Activist Ashton Applewhite: Ending Ageism at Work

activist Ashton Applewhite headshot

Ashton Applewhite first made waves as the first person to occupy four spots on the New York Times bestseller list and as a clue on Jeopardy. (Q: Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes? A: Blanche Knott.) Ashton’s first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, was published by HarperCollins in 1997 and called “rocket fuel for launching new lives” by Ms. Magazine.

The catalyst for Cutting Loose was puzzlement: why, Ashton wondered, was our notion of women’s lives after divorce so different from the happy and energized reality? A similar question gave rise to her subsequent focus on aging and ageism: why is our view of late life so unrelievedly grim when the lived reality is so different?

In 2007, she began blogging at This Chair Rocks; in 2012, she started the Yo, Is This Ageist? Blog; in 2016 she self-published This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism; and in 2019 it was published on the inaugural list of Celadon Books, a new Macmillan division.

Ashton has been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio, the New Yorker, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism; she has written for Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and she speaks widely, at venues that have ranged from universities and community centers to the Library of Congress and the United Nations. In 2017, Ashton received a standing ovation for her talk on the TED mainstage.  

In your TED talk “Let’s End Ageism” you declare, “Ageism is prejudice against our own future selves”. That ubiquity would suggest ageism might be easier to tackle than other “-isms”, and yet in practice it remains widely tolerated (as our CEO Paul Rupert has highlighted as well). What do you think are the deep roots of these persistent attitudes?

Ashton Applewhite: First of all, I want to stress that to say ageism makes no sense is to imply that other forms of prejudice do make sense. The fact is, all prejudice is wrong and ill-informed. All prejudice is based on stereotyping. and obviously it’s never the case that all members of a group are the same.

But it is especially ignorant when it comes to ageing, because the longer we live, the more different from one another we become, because we age at different rates socially, physically, cognitively. Think about it: every newborn is unique, but a bunch of seven-year-olds have a lot more in common, developmentally and socially, than a group of 27-year-olds, who are in turn way more homogeneous than 57-year-olds, and so on. So it’s absurd to assume that anything could be true of all older people. And the older someone is, the less their chronological age tells you about what they’re capable of or interested in.

Why is ageism so prevalent and persistent? Well, a lot of people assume that it is because we’re afraid of dying. I actually don’t buy that. I’s true, of course, that older people are reminders of mortality. But dying is a discrete biological event that happens at the end of all this living. Living is aging. Aging is living. We are aging from the minute we’re born.

I think the conflation with aging and dying is a function of living in an ageist society like the U.S. There are societies where older people are respected more and even revered. Attitudes towards aging are culturally constructed, which is to say, we make them up.

Prejudices change over time, and they serve a social and economic purpose. All prejudice operates to pit people against each other—in this case the young vs. the no-longer-young—who might otherwise join forces to challenge the status quo. Also, if aging is framed as a problem, we can be persuaded to buy stuff to fix it or stop it—whether it’s wrinkle cream or housing that segregates older people–out of sight, out of mind. If the natural transitions that accompany aging can be framed as shameful or as symptoms of disease, we can be persuaded to buy things like plastic surgery and expensive, unhelpful medical interventions. Shame and fear create markets, and companies profit from the commodification of ageing.

At its ugliest core, age discrimination means that we age out of having value as human beings. That’s not the world that I want to get old in.

‘At its ugliest core, age discrimination means that we age out of having value as human beings. That’s not the world that I want to get old in.’CLICK TO TWEET

About a decade or so ago, you started a project interviewing people over 80 who work. What are some of your findings that surprised you?

Ashton Applewhite: Well, it didn’t surprise me that the older workers that I met were really interesting and really diverse. The first yowza moment was discovering that almost everything I thought I knew about aging was way off base or flat-out wrong. For example, I’d have guessed that maybe 20 or 30 percent of older Americans end up in nursing homes. In fact it’s only 2.5 percent (and that figure has dropped from 4 percent in the last decade). I also assumed old people were depressed, when in fact, people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. It’s called the happiness curve; go ahead, Google it. (Editor’s note: see our interview with Jonathan Rauch for more on this.)

Another key point that surprised me. I’d have assumed that the most important component of in a good old age was health. Nope. My next guess would have been money, because it helps buy health. Nope. The most important factor in a good old age is having a solid social network. And work is of course an incredibly important source of that network.

