Studies show that ageism isn’t just socially, psychologically, and economically damaging, but it can also be harmful to your health. First proposed by Dr. Becca Levy, Stereotype Embodiment Theory hypothesizes that feeling “old” correlates with the toxic narratives we’re force-fed by society.
Meaning, those aches and pains, slower gait, energy dips, and belief that your mind isn’t “as sharp as it used to be,” can stem not from fact, but from a self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin to mirror how we’re told we “should” feel at that age, even if it’s fabricated for division and profit.
Welcome to our very first Bean Pod. It’ll serve as the new formula going forward where I’ll group and release three threaded episodes in a row. Even cozier than before, you can now also watch the interviews on video. Then, I’ll follow each Bean Pod with a week for rest, reflection, and open discussion inside the IN TRANSIT Hub.
Our first Bean Pod will feature three inspiring professionals disrupting norms and sharing facts that may not only extend your life but also deeply enhance its quality.
And this week, it’s my honor to have activist and author Ashton Applewhite join us to discuss ageism. Many thought leaders have labeled Ashton’s book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, a “must-read.”
As an internationally recognized expert on ageism, Ashton’s work has been featured in TED Talks, at the United Nations, and in publications including Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times.
Today, Ashton shares macro and micro ways that we can recognize, confront, and dismantle ageism. (Spoiler Alert: NO, it’s not something that impacts just women and older people.) She also provides the nutritive narratives that should replace ageism.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- Ageism as a shared transition
- Gaining awareness of daily microaggressions
- The only two unavoidable negative aspects of aging
- Why age is seldom the reason people get along
- The U-Curve of Happiness
Listen to the Full Episode
Featured on the Show:
This is the delicious stuff we talk about inside the Wisdom Fusion Project. Have you grabbed your FREE guide to experience the journey for yourself? Get decades of intergenerational wisdom at your fingertips right now.
- Sundae’s Website
- Sundae’s Facebook Business Page – Sundae Schneider-Bean LLC
- Sundae Bean – YouTube
- Wisdom Fusion Project
- This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism
- Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse
- Yo, Is This Ageist?
- Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live by Becca Levy
- TED Talk: Let’s end ageism
- This Chair Rocks – Instagram
- This Chair Rocks – Twitter
- This Chair Rocks – YouTube
Catch These Podcasts / Articles:
- We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle. Pro-Aging: Why the Best is Yet to Come with Ashton Applewhite.
We’re delighted to be in the Top 5 of the global Best 30 Expat Podcasts!
Full Episode Transcript:
Hello, It is 1:30 pm in New York, 7:30 pm in Johannesburg, and 12:30 am in Bangkok. Welcome to IN TRANSIT with Sundae Bean. I am an intercultural strategist, transformation facilitator, and solution-oriented coach, and I am on a mission to help you adapt & succeed through ANY life transition.
If you know my work you know that I say that our lives are always in transit and in so many ways but there is one way that we all have in common and that is aging. And this week’s guest said so perfectly, “We are aging from the moment we are born. It’s not something annoying that elders do.” So this is from Ashton Applewhite and she is our guest today on IN TRANSIT. Welcome, Ashton.
Ashton: My pleasure Sundae, thanks for having me.
Sundae: So I’ll say a little bit more about those who are unfamiliar with Ashton’s work. Ashton Applewhite is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and she is the co-founder of Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse. She’s an internationally recognized expert on ageism, she speaks widely at venues, that have included TED Talks, the United Nations and she’s also appeared on We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle. She has written for Harper’s, the Guardian, the New York Times, and more, and is the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist? Ashton, needless to say, is a leading spokesperson for the emerging movement to raise awareness of ageism and to dismantle it.
So Ashton, I think it’s obvious from our quick pre-chat that I’ve been really looking forward to learning from you and hearing your perspectives today.
But I want to make a little confession when we start, I have this thing, when I would listen to your work about ageism, and the ways in which it limits us, I keep thinking about a wedding dance, where I am 86 and like, Salt-N-Pepa come on, like something from the 90s, right? And my spirit will want to get out there and pull out, you know the Roger Rabbit or all the 90s moves. But I am afraid that I am going to be this person who says, “No,” because of fear that people will think I’m out of my mind or that I’m crazy or they’ll think it’s cute or make fun of me. And I realized this, that that’s because I’m afraid of ageism. So–
Ashton: It’s because you live in an ageist society, these are fears we all have.
