279: Rejecting Ageism with Ashton Applewhite
Today, I’m talking to Ashton Applewhite. Ashton is an author, journalist, speaker, and activist who is on a mission to raise awareness and push back against ageism. She is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well.
Her work was inspired by a project in which she interviewed older people in the workforce, learning about longevity and happiness–and discovered that most of her ideas about late life were either off base or completely wrong. She became fascinated by why ageism is so prominent, who benefits from it, and what she could do to change people’s perceptions and ideas around it.
Before becoming an advocate against ageism, Ashton wrote the best-selling, mass-market book of 1983, Truly Tasteless Jokes, and was the first-ever author to have four books on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. She’s been recognized as an expert on aging by the New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker, and the American Society on Aging, and she’s contributed to Harper’s, the Guardian and many more.
In today’s conversation, Ashton joins the podcast to talk about why we’re so unnecessarily afraid of getting older, what drives those fears, and how to make aging a lot less fearsome (and a whole lot more interesting)–and the fascinating things she’s learned on her remarkable journey.
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In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- How our culture encourages so many of us–especially women–to hide our age.
- How husbands can help their partners get more comfortable with aging.
- What ageism really is–and why there’s no meaningful attribute affixed to any age.
- Why Ashton is optimistic about our prejudices about aging.
- Why Ashton believes the entire notion of retirement is up for grabs.
- How aging and ageism affects our brains, bodies, and financial decisions.
- Ashton’s thoughts on how older people can apply for (and land) jobs in a particularly complex labor market.
- "Writing a book is really hard. Don’t write one unless you’re desperate, and if you really need to, but it is a wonderful way to get your ideas out in the world." - Ashton Applewhite
- "Aging is living, and we each need to do these things in our own way." - Ashton Applewhite
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Casey Weade: Ashton, welcome to the podcast.
Ashton Applewhite: Thank you, Casey. Great to be here.
Casey Weade: Well, it’s awesome to have a young lady like yourself here.
Ashton Applewhite: Don’t call me a young lady.
Casey Weade: Don’t call young lady.
Ashton Applewhite: Don’t do that.
Casey Weade: I know you have a sense of humor, Ashton. I know you have a sense of humor because I’ve read part of your book from the 80s, Truly Tasteless Jokes. So, I had to kick off the conversation that way because I know you loathe the term young lady and you feel that people should find that offensive. I think this is a good place to take it off. Explain why, please?
Ashton Applewhite: One really good piece of advice I got when I was writing my book was don’t use the word should. Getting older is complicated, right? Aging is something we embark on the day we’re born. Aging is living, and we each need to do these things in our own way. So, I swear to God if you, I am not in the business of telling anyone what they should do or should say, but I do have a bunch of suggestions about why we’re so unnecessarily afraid of getting older and what are the forces that drive those fears and alternate ways to think that make it a lot less fearsome and interesting.
And when someone calls me a young lady, I don’t like it because I’m obviously not young. And all that does is draw attention to the fact that I’m not young. So, that’s part of it. And also, it’s condescending to me. That’s how I feel about it. I mean, I didn’t like being called young lady when I was 25. An awful lot of genuinely younger women find it condescending. But as we age...
Casey Weade: I think that’s the insightful part that it’s not just you, it’s people of all ages.
Ashton Applewhite: It’s each of us. I mean, I’ve had people say, “Listen, it makes me feel good.” You do you, and I don’t mean that in any kind of fakey way. However, when we accept that as a compliment, we are internalizing the idea that if I were younger, it would be better. And that is really at the heart of– that’s age denial, right? That is the equation of young with pretty, young with sexy, young with it, young with technically adept. And therefore, the inference that if you’re not young, you can’t be any of those. You might not be all of them, but you’re certainly some of them, right?
And if I say, thank you, I am accepting the idea that– it suggests that I wish I were younger. And honestly, I wish my cartilage were younger, but I don’t wish I were younger. I don’t know anyone who actually wants to go back to their youth. Being young is hard. And being the age I am, there’s so much that I love about it. I don’t have the option of going back, obviously, but I don’t want to be any younger.
Casey Weade: Well, I think it’s beautiful and very insightful, and that leads me to a question that we received. However, before we get to the question around hair dyeing, I noticed that you have some color in your hair today. However, you had previously been one that dyed your hair gray. Can I ask you to explain the whole hair dyeing situation?
Ashton Applewhite: It’s funny. One of my sort of, it’s not really New Year’s resolution, but I thought, I’m just not going to comment on my appearance here in particular at all, because when we do, any conversation about appearance reinforces the notion overtly or indirectly that what matters the most about a woman is how she looks. And that’s a problem. There’s all this focus on how women look, whereas a guy can come in and have a scruffy beard and gray hair and spots on a shirt, and no one notices. So, with that proviso, I am the only person in the world my age, I’m about to turn 70, that actually has brown hair. You can see some gray coming in here.
But I’ll tell you a story, when I, this was, gosh, six or seven years ago, was coming out of a movie theater and I looked down the escalator, it was the middle of the day, so most people were not working, I mean, see, that’s an ageist thing to say, but I told it as a joke. And I saw this sea of brown hair. The only gray hair was on the guys, and I thought, this is one way we make ourselves invisible as older people. And again, no judgment, I completely understand that an awful lot of people, women, especially, because of this focus on our appearance, have to dye our hair to hold on to our job, to appear younger so that we are viable in the job market today, or people feel better about themselves, more power to you.
