Don’t tell Ashton Applewhite that she looks good for her age. Or that she’s sharp for her age, or witty for her age, or active for her age. Not because she’s not any of those things — she is, in spades — but because if you do, you’re completely missing the point.
Applewhite started her career in publishing — as she jokingly puts it on her website bio, “because I loved to read and didn’t have any better ideas” — gaining early recognition for her Truly Tasteless Jokes series and later, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well. But for going on a decade now, Applewhite has been blogging, speaking, and giving interviews about the experience of getting older and the subsequent ageism that she, and many others like her, have encountered. The response has been overwhelming: her two hit blogs This Chair Rocks and Yo, Is This Ageist? have been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, inspired a book (This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism), and, most recently, landed her an invitation to speak at the Ted Talk mainstage held in Vancouver, BC.
Public dialogue about ageism is still in its relative infancy, but through her work, Applewhite is hoping to change that — and lift a whole generation of workers up in the process. Glassdoor’s Emily Moore recently got a chance to talk with Applewhite about what exactly needs to happen in order for that to occur, how she got into her work, and why ageism is the last acceptable form of discrimination.
Glassdoor: It’s clear that you’re passionate about your work. How did you get into it?
Ashton Applewhite: My epiphany was personal, not political (although of course, the personal is political). I started writing about this because I was afraid of getting old, but I didn’t know it at the time. It started out as a project about older people who work, inspired by my in-laws who were booksellers working into their 80s. My mother-in-law said, “Why don’t you write about something people ask us all the time: ‘When are you going to retire?’” So I started interviewing people over 80 who work. It didn’t surprise me that they were so numerous and varied and interesting, but what did surprise me was in about 20 minutes’ research, everything I thought I knew about aging was way more negative and way less nuanced than the reality. Aging is how each of us moves through life, how can it not be incredibly varied? We age at different rates physically, mentally, and socially. And the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. The older a person, the less their chronological age tells you about what they’re capable of, what they’re interested in, anything about them. They’ve had more time for life to change and shape them, which makes stereotyping on the basis of age absurd.
Glassdoor: Why do you think your work is resonating so much now, especially when ageism hasn’t historically been a part of the public lexicon?
Ashton Applewhite: My total guess is that the Baby Boom, post-war generation of which I am a dead center member — I’m about to turn 65 — I think it’s finally dawning on people in my generation that they’re not actually going to be able to avoid getting old. And I’m hoping that some of our activists roots from the 60s kick in. The great thing about the Baby Boom is that we do look and act differently than our grandparents did at the same age we are now, and arguably even somewhat different from our parents. But that doesn’t make 60 the new 40, that makes 60 a different 60.
The cool side of that is we are setting new examples of how to move into late life, but the downside is that there is also potentially a lot of denial going on — that if I eat enough kale and do enough sit-ups, [getting older] won’t happen to me. And the two inevitable bad things about aging are that some aspect of physical function is going to decline, and people you’ve known your whole life are going to die. Nothing else is inevitable — cognitive decline is not inevitable. But it’s dawning on the Baby Boomers now that old age, even [if it’s] a different version than what came before us, is actually going to happen, and maybe it makes sense to think about it and prepare for it. And I’m hoping there are people who are going “Whoah, whoah, whoah,” especially in the workforce. I’m being shunted aside and this is not only incompatible with the way I see myself, it’s personally devastating and it’s economically crippling. This is not okay, this is not fair, what do we do?
Glassdoor: It sounds like we’re on the cusp of witnessing a big awakening in older workers.
Ashton Applewhite: Ageism in the workplace is often the first form of discrimination that white men encounter and I’m waiting for… the most radical or progressive element of that cohort to wake up and say, “Oh, this is what women have been complaining about all these years — it’s real!” It’s a big ask. I’m asking people to look at their own bias, and that is never comfortable. But if you say “Oh, I get it, not a level playing field,” hopefully some of those people will see this as the profound social justice issue that it is. If we really think that access to equal opportunity shouldn’t depend on what you look like, then it’s pretty obvious that gray hair and wrinkles count.
Usually work is the place where we think of diversity being important and it’s certainly been accepted by the conservative business community as well, which is fantastic. We know, research shows that diverse companies aren’t just better places to work — they work better.
I’m always asking people, “What do you think of as criteria for diversity?” and people say race and sex and gender and disability, and when I say, “What about age?” they all smack their foreheads and go, “Obviously! How could I have not thought of that?” And it is obvious. Aside from the equity and the social justice side, it’s just practical: How are older people supposed to support themselves if they’re forced out of the job market?
Glassdoor: One thing I’ve noticed in your work is that you don’t just talk about ageism against older people, but younger as well — and with that, all of the ways age intersects with gender, race, class, etc.
Ashton Applewhite: Right. Ageism isn’t either/or, it’s both/and. [But] prejudice pits us against each other to maintain the status quo, whether it’s stay-at-home moms against moms who work outside the home, who are then all up in it about who’s the better mom. The point is, we’re all women, and we need to mobilize and [tackle] the wage gap!
In the workforce, it’s not whether older workers are better or worse than younger workers. It’s that we all need to work together to make an equitable workforce that’s accessible, because the things that make a workplace comfortable for older workers also benefit everyone else, [like] people with disabilities or someone trying to manage a family or a student trying to go to school part-time — older workers above all want flex time. Any time you see it framed as old versus young, it’s a false equation.
Glassdoor: Ageism has been called the “last acceptable form of discrimination” — would you say this is true?