I will say in the context of dancing, I happen to not be a good dancer, but too love it. And if you are having fun to the music, the people see that and I think they will respond to it, especially at a wedding. But the fears that you talked about are very real and very universally shared. And there should be absolutely no shame. What you’ve done is the most important task already, which is twofold to look at your own attitudes and think about how you feel about age and aging because we have to do that interior work, as I’m sure you know, before we can take any kind of change out into the world.
But once we do that looking in ourselves immediately, we start to see it in the culture around us. It’s liberating. You understand that this is because of ageism, not because you are a bad dancer or a bad person or your friends are all jerks, right? These are enormous social and economic forces, sadly, that want us to be divided and afraid and out of sight for a bunch of reasons that differ, for each of us. Primarily because fear is commodified. It divides us and persuades us to buy things we don’t need. And I know behaviors that are not good for us. But I will say, for adults, there is no such thing as “age appropriate,” and I hope you play plenty of Salt-N-Pepa at that party.
Sundae: It’s like, “don’t spoil my joy.” The last thing you want to do, if I’m able to move, I don’t want my joy to be spoiled. So this is so big.
Ashton: You are joyful, people will see that. And they’re always going to be a few people, you know, snickering. But maybe they’re not the majority. Most people won’t care. And some people I mean I think about this because I do go to clubs where my partner and I are the oldest people by far and I hate being conspicuous because of my age, but it’s too fun not to stay home. And I know that for the few people who were going, “What are those old people doing there?” I know there are many more people going, “Hey, look at those older people. Maybe I can do that when I’m their age.” And most people just don’t care, right?
Sundae: That’s true.
Ashton: But it does take courage. I want to acknowledge that too.
Sundae: Yes, absolutely and bucking convention. So this is just a playful way to start talking about it but this is actually really serious.
You talk about how ageism casts a shadow over our entire lives. Can you say more about the scope of that?
Ashton: Sure, yeah, I have fresh fodder in that. I got a text this morning from, let’s see, she’s my partner’s ex-wife’s daughter. But we have a family Zoom, which has been one of the bonuses of the pandemic. One of the few. And she’s a terrific, very serious kid. She wants to be an educator. She’s a High School Junior. And she said, “Is what I experience, which is people telling me I’m cute or that I’m too young to know about a thing or being genuinely condescending and dismissive when I am talking about something that I know about, is that ageism?” And my answer is, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” it is. Ageism is any judgment on the basis of age. Anytime we make an assessment of what we think someone is capable of because of how old we think they are. Sometimes it’s called reverse ageism when it’s directed against young people, but it’s just ageism. We don’t need that extra label. And that is why it casts a shadow across our entire lives. Although we live in a youth-obsessed culture in the west we are youth is commodified. So I will say that older people bear the brunt of it.
Sundae: Yep. Absolutely. And that was one of the findings. I should briefly about my Wisdom Fusion Project, one of the findings that I discovered was how we do think wisdom is held by the eldest among us. And you have said in another one of your podcasts that you’ve made a lot of old people that haven’t learned anything.
Ashton: I mean, a stereotype could be benevolent and still be a stereotype.
Sundae: Yep. Absolutely.
Ashton: It’s lumps people together in a group and I think that we definitely acquire experience with age. And if we learn from that experience as most of us do, it can turn into wisdom. I think if we could agree on what wisdom looks like and you drew a Venn diagram of all the people who are wise, there would be more older people in it than younger people because we’ve had, you’ve got more experiences under our belt. But to say that all older people are wise is no better than saying all older people are incompetent or more conservative because it’s a generalization, it’s a stereotype. Especially in view of the fact that the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. You’re nerdy so, I’ll put it the nerdy way. The defining characteristic of old age is heterogeneity. So all stereotypes are wrong and misguided, but especially to lump all people over any age into a little bucket.
Sundae: Yeah. And what I find fascinating is all of this media about Gen X and Gen Z and there’s like so much confidence in these articles about what this generation is doing it assumes, there’s heterogeneity homogeneity within the generation set, which is not true. And then, we think we know something about the older group, which is the farthest away, I find that fascinating.