But I went home and wrote on my Facebook page, gee, wouldn’t it be great if we had the year of letting our hair go gray, if everyone that didn’t like dyeing their hair and did it only to cover the gray and experienced it as this costly tyranny, which is how a lot of women feel about it, and men also. And I got a ton of blowback. Women said, “Don’t tell me what to do with my hair. If my boss saw, if I didn’t dye my hair, I’d lose my job, and I have children to support, which I completely deserved.” And one woman said, “You go first.”
So, I bleached my whole head white to see what it was like. Being me, I didn’t notice any difference, but I’m kind of a clod about those things. And again, that’s my experience, very different from someone else who has to show up or be out in public or, God forbid, be on TV, where there are just fierce pressures on women to look a certain way.
So, then I did start putting bunches of white in my hair sort of to mix it up and to keep it confusing. If you look at my website, you’ll see that it’s all white on the top, but the roots are dark, which I kind of liked. And then during the pandemic, all the white grew out, and I thought, the hell with that, I’m just not going to bother bleaching it anymore. And if people think I dye my hair, they can ask me, but you know what? It’s just not the most important thing about me.
Casey Weade: Well, I can truly appreciate that. And there are some specific questions I have around that I’ve personally experienced. However, this is a perfect lead-in to addressing a question from one of our Weekend Reading subscribers directly. And Jim said, “In order to reduce the likelihood of being targeted for ageism in the workplace, do you suggest dyeing your hair?” How would you answer that?
Ashton Applewhite: These questions are so complicated. It’s the same as should you fudge your age on a resume? Should you say how old you are? And I will say that on the internet, there are dozens and dozens of people who would dress exactly that. So, do get the advice of HR professionals on that. Here’s the thing, if that’s what you need to do or feel that you need to do in order to get a job to pay the rent or feed your kids, do whatever it takes. I am not saying don’t do or don’t do those things.
But when we dye our hair just to cover the gray or fudge about our age or leave early accomplishments off our resumé, we reinforce the idea that there is something shameful about being the age we are. And that’s not good for us personally because it’s rooted in shame about something that shouldn’t be shameful. And from a structural point of view, it gives a pass to the discrimination that makes those behaviors necessary or useful, right? So, if things aren’t going to change until enough of us say, “Listen, I’m 56 years old, and the reason I’m a fantastic candidate for this job is because I have done X, Y, and Z that makes me incredibly well qualified for this job.”
I mean, it’s crazy to think that experience would be a liability. That makes no sense at all. Not to mention, it’s an incredibly hurtful thing to hear, especially if you love what you do. Jeez, I spent decades getting really good at this thing, and now you’re telling me I’m too good at it. I heard a great line in that context, which is in the context of interviewing for a job, there is no such thing as overqualified. Either I’m qualified or I’m not.
Casey Weade: Well, I appreciate that, and it’s entirely true what you had said previously about embracing your age, I think. I mean, you’re an expert in this.
Ashton Applewhite: I mean, embrace is a big ask, but at least, if we can work our way to accepting it and not denying it, that’s a lot. That’s a lot because we live in a culture where women, in particular, are taught to hide it, women of a certain age, what’s that about? Or all this obfuscation around it, you’re the age you are. On the other hand, it’s always complicated. I mean, even the question of should you say how old you are. My answer is yes because we shouldn’t lie about it, because then it sets that little seed of shame or it sets us on a path to like, they don’t know, so now I have to try and hide it, all that stuff, which is complicated and laborious.
But ideally, we would tell the truth but ask the person to tell you why they want the number or what change in their mind when they have the number because while it’s important, I think, ideally, to own the age we are, it’s equally important to push back against the fixed meanings that we attach to that number, which because we live in an age of society, the higher the number tends to be, the more negative meanings attached to that number. And let me say, we are all biased. We all attach meaning to that number. Me too. No shame about that, no judgment about that, but when we hear that number, all sorts of associations click into place. So, how can we challenge those assumptions at the same time as owning the truth and saying, I’m the age I am and I’m good with it?
Casey Weade: Well, I’d like to selfishly ask for a little advice, and I know I’m not alone in this, either. There are a lot of husbands that are listening to this that are experiencing the same thing I am at different stages of life, and I see my wife fight this. She doesn’t like this wrinkle or she doesn’t like the way her body is changing and she wants to fight against it. Honey, you’re beautiful. And this is just part of life. We get older, and I think we need to appreciate the way that we look. I mean, this is experience, this is life, and we need to be proud of it. But I don’t know how as husbands can we better address that and help our wives get more comfortable with aging?
Ashton Applewhite: That is a beautiful question, and I’m smiling, and it does reinforce an assumption that I have. And of course, all assumptions are based on generalizations, which are never accurate, but that, in general, when women have cosmetic surgery, for example, it’s almost always the husband is saying, “I love Myrna just the way she looks. She’s beautiful to me.” And the wife is saying, “but I don’t like the way I look,” which circles back to what we were saying that we live in a culture where there’s ageism and sexism that combine to shape the way we, women, feel about ourselves, and we are supposed to conform to this impossible ideal, but most of us, unless you are stick thin, and the ideal which we know from advertising is super thin, it’s typically white, it’s typically blond, it’s this ideal that very, very few of us conform to. So, what you can do is exactly what you are doing, which is to assure her that you think she’s hot and beautiful the way she is.
