Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America

Lynne Segal is appalled by US experiences of the coming of age, but cheered by the hope of change

April 28, 2011

"Good stuff happens not because we are still young, but because we are not." Anyone familiar with the rallying calls of Margaret Morganroth Gullette, one of the leading forces behind the development of "ageing studies" in the US, will not be surprised to find this cheering thought in her latest book, Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America. Less cheering are her comprehensive surveys of the multiple hazards facing anyone hoping to enjoy a long life today. It may also surprise some readers to learn that in the US, still the world's culturally hegemonic and richest nation, discrimination against the aged has dramatically worsened in the past 20 years.

Moreover, such discrimination begins early. Many more men now face job losses, pension shortfalls and accompanying cultural disparagement from their mid-fifties. Women are confronting redundancy some 10 years earlier, while their fears of ageing and in particular the loss of their looks begin even sooner, for some at the end of their twenties. Gullette's frightening statements on the rise of ageism (the systematic discrimination against older people, and an 'ism' whose very existence is often disputed) are backed by rigorous scholarship.

In the US, the employment rate of men between 50 and 55 has dropped almost 20 per cent over the past two decades, with half of those in work losing ground economically between their forties and sixties compared with the same age group a generation earlier. Women reach their mid-life peak at 45, with wages still more than 25 per cent lower than those of men.

Overall, we learn, poverty among those over 65 is higher than for any other group, including children, especially among women.

As ever, there are huge class, race and other differences, recently evident, for instance, in the systematic neglect of the plight of older black Americans after the catastrophic flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A massive 71 per cent of Katrina-related deaths were among those over 51; people rendered invisible by being predominantly poor and black as well as old. Overall, more than half of African-American women aged between 45 and 64 have been diagnosed with hypertension, twice the rate for white women.

Accompanying these perils, Gullette describes what she calls a "tidal wave" of casual contempt and cruel humour in the US' expanding "ideology of decline". Older generations are accused of standing in the way of the "new blood" needed to make the US strong again. Turning the world on its head, the baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are portrayed as having had the best of everything, even though figures show that those now entering old age have the highest wage inequality of any recent generation. The younger boomers, now entering middle age, have higher levels of poverty than any equivalent group of mid-lifers since the generation born before 1914. So much for the ubiquitous loose talk about my generation of selfish oldies.

It is alarm at the growing number of old people around the world that has been fuelling this disparagement. In a circular move, the old are portrayed as unproductive and dependent, even as the ageism behind such sentiments renders them so. In disquieting detail, Gullette maps the scare stories emanating from broadsheets, boardrooms and scholarly broadcasts alike.

Tellingly, one characteristic essay ("The coming death shortage: Why the longevity boom will make us sorry to be alive", published in May 2005) appeared in The Atlantic magazine, which positions itself as a liberal publication, surveying "literature, politics, science, and the arts". In this essay, Charles C. Mann pits younger people, in "need of careers and families", against "rich oldsters" spending their money on longevity treatments. Referring to such proclamations as hate speech, Gullette shows that women are most affected by the ever more common sentiment: "They never die; they just cost more."

Unsurprisingly, she criticises what she sees as the pressure on people, and especially women, to avoid cultural disparagement through the impossible search, via cosmetic surgery or hormones, to remain forever young, forever functional.

So where then is the positive news, the "good stuff" that happens? For those bold enough to enter the fray, we must first of all come armed with information, rage, irony and all the arts of persuasion to combat our own irrational fears of ageing, as well as to tackle people's real needs if they are to age well. Our weapons come from books such as this, which help us to see the extent to which we are, as Gullette succinctly entitled an earlier book, Aged by Culture (2004). Here, she reiterates: "We are battered mainly by the crosswinds of prejudice as we age."

Moreover, as the battle becomes more explicit, it becomes just a little easier to fight back, mentioning old age, even dying, without immediately losing one's audience or, as Simone de Beauvoir reported when she tried to do it 40 years ago, being told firmly to desist: "great numbers of people, particularly old people, told me kindly or angrily but always at great length and again and again, that old age simply does not exist!" Her book, Old Age (1970), did not prosper.

Refreshingly, Gullette, in her sixties, is capable of greater self-acceptance of her ageing body and appearance than de Beauvoir could ever manage. Beating back habitual prejudices, she watches out for other older people's acceptance of, at times even pleasure in, the familiarity of their expanding curves or growing wrinkles. We read of US writer Grace Paley's mention of her enjoyment of her heavy breasts and "mapped face" at 79, as well as of author Joan Nestle's determined embrace of older women: "Gray hair and textured hands are now erotic emblems I seek out."

If this is bravado in the face of Gullette's registering of almost everyone's fears of losing our looks, health, job and self-esteem, it is one that a small number of women, especially those "touched by the magic wand of feminism", are nowadays stubbornly determined to foster in combating those forces. We know just where Gullette is coming from, as she moves on to explain that while well over 50 per cent of older women (compared with less than 25 per cent of men) are living alone, women over 60 often say that, when they can, they are enjoying their sexual lives more than they used to when young, even falling in love again, and loving better and more wisely.

Gullette insists that she is not merely trying to replace the cultural decline narrative with a progress narrative, or disowning our fears or the needs and pains of ageing bodies. Of course, over a long life we will face tragedies and losses, over and over again. However, she listens out for alternative elegies of later life, trawling the resources of literature, memoir, her own life and those of others to suggest ways in which we can face this together. Older people find joy in diverse aesthetic resources, in their love of literature or feelings for nature, and cherish the care, concern and intimacies coming from friends, partners and even occasionally in institutional settings.

In ageing, we may find strength simply in sharing our black humour, defiance and rage, while fighting as imaginatively as we can against the bitterness, perplexity and humiliation that accompany not only our experiences of old age but, increasingly, those of mid-life also. However, Gullette does have her own decline narrative, recording the worsening contempt for old age today.

While she presents evidence in support of that narrative, I suspect historians of ageing such as Pat Thane would see some romanticism in Gullette's notion of "the cautious veneration that was once directed so unconsciously towards old persons". But that takes us into rather different territory.

The Author

Cultural critic, writer and researcher Margaret Morganroth Gullette has been a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in the US since 1997.

She used to travel extensively and in the 1960s spent a year in Rome learning Italian and studying baroque architecture and Renaissance painting. "Nowadays," she says, "I try to follow the golden rule of environmentalism: fly only for love." She spends five weeks a year in Nicaragua working with a community project on adult education, and travels to Morocco to visit her son and his family.

Gullette's reputation in midlife and age studies was built on acclaimed works including Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (1997), which won the Emily Toth Award for the best feminist book on US popular culture.

Her outside interests include gardening. And after landscaping her property, she moved on to plaster and repaint her house: "manual labour is a sort of physical need." Indeed, she says, "I think of architecture and landscape design as my roads not professionally taken. But amateurs can have a modest life in their chosen craft, too".

Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America

By Margaret Morganroth Gullette

University of Chicago Press

304pp, £18.50

ISBN 9780226310732

Published 15 April 2011

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