Ashton: I’m on a complete terror to get people to try, literally to use the word generation less. I am a different generation from my child and from my parent that is a real meaning of generation, but there is no scientific consensus on what the term means. And there is no evidence whatsoever. How could anything be true of everyone in the world born in roughly the same time? But marketers love these labels. Politicians love these labels. Demographers love these labels. And they are convenient. They make us feel like we belong to something. But we overuse them and they are really problematic. Because the minute you hear, “Gen blank,” we all are all biased. We make it all sorts of associations with that given name of a group of people, born around the same time, and that closes our minds.
It fixes stereotypes in place, and it makes it much easier to pit generations against each other in the workplace. It’s so common. You know, those classic– one of this now out of date, it’s now going to be Gen Z but those Millennials, they’re so disloyal, they change jobs all the time. Guess what? I was born in 1952, when I was in my 20s and early 30s, I switched jobs all the time too. It’s a function of how old we are not when we were born. So generational labels really do a lot to divide people on the basis of age. And most importantly, they cover up the much more important role that class in particular and also gender and ethnicity play in shaping our experience. We live in such an age-segregated society, so few of us have friends and mix it up with people of all ages. That it’s really easy to think, “Oh, I like or don’t like that person because they’re my age.” Or, “We like the same things because they’re my age,” and, “That person is a jerk because they’re older.” Age is very seldom the actual reason for people to get along, or not get along.
Sundae: So why are we so fixed on it?
Ashton: Well, it’s super convenient. It’s really handy. It’s just habit. But then, one way to think about breaking it is instead of referring to the Boomers, the Millennials, the whatever, just say older people or younger people.
Sundae: Yep. Yeah.
Ashton: Because then you don’t get into this– It is problematic to label people, to lump people into age-groups anyway. The more older the group, the less accurate the label can be because of heterogeneity increasing with age, right? So if you just say, if you refer to older people in the office or in the band or and whatever, that gets you over the inaccurate. It’s much more accurate than attaching a generational label, which is never scientifically accurate. And it’s a way to do that without having the associations that we all have to a generational label click into place. And refer to an age group, say, “Age diverse.” Say, “X Age.” Lose the “Generation.” Try them for wean yourself off the habit of using generations for everything.
We do it because it’s convenient and it’s easy, and it’s catchy. But those are not good reasons.
Sundae: And we learned it, right? We consumed it when we were younger and we take it in. I think one of the reasons why your work struck me so deeply is as an interculturalist, my training is around the layers of our identity. Around class ethnicity, racial identity, nationality etc. And I think we just skimmed on the age thing, right? Okay I did my master’s degree in what 2004-2006 but I just feel like we just haven’t. Yeah, we’re not there yet
Ashton: It’s weird that we haven’t, but I take part because of all the people like you and your listeners who have become aware in recent decades of intersectionality, of the way these different aspects of our identity inform each other and shape our access to privilege, to voice divisibility. All those things. And when I say to people, you know, I ask; What are the characteristics for inclusion, diversity and inclusion? And often age is missing. When I say, “What about age?” Nobody says, “That’s a dumb idea.” They just want to get back to you. They like smack their foreheads and go, “Duh.”
So I think it is one of the many reasons I’m optimistic about what I do is that I think hitching age to the intersectional sled is a much smaller ask than it was to say women can run a Fortune 500 company as well as a man, 60 years ago. That was a bigger ask. Civil rights, is still a bigger ask because of anti-racist work because in the US of the horrible way it is embedded in our history. But we all know that it’s not right to discriminate against someone on the basis of anything about themselves that they cannot change. And we cannot change our age any more than we can change our ethnicity.
Sundae: Exactly. And that’s the one thing that we have in common is our age.
Ashton: We all age.
Sundae: Mmm. That’s so fascinating. And there’s something there about, you know, from if I get to nerd out a little bit with the intercultural perspective. When we are in polarization, and we’re exaggerating differences or focused on differences, one of the ways to pull out of that is to focus on our shared humanity, and age is an anchor for that shared humanity of something that we have.
Ashton: And I’m so happy to hear you say that because in my rainbow, unicorn, falling asleep at night dreams, I think of aging and ageism as a way – as a big tent, if you will, to bring people together to say, “We all experience this. Can we have that be a starting point for a conversation and bring in the other pieces of your identity.”
