This Fourth of July lets declare independence from ageism!
It won’t be an easy revolution. Like the colonial British Empire, ageism won’t roll over without a fight. We will have to mobilize, recruit allies and fight tyranny with every weapon at our disposal.
In case you missed it, the Boston Tea Party of this revolution kicked off in April with the Frameworks Institute’s new report Gauging Aging. If you want a 21st Century declaration of independence spelling out the evils of ageism and what we need to do to fight it, watch their webinar Reframing Aging: Seeing What You’re Up Against and Finding a Way Forward.
We are fortunate to have incredible leaders to wage this war: Dr. Bill Thomas, the late Dr. Robert Butler, who coined the term ageism; elder-blogger extraordinaire Ronni Bennett and Ashton Applewhite, the Imperator Furiosa of anti-ageism. Heed their battle cries and saddle up!
Ashton, in particular, inspired me to write this declaration with her recent launch of a consciousness-raising initiative. If you’re unfamiliar with Ashton’s efforts to foment an anti-ageism revolution, her new digital booklet “Who Me, Ageist?” How To Start Your Own Consciousness-Raising Group, is the perfect introduction.
Blacks at the back of the bus. Women in the kitchen. Gays in the closet. For most of American history, until movements came along that changed things, that was “just the way things are.”
That’s still the way it is when it comes to getting older in America.
Aging is seen as failure. Discrimination is pervasive. Stereotypes—Old people are incompetent. Wrinkles are ugly. It’s sad to be old—go unchallenged. When we assimilate those beliefs over a lifetime, often unconsciously, we feel shame and embarrassment instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging. That’s internalized ageism.
Confronting ageism means replacing those ageist stereotypes and stories with more nuanced and accurate ones.
That won’t happen without a mass shift of consciousness.
That shift, like all social movements, begins within each of us.
So where do we start? Both the Frameworks Institute report and Ashton point out the first step is a shift in consciousness: acknowledging our own attitudes and prejudices about aging. Only then can we understand it as a pervasive cultural phenomenon and mobilize against it. As Ashton writes, we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
That’s where the consciousness-raising—the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement— comes in. Consciousness-raising uses the power of personal experiences to help people recognize that “personal problems—such as not being able to get a job, being patronized, or feeling sidelined—are actually widely shared political problems, and that feelings of inadequacy are actually a result of being discriminated against.”
Who Me, Ageist?” walks people through the process of organizing their own groups where people can compare stories and work towards embracing aging and ending ageism.
I sent Ashton a few questions to dig deeper into consciousness-raising. I recommend you read the booklet first (it’s a quick and juicy read!). Here are her informal responses.
Q: How do we convince people to focus on this issue when there are so many other urgent causes to sign up for, and so much good TV to watch (i.e. distractions)?
Far be it from me to pry people away from their TV sets! My answer is pretty abstract: because we’re never going to make the most of our longer lives, personally and politically, if we don’t challenge entrenched ageism. As I wrote in this recent post, we can talk about housing & healthcare policies till the cows come home, but as long as they’re implemented within a society that perpetuates and profits from age discrimination, we’ll never have fundamental change—let alone achieve age equality.
Q: The people who need their consciousness raised the most are going to be the most reluctant to participate. How do we get them involved?
We can’t. It’s like the old joke about how many shrinks it takes to change a lightbulb (just one, but it has to really want to change). And not only is it hard to change, it’s even more so when it comes to confronting internalized bias. No one wants to admit they’re prejudiced, even though everyone is. The good news is that an awful lot of people do understand that change has to start with internal awareness. (Be the change you want to be). Activists, therapists, everyone in AA, people interested in self-actualization, and so on.
We start by creating and joining groups and sharing our experiences, in person and online, in any way that feels comfortable. Eventually, people will mobilize around specific issues, the way women’s groups in the 1970s joined picket lines, organized protests, and began getting media attention.
Q: How long have you been doing this and what’s come out of your consciousness raising group?
Just starting out myself; my CR group will kick off at the end of this month. I know a lot about ageism but relatively little about other people’s experience of it, which will inform my work and deepen my understanding of all the forms it can take and the damage it does.
Q: You mention confidentiality is important, but don’t we also need to speak out and take action based on what comes out of the consciousness raising?
Yes! But the group has to be a safe space for people to tell personal stories about ageist stuff they did or thought, or how age makes them feel ugly or vulnerable or whatever, and know that those stories will stay in the room.
Q: How do we maintain momentum?
By promoting the booklet, and by working to raise awareness of ageism on every front. Confronting ageism should be on the agenda of every aging-related conference and on the “masthead” of every aging-related website and on the policy agenda of every aging-related organization. When we talk about leveling the playing field for women or people of color, sexism and racism are central to the discourse. Likewise, educating ourselves about what ageism looks like and the damage it does is fundamental to any conversation about aging in America, and what we can do to improve our personal and collective experiences.
My anti-ageism manifesto will be published this fall—email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow my ThisChairRocks Facebook page for more info—and it will wake a lot of people up. Of course, only a small subset of readers will be radicalized, but just starting to see ageism around you (and in you) is a critical first step. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. And the paradoxical benefit of ageism being still so unexamined is that “aha” moments are everywhere