There’s a section in my book, the title of which is We Need to Learn to Look More Generously at Each Other and Ourselves. I do think that the people most critical of women’s appearance are ourselves, we women and each other. It’s almost always, by the same token, a women’s female friends who say if she starts letting her hair go gray, gee, you sure you want to do that? You look old. I think it’s really– so, most of the work here has to be done by women because of course, it’s what’s between our ears. You can be wearing a ratty old bathrobe, but if you feel like you look good or you feel good in your skin, you look good and you carry that out in the world. The ultimate aphrodisiac is confidence, right? And so, I think that it’s really important for women to come together.
One of my many wishes, I have a very long wish list, is for women to come together in groups of all ages. Consciousness-raising is a tool that catalyzed the women’s movement because women got together and compared notes, and they realized like, oh, this is not my personal problem. I’m not the only one whose boss is patting her on the butt or who thinks her body is ugly or who doesn’t feel respected in her relationship. These are widely shared problems that require collective action and that we can come together and do something about. The people that want you to feel crappy when you look in the mirror are the billion-dollar beauty. Anti-aging piece of the beauty agency, of the beauty industry, is a huge, huge industry. They want you to feel like crap when you look in the mirror.
So, think about where those messages come from and what purpose they serve. And you’re not going home to bed with some guy from some cosmetics company, you’re going home to a husband who thinks you’re pretty juicy. So, let that fill you up and try and help, it’s the work of a lifetime. We need to engage in it with others, but it is doable.
Casey Weade: Yeah, I think, I see my wife scrolling on Instagram, and I just think social media is just the worst place that creates a lot of this stress and anxiety around.
Ashton Applewhite: Where she get those creepy filters.
Casey Weade: Just delete that altogether, and you won’t be exposed to this.
Ashton Applewhite: I mean, it’s fine to want, we typically want to adorn ourselves. We want to look good. One little trick of the mind to think about is, am I working to look younger? Or am I working to look good? It is absolutely possible to look good, but it is not possible to look or become younger. And I know that’s sort of a weird trick, but it’s also an attitude trick. I want to look fantastic for exactly the age and the person I am and the life that I lead right now. I want to inhabit that.
Casey Weade: It’s beautiful. And we’ve talked about -isms a lot. I think most people are pretty familiar with racism, sexism, but ageism is a relatively new thing that I honestly wasn’t really exposed to...
Ashton Applewhite: I wish they were new.
Casey Weade: Until a couple of years ago doing this podcast, this is something that is now coming to the forefront. Yeah, it’s not new, but it’s now something that we’re actually starting to talk about. Can you give us a nice, clear, concise definition of ageism that we can use and to explain this to other individuals?
Ashton Applewhite: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I need to be reminded since I’m like all ageism all the time, that it is still a new idea to a lot of people. Age is to ageism as race is to racism. We are being ageist, and again, we’re all ageist, we’re all racist, we all carry all kinds of stereotypes and conditionings with us. These ideas start to form in early childhood, right? We are being ageist any time we make an assumption about someone or a group of people based on how old we think they are. If I tell you that I’m 69, you might assume that I’m retired. Let me also point out, you are too young is also ageist. We experience ageism from birth on.
A four-year-old will assure you that she is older than her three-year-old sister and wants certain things that come with that, right? So, that’s why I tend to use the words older and younger rather than old and young because there is no point at which we fall off the cliff and everything goes to hell and we become old and useless. That never happens. We age in relation to others. So, that’s what ageism is judging someone. It could be some stereotypes or benevolent that older people are wiser. Well, that’s still a stereotype. And some old people are wise, but some old people don’t seem to have learned a thing along the way. And some young people are wise. I mean, have you ever met one of those children that you just feel, you get a little tickle in your spine, you feel like, wow, this kid knows stuff, right? That’s a wise child.
So, there is no attribute that is affixed to our age. None. I mean, there are physical characteristics, physical, physical changes accompany aging, for sure, and your body does not work as well as you age. That is just an inevitable aspect of aging. And no one likes it. But cognitive decline is not inevitable. And one other really important point I’d like to get in here is that the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. That’s sort of what I’d like to take a plane and write in the sky above everywhere in the world.
I mean, every four-year-old is unique, but they have a lot more in common than 14-year-olds, developmentally, physically, socially, who are way more like one another than 37-year-olds and so on out. So, the older someone is, the less their age tells you about them physically, cognitively, socially, what they’re interested in, what they’re listening to, it tells you less and less. So, the idea that we suddenly become the elderly, I’m happy to talk about language and become lumped into some mass, and the reason I’m frowning is because we live in an ageist world that associates age with frailty and infirmity and all those everything bad. And frailty and infirmity is part of it. I’m not going to deny that, but we think ick, it all gets awful. And in fact, people are happier at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. No stereotype that we carry about old age is true, not one.
Casey Weade: The U-curve of happiness. So, let’s rewind the clock just a little bit. So, we’re really focusing on your book.
Ashton Applewhite: Oh, great. Can I be young again?
Casey Weade: We’re not doing that. So, let’s focus on this book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. However, I think there is some irony in here for me.
Ashton Applewhite: Oh, you’re laughing. I can’t be good.
