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.
"Could the current cohort of eminent women in their 60s herald an era when aging, for women, ceases to be an enemy, and even becomes a friend?” asks Liza Mundy in the current issue of the Atlantic. (And could that magazine actually be taking a progressive position on aging?) As she observes, it’s an intriguing idea and also a profoundly counterintuitive one, given the notorious dearth of women in the halls of power.
On her 82nd birthday, visionary artist and activist Yoko Ono released a music video called “Bad Dancer,” named after the first single on her latest Band album. Critics didn’t mind the dancing—they were warned, after all—but made plenty of disparaging comments about her singing and her costume. Ono struck back with an open letter about ageism in the music industry.
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.
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?”
A recent wedding announcement in the New York Times recorded the happy pairing of a couple that met through “America’s Test Kitchen.” He founded the TV show and hired her ten years ago. He’s 62; she’s 37. The announcement ended with this paragraph: “Both say they have never really given much thought to the difference in their ages. ‘Others may have concerns, but we don’t,’ he said.