Ashton Applewhite: I think that’s the reason I don’t have more company yet as an anti-ageism activist, but I can see that I’m getting more company. Broadly speaking, I do think it’s the last socially acceptable prejudice. Why it went unexamined for so long, I don’t know. I do think that there’s no question that it is acceptable. My most recent blog post is a letter to the editor that I hope they’ll print [in response] to this disgusting piece in the Sunday New York Times saying basically, old people should get off social media… If you swapped out women for Boomers, or Syrians for Boomers, or Latinos for Boomers, the Times wouldn’t have even thought of printing it — it would be so hugely offensive. My post about it has gotten more shares than anything I’ve ever put on Facebook, which I think is an example of people saying this is B.S. and we’re not going to stand for it anymore. You need people to become aware of it, and that awareness starts inside each of us.
Glassdoor: We’re starting to acknowledge the ageism that happens in the workplace more and more, but it seems like there hasn’t been much real momentum or change yet. Why do you think that is?
Ashton Applewhite: The burden of proof for age discrimination is higher than it is for racism or sexism. A congressman and the AARP filed a brief calling for it to change, which would be awesome. Another reason that there hasn’t been much legal headway is people are reluctant to bring a case, not because they think they’ll lose, but because it identifies them as older and that is internalized ageism. Ageism takes root in denial when we pretend that we are not getting older and we refuse to identify as an older person. They refuse to or they don’t see themselves as older, and feel hanging around with older people will tarnish them by association.
Glassdoor: What do we need to do to change that?
Ashton Applewhite: Nothing changes until we look at our own attitude towards our own aging and acknowledge that we’re all aging. It’s why I like the words “olders” and “youngers,” because no one wants to be old. In a non-ageist society it wouldn’t matter, but most of us in the last trimester, we’ll acknowledge that we’re older even if we don’t want to see ourselves with the absoluteness of being old. And that way, it emphasizes that age is a spectrum. We’re terrified of this old/young binary and waking up on the wrong side of it, but if there’s one thing that isn’t a binary, it’s age. The old/young binary does us so much damage and it’s so absurdly unofficial — it’s a way to pit us against each other. No one wants to be on the old team so we’re all competing — especially women — to stay young, which is a foolish, punishing, impossible goal.
So task number one: acknowledge that you’re aging. Task number two: look at your attitude about it, how you use ‘old’ and ‘young’ — when people say I don’t feel old, for example, what they mean is I don’t feel tired or I don’t feel ugly. Task number three: look at where those attitudes come from and what purpose they serve. And they don’t serve yours, that’s for sure.
Glassdoor: It seems like a lot of the advice for fighting ageism that I’ve encountered falls into one of two camps: gaming the system (such as leaving out dates on your resume) and actually advocating for larger, systemic change. Do you tend to recommend one form or another, or do you think you need to do a bit of both?
Ashton Applewhite: The honest answer is that we each need to negotiate in our own way and at our own rate. I had a woman come up to me after a talk and she said, “You don’t get it. I have children to support. And if my boss finds out how old I am, they’ll fire me.” Truthfully I get it, and there is no judgment. Some women dye their hair to cover the gray and don’t like doing it — these are really successful strategies, and I completely get why so many people engage in them. In the workforce, though, if we’re all pretending to be younger than we are, then the issues that affect older workers are not visible.
Pretending to be younger than we are is bad for us. It’s involved in denial and shame about something that not only should not be shameful, ideally it should be a source of pride and pleasure. Look how beautiful I am, look how fully in possession of myself I am, and everything I know and bring into this job and this life. It’s not better than being young, but it shouldn’t be a source of shame. When we try to pass for younger, it’s like a person of color trying to pass for white, or a queer person trying to pass for straight. It’s not good for us because it’s asking to deny something important about ourselves that shouldn’t be a source of shame, and even more importantly, it gives a pass to the discrimination that makes these behaviors necessary. As long as we are caving, as long as we are not calling it out, we don’t change the system. Nothing is profoundly going to change for older people in any domain until we change the culture. And I know that’s a big ask, but look at the position of women or the position of gay people 20 years ago — culture is fluid. We need to work together to call out this prejudice when we see it and make it clear that it’s no more tolerable than any other kind of discrimination on the basis of how we look or how we live.
Glassdoor: What do you think is the most effective way to really communicate and evangelize this message of accepting age and standing up to ageism?
Ashton Applewhite: I’m trying to develop tools and work with people who develop tools to raise consciousness. I wrote a book. I do a ton of public speaking. I just did a Ted Talk, and I think it’s going to really rock it out there. I have a consciousness-raising booklet on my site called “Who me, ageist?” The consciousness raising is what catalyzed the women’s movement — women got together and realized that what they thought were personal problems were actually widely shared political problems. With aging, we think, “If I have wrinkles or if I can’t get a job or if I have some health problem, it’s my fault. I’m not doing this right,” instead of looking at the internalized ageism that makes us feel we are lesser because we are older, and maybe don’t deserve help. That’s what we need to push back against. And we need to see that those cultural and economic forces are making us feel lesser, and they are widely-shared problems that require a collective, political solution in a mass movement.
Not everyone will become an activist like me and rant like I am. For them, I just urge to look at your own attitudes, look at the consciousness-raising booklet, read the book, think about your own attitudes and own language — when you use “young” and “old”. Or if someone says something ageist to you, a really good all-purpose answer is “Why would you say that?” My best snappy answer when someone says I look great for my age is “You look great for your age, too!” Then they have to think about why what they meant as a compliment doesn’t feel like one. So that’s the next step to taking it out there: call it out.
The first step is uncomfortable, it just is. It’s a big ask. But once you make it, and you start to see the ageism in the culture and start to understand these larger forces at work, it’s incredibly liberating. You feel better — you get riled up instead of feeling helpless and demeaned.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.