Casey Weade: Well, I’m going back to 1982 when you write the book Truly Tasteless Jokes, and I spent some time in there reading some of those jokes. And I’m going, this sounds a little ageist. And then you’ve made this transition to this being a real passion of yours and you wrote a book around it. So, what clicked for you? What happened? Why has this become such a passion? And ultimately, why did you write the book?
Ashton Applewhite: Well, writing a book is really hard and horrible. And I only wrote a book because I figured finally, I had to. I had written a book in my 40s when, I mean, I didn’t start writing till I was in my 40s. Life is long. I’ve never had much of a life plan. Writing a book is really hard. Don’t write one unless you’re desperate, that you really need to, but it is a wonderful way to get your ideas out in the world. There is no really super cute or catchy reveal here, except that I was in my mid-50s and I realized like, oh, I’m actually going to get old, like, I’m not– I think it’s really hard to imagine getting older, and I don’t think that’s ageist, I think that’s human, right? It happens slowly. And when you’re a kid and you’re running around, like, where are all these people sitting when they could be running, right? But I realized it’s happening and I’m really apprehensive about it.
So, I started a project interviewing older people in the workforce, people over 80, and interviewing octogenarians, and learning about longevity, and within a matter certainly of months, and it might even have been weeks, I learned about how most of my ideas about late-life were way off base or flat out wrong. I assume that all people were depressed because they were old and they were going to die soon. Older people enjoy better mental health than the young or middle-aged during the pandemic. There was a big study out of Stanford showing that older people, even though they were at greater physical risks and way more isolated, were more resilient simply because we’ve seen more stuff come and go. So, it’s easier for us to understand that we’ll probably get through this. It’s intuitively pretty simple.
The U-curve of happiness that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, I couldn’t believe it. I thought they must have slipped to 80-year-old’s a cookie and said, “How are you doing?” Or it must be true if you’re rich or if you’re married or if you’re healthy. It’s true across class, it’s true across marital status, it’s true across geography. Aging itself is a process that confers these adaptive abilities on most of us. The older people are, the less they fear dying. They don’t want to die and they don’t want to die in pain, but they don’t obsess about it.
So, I started thinking, gee, why are all these messages so prominent? And who is benefiting from them? And that’s really what got me on a tear because they are, if we accept aging, then no one makes money off it, then no one profits from our fears, and they can’t pit social policy as it’s good for those expensive old people, but no one cares about the young people, for example. All prejudice pits us against each other, right? Divide and conquer, that zillion dollar anti-aging industry. I feel sorry for all the hair salons, but imagine if people didn’t dye their hair. I mean, I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy of hair salon owners, but there are massive market forces also pathologizing the natural changes of aging.
If wrinkles are a disease, if the fact that your body or your sexual organs don’t function the way they used to, you can be persuaded that it’s a disease that you can fix. And there are diseases that you can treat. And again, we each need to navigate this in our own way. But then, people sell all sorts of procedures and potions and hormone supplements, and those are profitable too, whereas aging is a powerful, natural, lifelong process. It’s the one universal human experience. It’s the source of enormous power and growth and beauty. And it’s not the scary stuff isn’t real, it’s that we need to see both sides of the story which we inhabit. I mean, the fact that the U-curve persists in a society that tells us in 100 different ways every day that everything’s going to be awful, that’s amazing.
Casey Weade: Yeah, well, you shared some of your surprises in regards to your research. You were surprised by some of them...
Ashton Applewhite: Because I started as ageist as anyone else.
Casey Weade: Well, and I’m wondering, where are we in the timeline of ageism? We look at racism and we know that things have improved, but it’s not over, right? Sexism, it’s improved, but it’s nowhere near over. We’ve been dealing with these things for hundreds of years. Where do you think we are in the realm of ageism? I have felt like we’ve gotten better with this. We have improved, but maybe, do you feel like we’ve made some improvements or strides? Or are we just continuing to get worse in your opinion?
Ashton Applewhite: No, I think things are absolutely trending in the right direction in all these things. I mean, I think, Black Lives Matter did a tremendous amount to wake people up to the way racism is embedded in U.S. history. And I just want to say that that makes racism unique, uniquely ugly and uniquely damaging to the lives of people of color in the U.S., so it does deserve our special attention, and that all these forms of prejudice compound and intersect each other. We’re not going to get rid of ageism without addressing sexism, without addressing racism.
But there are several reasons why I’m optimistic. I think the work that is being done around these other forms of prejudice that we have been at for a longer time has sort of plowed the ground. So, if we are aware that, gee, it’s not okay to be discriminated against on the basis of who you sleep with, or body image, we’ve come a long way around body image, body acceptance. Gee, it’s clearly not, I will say to people, what do you think of as criteria for diversity? For example, they will say race, they’ll say gender, they’ll say sexual orientation. Age is sometimes missing, but when I say age, no one says that’s a dumb idea because we have a bigger collective understanding that these forms of discrimination rob us individually and collectively. They impoverish us as a society, they cripple our prospects, a thousand things.
So, that is one reason that I am optimistic. Ageism is the last -ism, if you will, along with ableism, which is prejudice against people with cognitive or physical disabilities. And those two are linked in some ways, although also separate to be hitched to the intersectional sled, if you will, but I think the ground is much more ready for it than, for example, it was 60 years ago when women started to, for example, move into the corporate space, and the idea that a woman could run a Fortune 400 corporation, as well as a man, was a new idea. It’s not a new idea now, it’s not a big ask. So, I’m very optimistic about the way the culture as a whole is changing, and I think we can start from, what’s the metaphor? We’re not starting from zero as anti-ageist. We’re hitching onto the momentum of anti-racist work, of anti-sexist work, of anti-homophobia progress, as you mentioned.