Ironically identity politics was coined by progressive Black feminists where the people who came up with the idea of intersectionality because they didn’t want to have to leave their Queerness behind or their Blackness behind or their femaleness behind. They wanted to be all of themselves and the one thread through all of this is, is the one universal human experience is growing older. The one form of prejudice we all experience is age and aging. I mean for White men, it is often the first form of prejudice that they encounter, it’s like, “hello welcome to our world.” But we can take advantage of that awareness to build an experience. To build on the experience of the awfulness of experiencing discrimination and seeing how wrong and unfair it is as a way to see. To glimpse for people that have the courage and the will, as a window into other more marginalized groups experience.
Sundae: So that the defenses aren’t high. So they can feel like, “Okay, this is where I can finally feel that embodied and now I’m ready to be open to others’ experiences.” I am also hopeful. Neither one of us are naive to the levity of this challenge, but it’s not–
Ashton: It’s a big ask.
Sundae: That’s right. So one of the things that really shook me about your work is the power of our mindset around aging and how it actually impacts our quality and maybe even length of life. Can you say more?
Ashton: I don’t think there’s any maybe about it. Yeah, ageism harms our health. Most of the work in this arena has been done by Becca Levy of Yale who just wrote released a fantastic book, called Breaking the Age Code. And she did the groundbreaking study, gosh, must be almost at least 15 years ago that shows that people with– she calls it, “More positive age beliefs.” I prefer to say because I’m nerdy, “Fact rather than fear-based attitudes.” Because positive aging makes it sounds like you sort of cherry pick the happy stuff and it’s really important to acknowledge the scary stuff too. But people with a less negative, ageist understanding of what aging actually involves live an average of seven and a half years longer, they walk faster, they heal quicker. My favorite study of Levy shows that they are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, even if they have the gene that predisposes them to the disease.
And I am in the middle right now of writing a blog post about how Levy has done most of the work but a big poll, the national poll on healthy aging which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s open network, they survey 2035 Americans aged 50 to 80, and they surveyed on what they call, “Everyday ageism,” which I don’t love that phrase. We don’t talk about everything racism or sexism. But microaggressions, the daily crap that each of us is subjected to in the form of greeting cards, anti-aging messages, all this stuff percolating around us in daily ways. And they ask questions about your overall physical health, overall mental health, chronic conditions and depression and the people who reported more experience with age, 93 percent of the people said, “Oh yeah, this happens all the time.” And all of them, the higher the levels of ageist microaggressions they encountered, the worst they fared on each one of those measures of health. Ageism harms our health.
Ashton: It’s more stress. We have to work much harder to buffer ourselves against the effects of living in an ageist culture and also because of – here some nerdy language for you; Stereotype Embodiment Theory, that’s likely to be staying for the fact that if you think everything’s going to go to hell, just because you get older, then when something is harder or your foot hurts or whatever you think, “Oh, that’s because I’m old. I shouldn’t do that because I’m old, older.”
Maybe you shouldn’t do it because it’s not smart. Maybe you shouldn’t do it because you’re out of shape. Maybe you shouldn’t do it because you’re too smart to do that. But it’s not because of age. But in an ageist culture, we think that’s the very type. We think, “oh, that’s not what old people do.” That’s the stereotype between our heads. So we don’t do it and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sundae: Right? And we don’t do it so we also do not show other people that it is possible. Every time I see someone running at 75, I’m like, “Yep. It’s possible.” So keep your running regimen now and it doesn’t mean, it will happen for me or it can happen for everybody. But I know it’s possible.
Ashton: It doesn’t mean it’s possible for everybody and I have to be a little bit of a contrarian by pointing out that. These people are remarkable. They’re great. These amazing athletes that the skydivers but they are outliers. Really important to remember that if you don’t want to poll dance or run a marathon, you don’t need to, you don’t have to, and even more important, that message is very ablest. It holds up the idea that to age well, is to continue to move and look like younger versions of ourselves. And that’s not possible. It sets us up to fail and it is deeply classist too because that stuff costs money. It’s leisure.
So if you are a couch potato and you can afford to sit on the front porch and read romance novels, more power to you. There is no wrong way to age. And a lot of people don’t have the health, or the mobility, or the resources to run marathons and we should be careful not to judge them and not to hold everyone to this standard of exceptional physical achievement, which is also remarkable.
Sundae: Right. And that’s exactly what I love about your work is how at the same time, you’re able to shed light on what is dangerous when we look at these positive ideas of aging. Even the idea of aging well can be dangerous. And this is where I love how your work intersects with class and with ableism and all of those other things, there’s a level of complexity there.
