Growing old isn’t new. What’s new is how many people routinely do it. The institutions around us were created when lives were shorter, and the culture hasn’t had time to catch up. The way we respond to this demographic shift has critical social implications.
Ageism in Silicon Valley has been all over the news lately. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story titled “Silicon Valley's Youth Problem.” Male engineers in their twenties are getting botox and hair transplants before key interviews. “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” a feature story in the New Republic, described a swelling cohort of “highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers” sidelined “for reasons no one can rationally explain.”
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.
That offending phrase, and offend it did, appeared in a group email, the group being a bunch of college classmates who pass around photos of get-togethers and nostalgia-based music recommendations. The context was a boating foray in which food, fun, and alcohol were dispensed, the latter “not like gin and juice at DKE but as fun as we 60+ers could manage.”
A university where I’ll be speaking in September is lining up co-sponsors, one of whom had a question for my colleague there. “He asks whether you present ageism as similar to racism and sexism,” she wrote me. “He mentioned that the seniors with whom he works are proud (of being senior citizens?), and I think he may be worried about the presentation making them feel like victims of prejudice. Have you run across this type of concern in your audiences?”
How Old is Too Old To Have Sex? was the title of a Huffington Post Live Blog that I took part in on June 14th. As I pointed out during the exchange, the question itself is profoundly ageist. We don’t ask whether people age out of singing, or eating ice cream, so why even pose the question when it comes to making love?
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.