And in case you think I’m delusional, I want to mention a website called the Old School Clearinghouse, which is a collection, it’s OldSchool.info and it is a collection of hundreds of– everything is free, except the books, carefully curated resources to educate people about what ageism is. What does it look like? How does it operate? Videos, tools, toolkits, consciousness-raising guides, conversation starters, language guides. And I started it with two other people, just jeez three and a half years ago now, at which time we didn’t have a campaign section. And that is now filled with, I think, almost 50 anti-ageism campaigns from around the world, which is demonstrable evidence that a global movement to end ageism is underway.
Casey Weade: Well, it’s natural to fear what’s different. As humans, we fear our differences, and that comes out in the way of all of these -isms. Do you envision a future where we have an elimination of -isms? It sounds like a utopia to me. Do you think that that’s someplace we can actually get to?
Ashton Applewhite: Well, we fear what’s different. What’s weird about ageism is, of course, that if we are lucky, we will all get old. So, ageism is a prejudice against our own future older selves. But to say that, I don’t want to make ageism as more important, more special, more better, more urgent than any other prejudice because they all feed each other and because we are not going to undo any one of them without seeing the way. Because obviously, if you are an older black woman, an older queer black woman, you are up against not just ageism but racism and sexism and homophobia. So, it’s important to address the way each of those things intersects in each individual life and not assume its homogenous perspective, let alone the perspective of a privileged white person like me.
So, it would be a utopia to get rid of it all, and you can’t untangle anyone from any other. I think that it’s really important, especially if you’re in the social change business, haha, that was a haha about the business, to have a vision of change. I mean, think about the vision that the civil rights leaders did in the 1960s, or after slavery that was betrayed by reconstruction. And that is imperiled, in my opinion, now by the retreat of voting rights of every American to vote. And yet, the progressives have always been under attack, and we always find a way to go forward. So, I am dead clear that things are trending in the direction we want, and it’s really important to have a vision of this better world and work towards it.
Casey Weade: Whenever I have an ageist guest on the show or present it to me, I think to myself, how can I make this relevant to our audience?
Ashton Applewhite: Thank you.
Casey Weade: And specifically, where do you see the intersection of relevance between retirement and ageism?
Ashton Applewhite: Yeah, that’s a great question. I remember sitting at my house. And a young guest said, I forgot how old I was, at 60 something, and he said, “Oh, are you retired?” And that is a perfect example of how we hear 60, at least in the U.S., and we attach to must be retired. And by the way, a really good all-purpose response to an ageist comment is, what do you mean by that? Instead, in a neutral way, because you don’t want to do gotcha and you don’t want to put someone on the defensive, but you want to ask them, make them reconsider the assumption, the age-based assumption that they made, right?
So, the whole notion of retirement is up for grabs. That is not news to you. You could talk about that a lot more expertly and at greater length than I could. But the horrible underlying force here is an ageist society that assumes that older people in the workforce are less committed, not interested in learning new things, only going to hang around on the job for a few years. I never want to pit older workers against younger people. Younger workers, every age group, every individual has their strengths and their weaknesses, but none of those stereotypes are true. And as long as we live in an ageist world, they are going to keep popping up, which is why we need to try and raise consciousness between our ears, first of all, think about our own attitudes towards age and aging, and do exactly what you were doing, Casey, which is so terrific, is when a guest makes an ageist assumption, call it up. How come the classic one, old people can’t learn technology?
If I had to become a nuclear physicist to feed my children, God help me, I would learn it. We learn what we need to do. I’m not particularly technically adept, but I need social media to increase my footprint, so I’ve become reasonably adept at social media. We learn what we need to learn. So, I think that I know this is a very wooly answer, and it is the business haha that I’m in is to challenge the underlying culture to zoom out. If everyone around the table is the same age, ask how come, unless there’s a really good reason for it. There is more and more research all the time that shows that mixed-age teams, especially in creative endeavors, make better decisions that if you can make it a workplace where every worker feels respected and listened to, then teams work better, and people have more loyalty. Older people, we’re totally eager to learn new things, or we may not be, but we were probably that way when we were 18, as well as when we were 58. Or we don’t like the job and the nature of the work, it doesn’t have to do with our age.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, I think that’s one of the key takeaways I hope that our listeners get when we have these ageism guests, it’s kind of how it’s affecting even our financial decisions. Well, they said that I’m supposed to retire or I’m retirement age. No, I guess I should go ahead and retire. That is letting ageism affect our financial decision, just our life decisions as a whole, which I think is an important takeaway. But you also have done tremendous research into the science of ageism and how that impacts our brains and our bodies, not just our financial decisions, for that matter. Can you go a little bit deeper, maybe share some of that research into the impact of ageism on our brains and our bodies?
Ashton Applewhite: I’m glad you mentioned that because I think if I had 30 seconds in front of Congress or whatever, what I would argue for is an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative because study after study shows that attitudes towards aging affect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level. And it relates very much to what you said, oh, I’m a certain age; therefore, it must be time to go play golf all the time. And if you want to play golf and you can afford to play golf, no judgment, again, but an awful lot of Americans, very few Americans have enough saved for retirement. And if you are a woman, you have much less saved because of the gender wage gap. And if you are a person of color and a woman, again, you are triply disadvantage. So, we need to address all these prejudices and how they play out in the workforce and our private lives and everywhere else.