Could you say more about happiness and aging? Because I think there’s some notions – It’s a hot topic.
Ashton: it makes me think of my mother-in-law, who since died. But she used to say because when I was profoundly skeptical about all of this, I entered this knowing nothing. If people watch my TED Talk I start out with a bunch of just facts about aging that I was totally bowled over by, one of which is the U-Curve of Happiness, and Google it. And Ruth used to say, “Not possible,” and I would say, “Well, I’m so glad you’re arguing with the best substantiated data I can call on,” which is that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives.
And I thought well, that must be fine, if you’re rich. And must be fine, if you’re married. It must be fine, if you live in, you know, Switzerland. It obtains around the world independent of marital status and of health status. It is a function of the way aging itself affects the healthy brain. And it is also true that older people enjoy better mental health than the young or middle-aged. We have more equanimity. We are generally better at not sweating the small stuff. Stanford did a study on older people, I think it was very good timing. They started it coincidentally right at the beginning of the pandemic or something. Anyway, they piggyback on the in progress that showed that older people during the pandemic, despite being severely isolated and at far greater risk of death from COVID, came through it better with more equanimity and more resilience than younger people. Not because all older people are like saints or whatever, but it’s like having your heart broken, it’s awful. But if you’ve had your heart broken, you know that eventually you heal, and simply having a long longer view, helps resilience and equanimity, and perspective. And those help us get through hard times.
Sundae: Well, that’s so powerful. When I heard that, I’m 45, so I say I’m halfway to 90, and when I heard that, I’m like, “I’m at the bottom of the trough,” you know? I was so excited because I’m actually quite happy, right? So, it’s like this idea of potential of it even getting better, that really excited me.
Ashton: Well, one reason, perhaps that you are happy, is that you have looked at your fears of aging. To me, it is amazing that that curve that persists in a culture that barrages us with messages all day long of how it’s all going to suck and everything’s going to fall apart. Imagine what that curve will look like once we have raised awareness of ageism. So that’s the thing, the idea behind the fact-based attitude towards aging, the scary things are real. But there are only two unavoidable negative aspects of getting older:
- People you’ve known all your life are going to die.
- And some part of your body’s going to fall apart.
And those are awful things, they are terrible and no one wants to lose physical capacity, which is inevitable. Cognitive decline is not but it’s totally legit to be apprehensive about those things. But they affect each of us in a unique way. Some people adapt, you might. I mean I’m not an athlete. I hope I can walk around till the end but I wouldn’t suffer if my tennis serve which is non-existent, deteriorated. It would’nt be crushing to me, it would be crushing someone who plays tennis if you see what I mean. Or someone who’s hugely dependent on maintaining, I’m trying to look the way they did when they were younger. That’s a whole huge task for women to decouple. The idea that age and beauty cannot coexist, so the tasks are different for each of us.
Sundae: Yeah, and since following your work, I’ve noticed how many areas in my life, I’ve had ageist thoughts about others, about myself, right? And it seems so pervasive.
Ashton: All of this stuff is unconscious so you are marked on the hardest of all because it’s icky, if you’re like, “Oh crap. I’m part of the problem. I biased too.” But as I said, the next step of seeing it around you is really liberating and really powerful.
Sundae: Exactly. And that’s this is not the first time I’ve had to break up bias in my own self, right? Having been born and raised in the midwest, there were plenty of opportunities for me to have to undo bias. So, we can do our own individual work about undoing some of our own ageism. What are some things that we can do on a system level that can make an impact?
Ashton: Well, that first step is the only essential step but just by doing that, it’s the hardest part, it’s the most unpleasant, but when you do that work, you change. You stop saying ageist things. You might say, if a friend makes an ageist comment, you might gently call them out on it, and a very useful, all-purpose, rejoinder to an ageist comment is simply, “What do you mean by that? Are you retired? What do you mean by that?”
So just by checking that impulse to rate the other people in the room by age. You carry that difference out even if that is all you do. And they ALL is in quotes there because that is the biggest, hardest task of all. Not everyone in the world can be an activist; the world would be intolerable if it were full of activists. But even if you think about the way you use the words, old and young. Do you use old to mean; insert negative thing. And young to mean sexy and attractive or “with it.” You can be those things at any age. So decouple the need to attribute the activity from age, right? That’s the work. And carry it out in the world in any way that makes sense to you.
