Ashton Applewhite: Speaker, Writer & Warrior Against Age Discrimination.
Why did you make your latest transition?
I’m a really late bloomer. In college, I couldn’t decide what to major in, let alone what to be when I “grew up.” I didn’t start writing until I was in my forties. I back into things. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I started writing about aging because I was afraid of getting old. It began as a project about people over 80 who work.
What surprised you most?
That almost everything I thought I knew about being old was way off base or just plain wrong. Within a few weeks I learned facts that changed my perception completely. For example, I was astonished to learn that the percentage of Americans over 65 in nursing homes was only 4% (and ten years later it’s down to 2.5%). I would have guessed 20% or 30%. Rates of Alzheimer’s are declining—fast. People are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives.
How did this turn into a new career?
The catalyst for me was the question, “Why don’t we know these things?” These are not arcane or cherry-picked data points. Why are we brainwashed by the idea that two thirds of life is decline when we’re surrounded by evidence to the contrary? No one actually wants to be any younger! It’s not that the challenges aren’t real, it’s that our hypercapitalist, youth-obsessed culture drowns out all but the negative about aging past youth—this messaging starts early and casts a shadow across our entire lives. If natural transitions are framed as shameful or pathological, after all, we can be persuaded to buy things to “fix” or “stop” or “cure” them.
What are you doing now?
I write and speak about ageism—why discrimination on the basis of age is as unacceptable as any other kind of prejudice and the need to mobilize against it. Writing a book is truly horrible, so at first, I thought I could be “modern” and get away with blogging and tweeting. So I started blogging at This Chair Rocks, and then at a Q & A blog called “Yo, is this Ageist?” It’s a shameless imitation of “Yo, is this Racist?” a blog that started because we’re uncomfortable talking about race. We’re ignorant when it comes to ageism—these are new ideas to most of us—so “Yo” is where you can ask me whether something you saw or heard or did is ageist.
My public speaking career got launched almost by accident. A friend of mine organizes the KO Festival of the Arts in Massachusetts picked aging as the theme one year, I think it was 2011, and asked me to deliver an opening monologue. (Incidentally, her theater colleagues told her she’d lose all her subscribers if she chose aging, and the subscriber base tripled. I think that’s because even though the subject gives them the heebie jeebies, people are hungry for a conversation that rings truer to their lived experience). That monologue became the heart of the main talk I gave for years. I don’t have an ounce of the performer in me, but I believe very strongly in the value and importance of confronting ageism—I’m a conduit for that message—which makes the public speaking tolerable and makes me good at it.
Enough people said I had to write a book that I finally sat down and did it; I told my friends I couldn’t come out and play because I was WotB (pronounced WOT-bee) for “Working on the Book.” The publishers that had an option told me they were “concerned that no one else was writing about this”—I managed to stammer that I thought that was a feature, not a bug—and no one else made the kind of offer I thought the book deserved, so I self-published it in 2016. Two years later a friend told me that Macmillan was launching a new division called Celadon Books. So I sent the editor-in-chief, Jamie Raab, a copy and she published it on their inaugural list in March of 2019.
What advice would you give to someone in the same circumstances?
The most essential step, and the most uncomfortable one, is to look at your own attitudes about age and aging. The fact is that we’re all ageist. No judgment— I think and do ageist things all the time—but we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it. Think about your vocabulary. Do you use “old” as a substitute for “invisible” or “incompetent,” and use “young” instead of “energetic” or “attractive”? We can feel any of those things at any age. You might be too smart to attempt a given task, or too lazy, or too inexperienced, but you’re never “too old.” As I say in my TED talk, I stopped blaming my sore knee on being 64 because my other knee doesn’t hurt, and it’s just as old. It’s never actually about age.
The good news is that once you perceive your own internalized ageism, you start to see it in the culture around you. You can’t get that genie back in the bottle, and it’s exhilarating. That’s what happened through consciousness raising during the women’s movement: women came together, shared their experiences, and realized that what they’d been thinking of as personal problems were actually shared social and political problems that we could come together and do something about.
Disability rights activists did this brilliantly during the 1970s and ‘80s, changing disability from a personal misfortune to a social problem. The problem isn’t that I’m in a wheelchair, the problem is that there are stairs between me and where I need to go.” There’s a term for this shift in awareness—cognitive liberation—and it’s the lynchpin of movement building. The women’s movement taught us to claim our power, and the movement against ageism will teach us to hold on to it.
Think about where women would be if the women’s movement hadn’t woken us up to entrenched systems of sexism and patriarchy all around us! That’s how central ageism needs to be in any discussion of the new longevity. Population aging is a permanent, global phenomenon, and people of all ages need to come together to help shape a world that supports people across the entire lifespan.
Given your vast experience both professionally and personally, do you have a top 5 or 10 list of things that you would tell people if they would like to follow in your footsteps or follow a similar path?
-All change starts between our ears: how do you feel about your own aging? What messages have you absorbed over the years? Whose interests do they serve? How do you think and talk about older people, and getting older? Are any of your close friends much older or younger? Become the one you seek–-a movement needs a million voices.
-Start a consciousness-raising group – this powerful tool catalyzed the women’s movement. Download my free guide, Who Me, Ageist? How to Start a Consciousness-raising Group here.
-Learn about age and age bias. My book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, contains every smart idea I’ve had or come across. The last chapter, “Occupy Age,” is packed with practical suggestions for thinking and acting in ways that will bring us closer to an all-age-friendly society.
-Find your tribe—in the world and on social media. Start or join a group that’s dedicated to age equality. It doesn’t matter whether you read together, hike together, party together, or all of the above. Consider starting a local chapter of the Radical Age Movement, or a Gray Panthers chapter. Movements need actions: look for ways to show up that will make a difference, whether through writing and speaking, or by showing up in brave and imaginative ways. Keep in mind that when we come together at all ages against any form of injustice, we dismantle ageism in the process. It’s all one struggle.
-Check out these anti-ageism resources. Create your own. Share them. Now in session: OLD SCHOOL, a clearinghouse of free and carefully vetted resources to educate people about ageism and help dismantle it. You’ll find blogs, books, articles, videos, speakers, and other tools (workshops, handouts, curricula etc.) that are accessible to the general public. Use them, create your own, send them our way, and please spread the word.
-Share my TED talk widely, with your friends, your dentist, your downstairs neighbor. . . you get the idea. It’s an urgent, 11-minute wake-up call, and we’ve got a world to change.
Author and activist Ashton Applewhite has been recognized by the New York Times, the New Yorker, National Public Radio, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism. She blogs at This Chair Rocks, speaks widely at venues that range from the United Nations to the TED main stage, has written for Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and is the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist? Ms. magazine called her first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, “rocket fuel for launching new lives.” The author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Ashton is a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age. In 2016, she joined PBS site Next Avenue’s annual list of 50 Influencers in Aging as their Influencer of the Year. She is a member of the 2018 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 100, a recipient of the Lifetime Arts 2018 Game Changer Award, on the 2017 Fifth Annual Forbes list of Forty Women to Watch over 40, Next Avenue’s 2016 Influencer of the Year and one of Salt magazine’s The World’s 100 Most Inspiring Women (2015).