So, if you attach any fixed meaning to your age, interrogate that because age is never, never, never the reason. An example would be, oh, my back hurts, or my foot hurts. Well, does it hurt because of your age? Does your other foot hurt? We tend to associate all kinds of physical complaints with age when probably, your back hurts because you cook dinner for 10 people or you did some bending over, maybe you helped your friend move. Break that assumption. It could be age-related, but it’s usually not. So, the effort is to query the automatic assumption, oh, I’m old, everything’s going to go to hell.
On my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog, I told the story of a young man who had– there’s a column in the New York Times Sunday magazine called Diagnosis, where that someone has some really mysterious set of conditions, and they try and figure out what it is. And this guy ended up with a blood condition, and he was very, very sick, and he didn’t check it out because he said, and this was a direct quote, well, you know what it is? I’m 38, I think he was. And they say, “When you’re older, this is what happens.” And he almost died because he assumed, that because he was older, his body wasn’t working.
My favorite study in this arena, and most of the really good work here has been done by a woman named Becca Levy at Yale shows that people who don’t immediately associate age as a period of decline with fact rather than fear-based attitudes towards aging are less likely to get Alzheimer’s, even if they have the gene that predisposes them to the disease. And they walk faster, they heal quicker, they do better on memory tests. So, really, if you want to live not just long but healthily, it’s free, you don’t have to go to a doctor, all you have to do is read my book or look at my blog, my book isn’t free, but it’s cheap, is check your own age bias because if you can strip away the stuff that is irrational, again, it’s not that there are not real, legitimate concerns, your body, some part of your body is going to fall apart, that’s inevitable, but cognitive decline is not inevitable. And the fears that everything’s going to go to hell themselves make us infinitely more vulnerable to exactly what we fear.
Casey Weade: It’s easy to educate ourselves, I think that’s one thing, but then educating others...
Ashton Applewhite: It’s hard to know, it’s hard to learn.
Casey Weade: It’s more challenging, it’s much more challenging to teach others, especially children as well. So, as a parent that’s raising an interracial family, an intersexual family, also an inter-aging family, it’s easy for us to address the racial side of things, the sexism side of things. But how do we, as parents and grandparents, really do a good job of addressing ageism with our children and grandchildren?
Ashton Applewhite: I feel like pretty much everything you’ve learned about how to talk about gender diversity and racial diversity also applies to age diversity, right? It’s simply about not forming an assumption about someone on the basis of what they look like or a number attached to them, or the pigment of their skin, or the size of their body. It’s about interrogating the assumptions that we attach to those things. You were already doing something really important, which is to ensure that your kids have contact with older people. A lot of the people who go into gerontology, into this field, almost all of them were raised with or near grandparents or lived in mixed-age communities.
You talk about a utopia. Yeah, the utopia I want is where– because in the U.S. in particular, it’s in a highly segregated society where communities would be mixed age, older people wouldn’t be shunted off into retirement communities, and kids and older people would mingle the way they do in village life, the way we all did until the industrial revolution, where you see some kids are annoying, some kids are great, some old people are fabulous, some of them are annoying as hell, right? But everyone has a place in the community, and what makes us interested in being with people doesn’t have to do, again, with how old they are or what color skin they have or who they sleep with, but who they are, what they’re interested in, what you have in common.
Casey Weade: I think it’s just being conscious of these things that we don’t even think about how they’re actually impacting our children and ourselves, the words that come out of our mouths.
Ashton Applewhite: Do exactly with your family what you’re doing on your show, which is so great. Raise age, ask a question about it, add it to the questions that you are already asking about sexual identity or racial identity.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, what the grandparents do, oh, I can’t do that, I’m too old or, oh, I forgot something because of my age. It’s just these words that come out of our mouths, ultimately, affect our children.
Ashton Applewhite: Right. You might be too out of shape, you might be too smart for that, you might be too lazy for that, but you’re never too old. That’s a perfect example of age is not the reason.
Casey Weade: Well, you have a wonderful blog that directly answers these questions, and it is Yo, Is This Ageist? And we have some great questions that came in, and it said, you know what? Ashton is really used to addressing questions like this. Why don’t we pull some of these questions into the conversation and have you address them here live? And that is the first question we have from Michael. So, Michael submitted a question and he gave some good context here. Michael, good to hear from you, buddy. Michael said, “The World Health Organization reports that in 2017, a review found that one in six people over the age of 60 experienced some form of elder abuse, which can include physical, sexual, or financial abuse.” The question is, “What can we, people 60 to 80 years of age, do to avoid elder abuse and promote more positive interactions with younger adults other than our family members?” So, I think the focus is initially around elder abuse and then just promoting more positive interactions across diverse sections of the population based on age.
Ashton Applewhite: Well, that’s about 16 questions. What’s awful about elder abuse is that people target older people. Some older people do have cognitive impairments that make them more liable to be exploited, but almost all elder abuse takes place on the part of a family member. So, that’s really a question about family dynamics and a function of isolation. Another problem with ageism is what feeds ageism is age segregation if we live in a community of all ages where you have all sorts of people involved with you and looking after you. So, it’s really, I would say, one of the best, I mean, this is a big wooly answer, but one of the most important components, the most important component of a healthy old age, of good old age, is a strong social network, interestingly, it’s not how healthy you are, it’s not how wealthy you are.