I started – I had this bright idea that I had, needless to say, no idea how much work it would be, but I guess, gosh probably six or seven years ago I thought this movement is new. Imagine if the women’s movement had had a single repository for the best tools, the best books, the best workshops. So I created with two colleagues: The Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse and the URL is oldschool.info. Everything in It is free except the books so noodle around there. And see, there are language guides, there are animations, there’s workshops. There is consciousness raising guides that we created because consciousness is the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement because women came together and had conversations like this one. And you realize that, “Oh, getting harassed, having my boss pat me on the butt, not having equal power in my marriage. That’s not just me. These are widely shared problems.”
Zooming out to the social and economic context and we can come together and do something about that. So our consciousness raising guides are free, download them. Start a group, just read the questions, get together with a couple of friends and talk about it. And it’s called; Who? Me? Ageist? Because that’s where it starts, right? And we have; Ageist? Racist? Who, Me? Which is about the intersection of ageism and racism. And; Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? So, look round. There’s tons of tools. Well, tons of stuff about language, all sorts of stuff.
Sundae: I’m so glad you did that. Okay, that’s great because as I said before, we started the call, my own process of looking at intergenerational learning, started with the Wisdom Fusion project, and then I looked to the research. And I didn’t find a lot. There’s like a few books out there that had prevalence but the others felt like they were just reifying stereotypes of what groups are like. So, I’m so grateful that you’ve done the hard work to put that together–
Ashton: A lot of times to this, I describe this in the introduction to my book, which you can download for free on Amazon without paying for the book, is that I think a lot of people do what I did, which is it first we’re terrified of aging, icky, scary, awful, don’t want to think about it. We educate ourselves and go, ”Oh, it’s actually not so terrible as I thought and I can do all these things,” the pendulum swings to the positive aging side of things. “If I do these things, these activities, those scary things won’t happen to me,” and it needs to swing back to the middle. And also, if you were at the end where the pendulum swings to sort of this successful aging, positive aging thing, people make money off gym memberships and supplements and hormone treatments and plastic surgery, and no one makes money off satisfaction.
So, there are enormous economic forces wanting you to be terrified of aging, wanting younger people to think that my 69-year-old face and body are disgusting. That’s where the money is. Fears is profitable. Fear pits us against each other. And only when we see those things, which takes a lot of work, can you move to the middle to see both sides of the story. But that’s what feels real. I mean, when I was at the hap, hap, happy end, I knew sort of queasily that I wasn’t addressing the whole picture. So life is like that, isn’t it?
Sundae: And I think that’s for me with midlife that I’ve learned like I felt this is kind of– this is where my project started was you know, reaching, 40, mid, 40, I kind of felt like when I was 20, the 40 year olds were lying to us.
Like why didn’t anybody say anything? You know? And I think it’s that pendulum right where I was only looking at one side and I wasn’t yet in the middle. It’s either this or that. I had to come to the middle and go; There are things that are amazing and there are things that are hard and both are true at the same time.
Ashton: Exactly. Yeah. And that’s why it’s so important for people of all ages to come together and talk about this stuff. I mean, I just think as, and I will say, I do see it somewhat through a gendered lens because women aging is harder for women because of the intersection of sexism and ageism. We’re punished for appearing to visibly age. And if more older women had younger friends, we would be more generous and more kind, I think because we would remember how hard it is to be young. It gets easier, believe it or not, even in an ageist and sexist culture. And if more younger women were friends with older women, who really like being the age we are and see how liberating and confidence inspiring and freeing it is, they wouldn’t spend– they would be less afraid. And it’s much harder to hold onto stereotypes, obviously, when you mix it up.
Sundae: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, that just makes my heart like burst with joy when I think of that potential for community and that model that intergenerational community is not a new one, it’s a very old one that we’ve lost, obviously–
Ashton: And I think that we had in the olden days, we all lived in villages, with all people, all mixed up, not necessarily the world is now more ethnically mixed because of globalization, we’re in contact with more people who are not of our race or ethnicity but it’s way more age segregated.
Sundae: Absolutely. And in the research that I’ve read recently about aging, that has also had a negative impact on cultures and countries that traditionally have given honor to older members of their society. That it’s actually that modernization has created more separation and harder outcomes for those who are older.
