Two news stories last week, one about a 42-year-old nursing student running for homecoming queen and another about a 91 year old mayor swindling River Falls, Alabama, out of $201,000, got me thinking about the journalistic convention of including ages in stories.
Questions I'm asking
As questions come up, here's where I write them down
That’s the card I bought to thank London friends for hosting my talk, Old Age Sucks and It’s Going to be Great, last Wednesday night. It was well received by a bunch of smart people, among them my younger colleague in the Sehgal piece at the Tate Modern, Will Jennings, who gently corrected my statement that most people don’t want to think about getting old. “My generation does,” he said, “You grew up in a period of plenty, but we’re aging into scarcity - no pensions, no job security, no water – and we have to think about it.” Point taken, and it’s why it’s so terrific to have all ages in the audience.
When we’re young, the masses on the far side of some distant threshold are Old. This habit – sorting people into Old or Young - sticks with us as we grow up, and it’s too bad. In an ageist society, the old/young binary consigns two thirds of the population to the less desirable side. The divide also belies experience, because it doesn’t exist. We’re always older than some people and younger than others. Age is a continuum.
A few months ago, my daughter's girlfriend told me about a terrific blog called Yo, is this racist? Ask any question about race and get a straight answer, as long as you're prepared to be mocked or skewered. It serves an important purpose, plus it's hilarious. So I've started a companion blog: Yo, is this ageist?
I first encountered this phrase of geriatrician Joanne Lynn’s in 2008, andI liked it right off the bat. It’s a straightforward way to bridge the us/them divide, to connect empathically with our future selves. As Simone de Beauvoir put it: “If we do not know who we are going to be, we cannot know who we are: Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or in that old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state.”
I attended my first Age Boom Academy for journalists in 2008 and have returned several times since. This year was particularly rewarding, because now I’m able to put the speeches in context and because I’m honing in on a specific question: why are Americans, individually and collectively, so deaf to all but the negative messages about old age? After all, no one wants to die young, and no one disputes that the elimination of premature death is a remarkable achievement.
By way of swag, everyone attending last week’s five-day Columbia Journalism School Age Boom Academy on “Covering the myths and realities of aging in America” received a canvas tote packed with print hand-outs. I was struck by a juxtaposition between two that I read the first night.
I’ve just attended the 2012 Age Boom Academy at the Columbia Journalism School: five days immersed in expert presentations on all aspects of aging, from healthcare reform to new developments in cognitive science. Excellent stuff, and more about it soon. The conference was sponsored by Atlantic Philanthropies, where Pulitzer-Prizewinning writer and New York Times veteran Jack Rosenthal is now a Senior Fellow. On the first day he asked us a question: what should we call the population we journalists are writing about?