And part of that is to create consciously a community, make friends of all ages, connect to younger people, think of something you like to do and find the mixed age group to do it with. If you are surrounded by people who are keeping an eye on you and you’re keeping an eye on them too, it’s almost all elder care is provided by other older people who look on at each other and care about each other. So, consciously create and support a community where you are not isolated and where if you think something’s going on with your bank account or someone is experiencing abuse, if you suspect abuse, then there are all sorts of elder abuse hotlines and you should look at whatever, I’m not an expert at what remedy you take, but there are many, many. There are all kinds of state and local agencies that will offer you the skilled assistance that the situation requires. I just answered the elder abuse part of the question. Do you want to feed me more of the question?
Casey Weade: Well, I think in answering the second part of this question, it actually sparked a thought for me. I have some feelings around this and I’m curious what yours are. And that is, there’s a lot of retirees moving into these retirement communities, obviously, some of the biggest in Florida, and they’re just popping up all over the country, continuing care retirement communities. I had a client recently moved into one of these continuing care retirement communities in his late 50s. And my thought is that’s not good. I feel now you’ve isolated yourself around other people that are your age. I don’t think we ever want to isolate ourself around anyone that’s just our age, no matter what age group we find ourselves in, especially as we age, though, there’s been a lot of research around surrounding yourself with younger individuals and impact on longevity. What are your feelings and thoughts around these retirement communities and individuals that want to move into these communities for good reason, right? They want to be around people that are their own age.
Ashton Applewhite: They do provide community. I just looked at a video this weekend of interviewing people who moved into the villages in Florida, which might have been what you were referring, which is the fastest-growing senior living community, I think...
Casey Weade: Probably in the world.
Ashton Applewhite: Currently in the U.S. And again, no judgment, no shoots. People there love it. They’re having a ton of fun. It’s not how I want to grow old. But I’m lucky, I have work that I like and I have a living situation that’s a little bit communal. Who knows whether it will last until I kick the bucket, but I don’t have to live in a house, a big house that I can’t afford, and so on. So, people are hostage to different circumstances. I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, everyone at the villages in this video is white, for starters. And I wouldn’t say everyone is super affluent. Some of these places are affordable, and warm weather is nice.
So, there are really legitimate reasons why people do move to them and there are a ton of social activities, so that speaks to a really important component of aging well. I don’t want to live in a place where everyone looks like me, age-wise or race-wise or gender-wise. And I mean, one of the big things I’m wrestling with now with this emerging movement against ageism is that most of the people at its forefront are white and are older. And it’s not going to be a movement that is relevant to people of all economic classes and people of other races unless they have voice and ownership of it. So, it’s not easy, it’s easier.
You mentioned early on, we’re afraid of people who are different from us. It’s much easier to just hang out with people who are like us. I don’t think that life is as interesting or as challenging in a way that I myself want to be challenged, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to disrupt the systems of power and prejudice that ensure that loads of other people with less privilege who are not white, who might be disabled do not have a place in that community. There wasn’t a cane in sight. There wasn’t a walker in sight. I want to live in a place where if I break my hip and need to use a walker, no one’s going to like eww when I come in the room.
For example, a lot of these places have this vision of sort of early old age as a place where the clock stops and where we are doing well to the extent to which we can look and move like younger versions of ourselves, which believe me, I understand the appeal, but we’re back to dyeing our hair. That is impossible. It’s illusory, it’s expensive, and therefore, it discriminates against people with less money and less luck. And I want to live somewhere more it makes you happy and complicated.
Casey Weade: Well, I see your point. Everyone’s different, and to each their own. You should never shoot on somebody. And we’re not going to do that here today.
Ashton Applewhite: People are having a great time at the villages. They love it.
Casey Weade: It’s an important thing for us to bring up, I think. Let’s wrap up our conversation with a couple of questions, specifically received around the job market. And the first question here is from Scott. Scott asks, “With the job market being so tight these days, do you see a growing acceptance towards recruiting older adults into the job market or a company still reluctant to pursue older job candidates?”
Ashton Applewhite: Both. Or you hear a dull thud of neat banging my head against my computer at the idiocy of a tight labor market where millions of jobs are going unfilled, and all these older workers desperate for work. And I don’t use the word desperate lightly. It’s really, it’s the human cost and economic cost is devastating. And yes, Scott, I do see things changing. I mean, I’m just one person, but I have all these alerts set to ageism. I track a lot of the stuff on Twitter and social media, which is an indicator. And there is much, much more in mainstream business publications, in HR blogs about the need to hire older workers, about the need to educate. A lot of the gatekeepers are people in HR. Big study, I forget who did it, in which HR people acknowledge that the older people they hire are fantastic workers, and yet, they’re reluctant to hire older people.
Again, nothing about prejudice is rational, but the need for the labor shortage is absolutely compelling, more acknowledgment that we need to hire workers of all ages. And also, again, the mixed-age teams work better. Just like if we have a diversity of life experiences and points of view in any team, you’re going to be able to meet the needs of your client base, your consumer base more effectively.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the interview process itself. We had a question from Jim asking, aside from during a job interview, saying where the question is not supposedly allowed. So, well, Jim is acknowledging that that question is not allowed during a job interview, but it still happens, I’m sure. But he did ask, “How do you respond to the question, how old are you, in a work setting?” And I think we should also address, how do we respond to that in a job interview if that question is asked of us? We want this job, but we know that you’re not supposed to ask it. How would you respond?
