Taking A Stand Against Ageism at All Ages: A Powerful Coalition

Taking A Stand Against Ageism at All Ages: A Powerful Coalition

by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

New ageism is the term I use to describe the current American view of aging-past-youth. Whatever your age, you are likely to be affected by the new ageism — in your job, in your sexual life, in your sense of identity, in your intergenerational relations.

The new ageism has gotten so out of hand that it is culminating in the current Republican war against Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The first two are the most beloved and necessary government programs in the history of the Republic. And the third, Medicaid, ought to be another.

Virtually all Americans will eventually need Medicaid if we run out of money and need to be in a nursing home. This looks likelier for many of the so-called “Boomers” — especially the long-lived female Boomers — who lost savings in ongoing Great Recession, had their pensions and unions taken away or lost their jobs and health insurance.

Some commentators say
people should choose to die

A person who is over 40 and has been laid off may well be a victim of middle ageism, which is discrimination against people over 40. People are suing their employers for midlife job discrimination in greater numbers than ever before; men in their 50s, women 10 years younger. Getting rid of midlife workers is a trend that has been worsening for 30 years, as I describe in my book, Agewise.

People under 40 are also immersed in what I call the American “culture of decline” — through the descriptions of later life in the media, if in no other way. Older people rarely appear in movies and never in ads for cool products — nothing but the young, the fit and the air-brushed. Why not airbrush older models?

Much worse: You listen to the radio and hear self-proclaimed “experts” tell about the horrors of longevity — how awful physical aging-into-old age will be personally, or how we on the cusp of retirement will break the bank by needing too much Medicare and Social Security. Some commentators even say that people should choose to die instead. (I call this the duty-to-die campaign.) Younger people overhear this, and it skews their expectations of the future and disheartens them. It alienates them from people older than they and from the selves they will one day become.

Pushing Back Terror and Denial

At the same time, some of us are told that “60 is the new 40” and that “the Boomers will change everything to their liking.” These are the twin narratives of age terror and age denial. Parts of these narratives are out-and-out silly, but too much is malevolent.

Even what is positive and true can be true only of individuals or a class of people with access to health care, and the ability to meet other basic needs, rather than of everyone over a certain age. One thing is certain: In nothing, do people differ more than in their aging. In short, it makes more sense to fear ageism, not aging.

The war against people over 50 changes everything for the worse. In my state, Massachusetts, my Democratic governor wants to raise the age of retirement for public employees. Unionized “Boomers” in government service are told they are too costly. Uninsured people from 55 to 64 die at a higher rate than any other age group of uninsured. Raising the age of Medicare eligibility would be disastrous. None of this is to my liking.

There is, however, a backlash against the cuts aimed at Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I think anger is building. And justified anger can lead to activism.

The possibility exists of a nationwide coalition forming in order to try to save all the safety nets: WIC (Women, Infants and Children), Social Security, Medicare, public health — and this coalition includes all of those concerned for the vulnerable. It would add together feminists, union people, AARP (the nonpartisan group formerly known as American Association of Retired People), OWL (Older Women’s League), so-called Boomers and Xers, who are alleged to be enemies in a contrived war, and people in cohorts not yet named bv marketeers, plus people younger than 45 and older than 65.

If that coalition became not only powerful but self-conscious, it would have to declare itself “anti-ageist” in order to show how politically important the no-longer-so-young are. This coalition is concerned with social justice and the right to life in the broadest sense.

In the U.S. such a coalition could then be accompanied, I think, by a revolution in representation, meaning that some in the media would have to look at what topics they ignore and how they treat the issues they choose to cover.

Finding Strength

For example, in Hurricane Katrina, 64 percent of the dead in New Orleans were over 65, although they were only 12 percent of the population, suggesting that older people were ignored in disaster planning. Most in the media did not notice age or ageism. Prior to a disaster, there have be decisions about “who comes first and who comes last.” No children died in Katrina, according to the first statistics available. Someone took care of them.

Old, frail and disabled people seem to be the collective target of a new eugenics rhetoric. The “duty-to-die campaign” implies that such people are likely to be a “burden,” unworthy of resources. If you are not active, engaged, productive, autonomous, close to the ideal healthy (middle-class) “youthful” person, you should somehow bow out. How? Are we expected to commit suicide? This dismissal can even be explicitly age-graded: older people on dialysis may fall into this useless category, especially if they have some cognitive impairment, but not people on dialysis under 65. If some in our society are unafraid to say such things, I fear for the rest of us. Triage involves split-second decisions, and bias is quickest on the draw. In emergencies the would-be rescuers and society at large have to put the neediest first if humanly possible.

There is an ongoing debate in age studies about whether women and men age differently, and I think they do. Women are aged by culture younger than men. I worry about how forced retirement will undermine my own cohort of working women, because they are like men in one new way: they have gotten a lot of satisfaction out of work and earning. And midlife job discrimination is wearing many people down, whether they know this is a collective problem or not.

The consequences
for American society
are disastrous

But because of the women’s movement and feminism, women have at least one big advantage — access to a more generous body of knowledge and a more progressive set of attitudes about growing past youth. Feminists in particular are the first to get the point of my book: to beware of ageism, not aging. More women seem to be liking “natural” looks and finding value in their accumulating experience. They read Ourselves Growing Older. They enjoy female company, which is going to be very important in late life.

American women are also turning against plastic surgery. The number of procedures reached a peak in 2004 (at 11,855,000), and has dropped every year since. In 2010 the total was down to 9,336, 000 — a decrease of over 20 percent. But when a New York Times’s blogger did the annual story, she didn’t try to find the trend line; instead she used only the surgical association’s latest one-year data and a lead about a rise in one particular surgery (breast enhancement). Much depends on the media.

Journalists and scholars need to be more cautious about using releases or publicity from the uglification industries (surgeons, pharmaceutical companies, fashion magazines, even youth-focused health and fitness magazines) and the dysfunction industries (those selling aids to people supposedly declining from great youth sex). They get rich by peddling anxiety about our deficits. New evidence from novels, scholarly studies, and memoirs comes out from time to time suggesting that sex can actually improve across the life course. But any good news only gets whispered around because those industries are blaring our defects all the time.

The new longevity, along with Alzheimer’s terror, coinciding with Republican deficit hysteria — this historical conjuncture is alarming . If our society can’t make anti-ageism and anti-middle ageism into an activist mission, the consequences for American society are disastrous, even lethal. I try to be optimistic that new information can change decline culture. Change will take not only resisting stereotypes but challenging the current dismal politics of midlife employment and old age.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a cultural critic and social philosopher, has published a new book, Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America (University of Chicago Press). The author of three previous books and an essayist whose work is often cited in “Best American Essays,” Gullette is a resident scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

Also see: Patient Power – The Reluctant Revolution by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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