Ashton: And capitalism. You know, global capitalism because in capitalist culture, our value is linked to our conventional economic productivity and that is not a great measure of the worth and value and contribution of a person. And it’s especially punitive to children who don’t vote and don’t make money. To older people, right? To people with disabilities. To all the people who have higher barriers to participation in the global economy on favorable terms, on equitable terms.
Sundae: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So we’ve talked so much about the topic and I think for those who are listening, they absolutely have to check out the book where you can get even deeper with this. But it makes me just curious about you. Do you mind if we shift our attention–
Ashton: And it’s fun to read.
Sundae: It is fun to read. Seriously, I read your book, I have an audiobook of yours and so, I was running in my area and laughing out loud. Imagine what that looked like, running and laughing, they might have thought, “What is she running from?”
Ashton: I figure people with manifesto against ageism which is, of course, what I want them to hear but then they go, “Oh my God, that’s gonna be a lot of fiber.” There’s a lot of fiber, but it’s not a heavy going. I promise.
Sundae: No, it’s so good. And for any level, not just age, but all the intersections that we’ve been talking about, it’s enlightening,
But I’m curious about you. Why are you doing this? How did you get started with all of this?
Ashton: There’s just no, meet-cute story, I’m afraid. I was in my mid 50s and I realized that I was really like this getting old thing, it was going to happen. It was happening to me, right? I wasn’t life’s going to get the only pass in the history of humanity. I mean that’s where ageism takes root, it’s just nutty that we go through life pretending that this thing that’s happening to us every day isn’t going to happen to me. And so being nerdy, I started digging into the subjects, like you, as you did and just doing it. I was self-employed so I didn’t get kicked out of a job or anything. But I just started looking into longevity and learning within a matter of months the facts that I started that TED Talk out with, ten years later that were just floating. I did not cherry pick my data. I did not pick the few studies that weren’t scary. These facts are so readily available.
And then I became obsessed with why so few people know these things. And the short answer is because if aging is made into a, you know, pathologized, these natural transitions, then we can be persuaded to buy things to quote, unquote, cure aging, which is not a disease. It’s living.
And if it is problematized, then we can be persuaded to buy things to stop it, fix it. And it’s not a problem. It’s just this amazing journey that each of us embarks on from the day we’re born, with lots of challenges. But also I think of myself as in the both sides of the story business, the challenges are real. But we never talk about the other side of the story, which are the countless ways in which it enriches us and this age bias makes it so much harder to do that and that is really soul-sucking. And it also divides us in ways that have disastrous larger political consequences.
Sundae: Absolutely. I love how you talked about, what we learn and what we gain. You couldn’t pay me to go back to high school or college. Like, I don’t want to go there because of all of the hard. That’s why they call it; Hard-Earned Wisdom. I don’t even want to be who I was then because I’ve paid for this wisdom with my experience.
Ashton: Yeah, it’s hard earned. People’s faces light up and they’re like, “Wait, that would be great… Oh wait.” Because I mean, I would love to swap out my 17-year-old joints because that’s the part of my body that’s falling apart, is my bones. But you don’t get to swap out just the bettered bits, you have to wipe the slate clean and we know, no matter how apprehensive we are, we know that we are the product of all those hard-earned experiences. It’s why I chose as the epigraph to my book, a quote by the writer Anne Lamott, and it’s an idea that I’ve heard from various people, which is that, “We contain all the ages we have ever been.” When you hear it, it is so intuitively obvious. And yet, we have this prevailing notion of age as loss and if we do lose things but we also gained a tremendous amount. So, let’s tell the full story.
Sundae: Hmm, absolutely. I love that quote, especially because it helps me when I engage with someone who feels different from me age-wise, it helps me connect there. What do we have in common? And where are we the same? I love that concept. I think that’s beautiful.
Let’s talk about you and I talk about Ambitious Transformation in Transition, I’m curious about you right now, what are some transitions that you’re feeling? Whether it’s a global transition that we have many to choose from, or maybe even a family transition or personal transition? What are your most burning transitions right now?
Ashton: Well, I would say, on the most surface level, we’re coming out of what a friend called “the main pandemic,” which I find a useful phrase. So I am starting to go out in the world and do fun stuff with other people in the room, which is, which is a nice and delicious privilege. I’m also starting to speak in public again so it’s like, “Oh, remember what this is like.” And having to rethink what I say and how I say it in view of this new world. I did a tremendous amount of thinking around ableism, which is discrimination and prejudice on the basis of physical or cognitive ability during the pandemic. Because a lot of what we think of as ageism is actually apprehension about physical or mental changes. And that’s not actually ageism. Plenty of young people are disabled, plenty of older people are not. So disentangling this stuff.
