Disability rights activist Simi Linton’s memoir, My Body Politic, shook up my thinking on topics ranging from sex to suicide, and got me comparing ableism and ageism. We act as though old people aren't disabled and disabled people never grow old, despite the fact that one third of disabled Americans are sixty-five or older, and that the same medical advances that have swelled the number of people with disabilities are keeping more and more of the rest of us alive long enough to join their ranks.
In October 2010, demographer Philip Longman warned of a “’gray tsunami’ sweeping the planet." The phrase summons a frankly terrifying vision of a giant wave of old people looming on the horizon, poised to drain the public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations out to sea. Journalists jumped on it, and “gray tsunami” has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.
Over the years I’ve attended a number of Age Boom Academies—seminars for journalists co-hosted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the Journalism School, and the International Longevity Center. The speakers are always impressive and it’s provided an invaluable overview of the evolving economics, logistics, and science of the longevity boom. As my own focus has sharpened I’ve enjoyed them more, and this year’s seminar, which wrapped up on Tuesday, September 10 at the office of the Atlantic Philanthropies, was the best yet.
Two New York Times editorials this week have me gnashing my teeth. Columnist David Brooks thinks the best way to nurture investment would be to “take spending that currently goes to the affluent elderly and redirect it to the young and the struggling.” He cites policymaker Yuval Levin’s proposal to means-test Medicare proposal, which would reduce benefits to olders with higher lifetime earnings.
So says Arynita Armstrong, 60, of Willis, Texas, who’s been looking for work for five years after losing her job at a mortgage company. “They’re afraid to hire you, because they think you’re a health risk. You know, you might make their premiums go up. They think it’ll cost more money to invest in training you than it’s worth it because you might retire in five years.” Armstrong is quoted in a front-page article in the Sunday New York Times about the recession’s toll on workers in their 50s and early 60s.
That’s the question that came in to Yo, Is This Ageist? a few days ago, and I’ve been banging my head against it ever since. Not that the question hadn’t come to mind long before, in particular the notion of of discriminating against a group you aspire to join, but the answer is far more complicated.
On March 21-25 I attended the 12th annual Age Boom Academy, a seminar for journalists covering “the myths and realities of aging in America.” Billed as a Joint Program by the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and the Columbia Journalism School, it was sponsored by the Atlantic Philanthropies, AARP and The New York Times and took place at Columbia. (Previous Age Booms were held at the International Longevity Center and hosted by Bob Butler, whom I sorely missed. It was terrific and I’ll be writing about it more substantively, but in the meanwhile here are some thoughts from assorted speakers that stuck with me.
“Women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em.” Men too: “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot ‘em.” Same goes for old people, as Susan Jacoby writes in her jeremiad about old age in America, Never Say Die: “If we are not going to kill Granny, we are going to have to support Granny.”