kid's age is young and hello, they're not. They're, they're moving into middle age or whatever. I'd like to make a point about a habit that I wish everyone in the world would break, which is using generational.

Debra:

Thank you and yeah my bad. I just did it. Let's use something else.

Ashton:

Well, I just wrote a piece about it and I'll send you the link. First of all, the concept of generations has no scientific basis. None. There's no research that corroborates it because it doesn't, sometimes it means four years and sometimes it means 40. So there's no social science to back up the idea, none that people in large age groups have stuff in common. The political and social problem is that when we pin stuff on age, it obscures the much larger role that class in particular and gender and race and ethnicity play in shaping our experience. Again, age is just not that salient. And when we fall back on age, it allows us to not discuss those stickier and more complicated and more fraught and more legitimate variables, which is really important to do.


And the minute you say, you know, oh, millennials are like, are like X or Y it fosters us versus them framing this idea that, that people in age group X are different from people in age group. Really, how could any generalization about a giant group of people possibly be true? So try to use mixed age instead, you know, instead of intergenerational talk about people in an age group, talk about people of different ages. You said “olders,” which I was happy to hear. When I was writing my book, I got tired of typing older people or older Americans. And I shortened it to olders and youngers. And if you use it, you will find that people understand what you mean.


The nice thing about olders and youngers is that it doesn't set a point with that pesky velvet rope again, right? This idea of, oh my God, I'm going to wake up someday and everything will have gone to hell. And I'll be on the wrong side of the velvet rope forever. And you know, there is no old young binary we age in relation to others, a four-year-old will assure you. She is older than her three-year-old sister and Mrs. Kravitz down the hall will assure you that she is younger than Mrs. Jones in the next room over, right? So it busts up that binary. And the minute we try, and, and this is throughout gerontology, you know, the old, old middle age midlife crisis, where the hell is midlife. You know, if you know, if I get hit by a car tomorrow, it turns out that I was in late life.

There's those tons of thought about how we have now this fourth stage of life that's called elderhood or whatever. I don't like dividing any given lifespan up into stages because no one wants to be in the last stage. You might transition physically to immobility at 20 because a tree fell on you, but that doesn't make you old. It makes you disabled. We need to keep it fluid.

Debra:

You're right. It's really hard to get out of the linear thinking


Ashton:

We are conditioned to this kind of patterning. We can't kick ourselves for that, but we need to do exactly the kind of challenging that, that you are doing, which is fantastic.

Debra:

I have to add my own PSA moment about ageism and medical care. A friend of mine, who's a doc said, if something medical is going on and you think, oh boy, I'm getting old, always resist that thought, because almost always, it's not because you're getting old it's because something is going on with your health. So always go see a doc, get it checked out, be curious about it. And don't just go, oh, this is what happens when you get old.

Ashton:

Yes. That's a great, thank you for bringing that up. Resist the temptation, which we all feel, to blame symptom X on age. It's like that gag line that I used at my TED talk. I stopped blaming my sore knee on being 64 because my other knee doesn't hurt. And it's just as old. Maybe your back hurts because you just gardened, or maybe helped someone move. Maybe you cooked dinner. Maybe you, you know, moved the wrong way. And I mean, again, it's always double-edged if you lifted something heavy, if you lifted that thing, when you were 20, you might not have had the sore back that you have when you're 40, but you have might have. This is ageist of me, but when I'm with a younger person and they can't remember the name of the movie they saw with what's her name last week. I'm like, it’s not just old people!

Debra:

Yeah. And I hide that stuff. My weakness, I'm going to say it out to everybody, is technology. And my worst fear is I'm on a meeting with everyone and someone will go, Hey, can you share your screen? I'm like, oh God, no, don't make me share my screen. So I'll practice ahead of time. And I'm all good to go. Because I'm terrified that someone's going to go, ah, look at her, trying to share her screen on WebEx.

Ashton:

Yeah, I hear you. I am also a bit of a technophobe, but, but let me point out that you have developed the skills so that you do know how to do that. You have acknowledged that you have this insecurity and you have figured out ways to cope with it. I'm not a math person, which I'm sure is also partly gendered or a physics person. But if, you know, if you told me that I had to master calculus, you know, in order to feed my children, I would learn calculus.

Debra:

For me, it’s a way of being lazy, because I can say, I don't know how to do that. And instead I just make myself go, well, my iPhone, isn't working and I've got to figure this out.

Ashton:

My advice on that one, you're doing great.

Debra:

We’re good. And now I can share my screen so I'm triumphant. Yay. So before we go, you've given us a lot of links and we're going to make sure that all of these are in our show notes and I encourage everybody to buy your book, watch your TED talk, and enjoy and learn from Yo, Is This Ageist?, we're all going to start putting together our consciousness, raising groups. What else should we know that you're working on now?

Ashton:

I only write a book every 20 years, so don't hold your breath for that. But I am always posting my, my website is thischairrocks.com. And I have a blog there where I have been thinking out loud since I started thinking about this stuff and it's searchable by topic. So if you want to, for example, find all the stuff about how attitudes towards aging affect our cognitive and physical function, search on health. Check out the Old School Clearing House. I started doing little videos of my answers to specific Yo, Is This Ageist? questions and you can find that on my YouTube channel. They're less than two minutes long. And I am active on social media at ThisChairRocks on Twitter. And Facebook. Frankly, search anywhere for Ashton Applewhite, I'm the only one in the world. So I'm very easy to find.

Debra:

And you have a terrific newsletter that you send out periodically…folks can sign up and get that as well.

Ashton:

If you sign up for it, maybe you might inspire me to cough up another one. I only do it every couple of months. Sign up for Old School Clearing House, we will never give your info away. We will not spam you. It is easy to unsubscribe. I always feel it's important to say that because I guard my email. But it will let you know what we're up to, where we've been hosting, get togethers for people who identify as age advocates. And that's been another thing that the pandemic has enabled is more virtual meetups. So we've able to meet allies from all around the world.


And we are starting a group called the Biddies, which I hope you think is funny. Oh, good, good, good. Because, we're launching this new guide to ageism and sexism, ageist sexist, who me and the thought that bleeped into my head is that there are so many groups of women leading the movement against ageism. We have more at stake, we're more networked in general, and there are tons of groups that have emerged around going gray, especially in the wake of COVID and knowing no one being able to get to their hair salons and also around menopause, like refusing to be silenced about it and treat it like a taboo. And the reason menopause is a taboo is—hello--because of ageism. Some of these groups are aware of ageism. A lot of them are not. A lot of their discourse is actually about sort of still staying young or looking better than those other biddies.

Debra:

I'm going to make sure that we have everything in our show notes and, folks, please, check out This Chair Rocks and all of the great work that Ashton is doing. And I think Ashton, we're going to have to get together again. We didn't even talk about menopause, but we'll have to save that for another discussion. Thank you again, Ashton.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

How to have The Talk with your adult kids

Let's get smart on The Talk--the one we need to have with our adult children--any maybe our parents--about how we want things to roll if/when we can't make decisions. We talk about how to start these