And so I would say the hardest work I’m doing is this. I also credit the pandemic for extra time to reflect. Not that I want to say the pandemic was anything but hideous horror but it did make me think about stuff. I emerged, literally I was in New York at the time where if you looked at a map in the like in April 2020, where the giant red bullseye everywhere was New York City and all you could hear is ambulances. But I emerged from that into the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the streets. Literally, with a mask on, on my bike, which sort of kept people away from me and that was just amazingly powerful.
So, I have been trying hard to up my anti-racist game and to understand more clearly about how to be a better ally. Which mainly means shutting up and how to listen to people from – sounds cliche but to listen to Black people, Brown people, disabled people about what matters to them. And how down the line, how I can support what they’re doing in the hopes that they will eventually help me understand how I can make my work more relevant to them. I think there’s this idea that if you are busy being anti-racist, who has time for ageism? And I don’t mean to say for a minute, I am a privileged White, cis, straight, White woman who enjoys enormous privilege, and it’s up to anyone to be concerned with whatever they’re concerned about. And obviously, being in particular Black in the US carries its own set of enormous risks and challenges, which I can sure understand being your highest priority.
But I think the overarching point is we don’t have to choose when we are being anti-ageist, when we are being anti-racist.
So if we can acknowledge that these two communities share experiences that would be valuable to each other and join forces in the ways that make sense. Think about the potential for alliances, and to make a movement that really does represent us all. So that’s what I’m working on, is trying to make more friendships and alliances with people who don’t look like me. And, in the process, to work towards shaping a movement that is right now predominantly represented by privileged White women like me. What a coincidence and figure out how to help it represent more marginalized groups so that it is truly a movement that represents us all. It’s hard.
Sundae: That’s wonderful. Yeah. No kidding, it’s hard. But what are your options?
Ashton: The more I learn, the more I understand, the more I revise things I used to say that I don’t say anymore. So for curious people like you and me. I mean, if you had told me 15 years ago, I’d be fascinated by aging, I would have said, “Ew. Why do I want to think about something sad and achy?” And it’s anything but.
Sundae: Mmm, Yeah, now it’s so wonderful. Now I look forward to hearing what the next phase is for you. And it does give me hope on all fronts, on all of the levels of how it will impact our society. So thank you for the work that you’re doing. I know, I’ll put all the references in the show notes about your book, they’ve got to run out and get it. Is there anything special that you want to highlight that people should go out and check out if they want to know more about your work?
Ashton: Thank you for the question. Honestly, you know, aging is universal but it is also utterly unique, and the thing that matters the most to me, the wonky nerdy stuff is probably not the stuff that will engage most people. So that’s the purpose behind the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse is to just noodle around. If you’re a podcast listener, listen to the podcast. There’s all sorts of short zippy animations or you may searchable by topic, maybe you’re interested in language, maybe you’re interested in education. So I would say, go do some, gosh browsing, I guess I was saying window shopping but that’s not the right metaphor. Noodle around and see what fits your interests and your style of learning.
Sundae: Yeah, I love the bite-sized learning that you do on Instagram. You just have one little reframe about language and it’s like, “Oh got it. I’m going to change that,” and you move on. That’s really – I’ve been enjoying that.
Ashton: I am very active on social media. I don’t post pictures of my puppies, I don’t have puppies. Or my lunch, I do have lunch. I do really try to stick to agism for the most part. I’m active on Twitter. And I have a YouTube channel where I make these short videos, like the longest is 01:45, where I take some questions that come into my Yo, is this Ageist? blog, which is also something to look at. People send in questions, so there’s lots of bite-sized ways to get your feet wet. And something that is incredibly relevant or meaningful to you won’t interest the guy next door but he’ll find something that’s great.
Sundae: Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on the show. It means the world to me. I’m a huge fan of your work and I see the power and potential of shifting people one step at a time. So appreciate your time today.
Ashton: Thank you for doing such an important part of the work yourself.
Sundae: Thank you so much. So thank you to everyone else who’s been listening. This is IN TRANSIT with Sundae Bean. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from our guest today, Ashton Applewhite: “Aging isn’t a problem or a disease, aging is living.”
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