Ashton Applewhite: Well, that question is illegal. So, if you want to carry in a tape recorder or make a note of it, the HR person has just opened themselves up to an age discrimination suit. But we all know that even if the question isn’t asked, they’re asked when you went to college, or do you know a certain software that was launched in 1956 or whatever? There are all sorts of, and of course, all this coded language around active and energetic as though someone in their 60s couldn’t be active and energetic.
I mean, again, it’s complicated, of course. I feel like, ideally, the interviewee might say, I want to point out that my experience is a– or you can’t say, I know you’re worried that I’m not as young as you thought I was. People say, the faces of the interviewer when they walk in the door and they’re not young, they’re like, and that is real, I don’t think people are making this up. But I think it’s a good idea, if you can, to bring it up and address the elephant in the room, not saying I’m so ancient, but by the way, the fact that I have sold shoes in all these different markets or all these different countries, and obviously, the shoe metaphor, think of what your expertise says is a strength because I know X, Y, and Z, that it goes without saying I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been developing these skills for a long period of time.
So, address your experience in specific ways. If they ask how old you are, that is not legal, and how you handle it, I mean, and say, well, now, look, I won’t sue you if you give me the job, just kidding. But turn your experience to the advantage, it legitimately is, and I think, bring that up directly.
Casey Weade: Yeah. I think that’s incredibly valuable as we’re going through these interviews just to really emphasize how valuable you really are due to the level of experience that you have.
Ashton Applewhite: Duh.
Casey Weade: I want to go to the last couple of just general questions that I have, and one, you might find a little unusual, but I think people are unusual. We’re all very unique, as you said. And I always am very curious, I love picking up strange practices and daily practices and implementing them into my own routine. What is your strangest or most unusual daily practice or ritual?
Ashton Applewhite: I don’t have it. My daily ritual of feeling sort of deficient that I don’t have a daily ritual, meaning to develop a meditation practice, I should probably have a beauty care ritual. I just kind of take each day as it comes. I mean, I’m a very thinky person. And if you had told me 15 years ago that I would be fascinated by aging, I would have said eww, why do I want to think about something icky and depressing all day long?
And aging is not something annoying that old people do. It is how we move through life. And for a generalist like me, there is no field of thought, no economics, biology, medicine, sociology, politics. It’s all relevant. Not to mention the fact that as human beings around the planet, we are living longer than ever before in your and my lifetime. Four and five living generations is becoming commonplace. So, I know this doesn’t answer the routine, but I can guarantee that almost every day, just thinking about this, which is what I do all day long, I encounter some idea or some new something that makes me smack my head and that keeps me going. It’s hard. There are loads of days where I think, ah, what do I do with this? How do I make sense of this? Is it important or not? But that’s kind of what I like doing.
Casey Weade: Well, it’s strange to think as deeply as you do, and actually, look for those things that you can go deep with. So, that’s great to hear. I would like to talk about retirement as well, as we wrap up the conversation. Some people say retirement is dead. Well, it’s not. It’s changing, it’s evolving, but there are still thousands of people retiring every day in the traditional sense.
Ashton Applewhite: And thousands of people will be forced to retire because they can’t get work.
Casey Weade: Right. And some of that due to ageism. What would you say retire with purpose means to you?
Ashton Applewhite: To me, I mean, I am very lucky again because I’m self-employed and I like what I do. I don’t have a boss to report to, so I can control in theory how much I work. We know that purpose makes us happy. We know that older people, and I think younger people too, want to continue to give back or feel that their life has some meaning outside their immediate daily purview. So, I would say retiring with purpose means to maintain some connection to something that gives you that sense of purpose.
It could be continuing to lend your expertise in whatever field, whatever you got good at in your working life and keeping your hand and perhaps mentoring or teaching a course in it or just reading about it and telling your friends about it. It could mean letting all of that go and helping being active in your community. It could mean sitting in a chair and reading Shakespeare. Their purpose can be really large. You can want to go cure cancer or God help me and ageism. Or you could just want to have the most beautiful roses, no judgment, but to maintain some connection to something outside yourself that makes you happy in whatever way and whatever scale makes the world a nicer place for you and probably some other people to inhabit.
Casey Weade: Well, I think that’s freeing to get rid of purpose with a capital P and say, hey, this is something that could be done, what makes you happy, right? Now, that’s great. So, we partnered up with Ashton to offer her book away free to our listeners. She sent over a big box of her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. So, if this topic is of interest to you, aging healthily, ageism, then all you have to do is this in order to get a free copy of the book, just write an honest rating and review of the podcast and subscribe on iTunes, and then shoot us an email with your iTunes username at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will send you the book for absolutely free until they are all gone. Ashton, thank you so much for joining us here on the show. It’s been a blast, and I just love your message. You’re doing great things in this world. Thanks for raising the flag.
Ashton Applewhite: Thank you and thank you for bringing up ageism on the show. That’s if each of us does that when it pops into our conversation, every conversation like that helps change the culture.
Casey Weade: Thanks, Ashton.