Ashton Applewhite wrote what she calls her “first serious book” in 1997. It was titled "Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well," and it was inspired by what she saw as the prevailing perception of divorced women as depressed and pathetic.
A similar observation, this time about prejudice against older people, prompted Applewhite to launch her blog Yo, Is This Ageist? in 2012. The blog tackled our culture’s pervasive view of older folks as frail and incompetent, among other stereotypes. The blog, in turn, was prelude to “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” Applewhite self-published the book in 2016; it’s newly republished this month by Celadon Books, and her national tour arrives in Pittsburgh Tuesday.
Applewhite, who lives in Brooklyn, is 66. “This Chair Rocks” was inspired by the fact that many older people she knew were living productive, healthy lives. The book – not to mention the 1.4 million views for her 2017 TED Talk “Let’s End Ageism” – suggest that plenty of people are ready for a new way to talk about the issue.
The term “ageism” was coined in 1969, and it’s likely no coincidence that this was also a peak of the 20th-century rise of youth culture. “I think I probably need to blame my generation, the Baby Boom,” she said in a recent phone interview from the road in Washington, D.C. “You know we invented ‘never trust anyone over 30’ and sort of invented youth culture, and it has come back to bite us in the butt.”
Ageism, she argues, is inculcated in us practically from birth, by everything from advertising to New Yorker cartoons. “The most important first step is to look at your own attitudes towards age and aging, because we are all ageist,” she said.
People also have to recognize that ageism interacts with bias based on things like income and skin color: Disadvantaged folks, for instance, too often don’t get to realize the benefits of healthy later years. And ageism can cut both ways, as in knee-jerk dismissals of the talents of younger people.
Ultimately, Applewhite said, “we need a broad-based grassroots movement” against ageism – like the Women’s Movement of the 1970s -- “to raise awareness of discrimination so that people realize that the obstacles they're facing are not personal problems but widely shared political problems that require collective action.”
Age needs to become a criterion for diversity, she said. While she acknowledges that a society with an aging population faces challenges including rising health-care costs, Applewhite emphasizes the benefits of having experienced, knowledgeable people around.
“We have this extraordinary resource the social capital of hundreds and hundreds of thousands more healthy well-educated adults than ever before in human history,” she said. “And if we don't understand, individually and collectively, how age bias blinds us to the upside and the opportunities, we are not going to be able to take advantage of this extraordinary unprecedented human socio-economic opportunity.”
Applewhite speaks here Tuesday. Tickets are $10 and are available here.