‘The most important factor in a good old age is having a solid social network. And work is of course an incredibly important source of that network.’CLICK TO TWEET

Ageism isn’t just bad for individuals—in your book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, you warn, “Age discrimination costs companies, and it’s on the rise.” How so?

Ashton Applewhite: A few years ago an article in the New Republic about ageism in the tech industryquoted a Silicon Valley exec telling a plastic surgeon, “Hey, I’m forty years old and I have to get in front of a board of fresh-faced kids. I can’t look like I have a wife and two-point-five kids and a mortgage.” What does it say about our society that having kids and a mortgage disqualifies you for employment? That is grotesque. It is tactically stupid and it is ethically unacceptable. Note these are 40-year-old educated white men worrying about being “too old.” The effects are compounded by race and class: worse for women, even worse for women of color, and so on. And they’re kicking in ever younger: Chinese tech companies are laying off developers over age 30 who balk at working 12-hour days six days a work. Younger hires are more exploitable. Corporations profit from ageism just as they profit from the gender wage gap.

And yes, it costs companies. A 2018 piece in Harvard Business Review, How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance, highlights research that found “a statistically significant relationship between diversity and innovation outcomes.” The study found that “the most-diverse enterprises were also the most innovative, as measured by the freshness of their revenue mix”—and age was one of the key “dimensions of diversity.”

And yet, although the vast majority of American companies offer diversity training, very few include age as a criterion for diversity. “While age is one of the easiest demographics for companies to track, it’s rarely shared in diversity reports,” Paradigm’s Erin Thomas, told Fast Company last month. “Age gets overlooked because most companies possess fixed mindsets about the skills and roles of older vs. younger workers.”

But not one stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny. Period. You know the old saw about old people being less creative, for example? Well yes, if you’ve done the same thing for 30 years, you’re probably not approaching it creatively any more. But offer that person a a new opportunity and they’ll become creative again. There are obvious trade-offs.  For example, if an older person hurts themselves on the job, they take longer to heal, but older people hurt themselves less often. Likewise, they may go more slowly but they also make fewer mistakes.

‘Not one stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny. Period.’CLICK TO TWEET

That’s not to say that older workers are better than younger workers; it’s never zero-sum. But for reasons that are intuitively obvious, financially discernible, and ethically appropriate for a world of longer lives, the best workforce is mixed-age. It is the mix—of genders and ethnicities and abilities as well as of ages—that is so valuable. We impoverish our workplaces, ourselves, and our world when we pretend otherwise.

‘For reasons that are intuitively obvious, financially discernible, and ethically appropriate, the best workforce is mixed-age. We impoverish our workplaces, ourselves, and our world when we pretend otherwise.’ CLICK TO TWEET

The Respectful Exits Longevity Agenda identifies what we think are essential workplace changes that would undercut ageist attitudes in employment. Does this list make sense and what might you add?

Ashton Applewhite: The Longevity Agenda makes total sense, absolutely. I would add that these practices would benefit workers of all ages, as well as students and caregivers—anyone who’s looking after anyone else, whether it’s a baby, or a 90-year old, or an ill or injured partner.

No one has a job for life. No one has pensions. We are all increasingly at the mercy of global macroeconomic trends. We’re all trying to balance work and life. Whatever helps people to be less stressed about work and able to contribute their best selves, on terms over which they have some control—benefits everyone.

So I might strip age out of the Longevity Agenda altogether and propose these practices for workers at every stage. As the nature of work changes, the question is, how can employers support workers all across the lifespan? That’s the goal.

‘As the nature of work changes, the question is, how can employers support workers all across the lifespan? That’s the goal.’CLICK TO TWEET

Our tool ThePhazer gives aging workers free step-by-step guidance to request and obtain extended work and flexible and phased retirement options. What about ThePhazer stands out to you in the context of ageism and work?

Ashton Applewhite: Think about this for a moment: women stop getting promoted to managerial positions at age 34. Because they might be thinking about having a baby, and (throwing up my hands here) we all know your uterus and your brain cannot work at the same time. (Side note: I actually credit my awesome powers of concentration to learning to type with a baby on my lap!). Of course it’s not just women who face work-family hurdles: dads who want to co-parent equally also need support.

What makes parenting and caregiving hard is going it alone without support. So any tool that can help us navigate work in the context of life transitions, makes sense—whether it’s for coping with a health or family or financial problem, acquiring new skills, or phasing into the “new retirement”: any tool or group of tools that you can use across the lifespan, across our working lives, would be immensely helpful.

photo credit: Adrian Buckmaster

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