Updated: September 28, 2022
Imagining the End of Ageism
Here are a few imagined plot twists for older women.
Marta was awarded her silk robe on her 80th birthday. She decided her new name would be Supreme Listening One. She has honed the skill of listening well beyond the expertise of others. She listens better than the best psychotherapist. People say that she listens with her organs, not just her ears. Google and Amazon are currently vying to hire her in a high earning position as chief listener for their companies. Recent research illustrates that when employees are deeply listened to, they work harder and feel more satisfied in their professions. This makes Marta a valuable commodity.
Lorraine is about to leave for her latest mission. At 97 years-old, this is her fifth. This time she embarks for North Korea to represent the Global Peace Project started by a group of powerful older women. Despite the fact that Lorraine uses a wheel chair and has difficulty with her sight, she is able to get people in great power and with great egos to listen to her. “I have the gift of sensing their inner child. I soothe the hurt in them. And then I get them to listen closely.” Lorraine has a wait list of over 100 leaders soliciting her soothing, no nonsense counsel.
Last week a bus full of 50- year-old women pulled up to a dormitory at Harvard University. As they exited the bus, one after the other, the women looked radiant and energetic. This will be the 10th class to study art, theatre, film and dance in the new program at Harvard. The program is fully funded by investments made by several Fortune 500 Companies. The program was designed in response to a study demonstrating that older women artists enhance social progress. Middle-aged women art makers advance education, motivate young adults, and decrease violence and aggression overall. After their training, the women will be stationed around the country to make art.
Ashton Applewhite calls for us to defy ageism. In her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism she addresses the stereotypes and myths that we, both as individuals, and as our culture live by.
Ageism (as with all the isms) tells a story that is limiting. Ageism narrows possibilities. Applewhite asserts the necessity to tackle this story of ageism. She speaks to the fact that it’s not enough to just resist aging. We have to deal with aging by making change. In fact, she says this: not dealing with aging is a way of not dealing with living.
Perhaps the best way to defy ageism is by living.
How is it that you want to live? Who are you becoming? Who else would you like to be?
What is it you can imagine?
Imagination is the process of envisioning something that does not exist.
So I ask you, what does not exist for you about aging?
It’s not just us older folk that I ask to imagine their aging lives. The question is as vital for young women and even girls to consider. Technically, we are all aging. Let’s make the prospects appealing.
Research by Becca Levy illustrate how the limiting story of ageism goes underground and becomes something we don’t even know we are following. Ageist stereotypes tunnel themselves into our consciousness and cause us to think and act in certain ways. Levy calls this process implicit ageism. And she warns that it has deadly costs. Individuals with negative implicit biases about aging are more depressed and die younger than the rest.
Let’s defy aging by imagining.
Using Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon’s book Imagination First, I will make a few suggestions on how to get started.
Invent a challenge instead of solving a problem
Implicit and explicit ageism makes us not want to age. So our resources turn to staying youthful. We attempt to solve the problem of aging instead of making it into something that challenges and motivates us.
Marta was envisioned when we invented the following challenge: people need to be listened to and there aren’t enough people with the time and skill to listen.
We need to feel listened to in order to feel good about ourselves and be successful. Who can find the time to devote to listening? How can we listen in new and fuller ways? How do we get companies to pay individuals for their listening expertise?
Hence Marta and her Supreme Listening Skills. Imagine this: The listening has been so successful, that Google is now hiring 20 more women and designing rooms for the listening sessions to be held.
Liu and Noppe-Brandon stipulate that inventing a good challenge is often more useful than solving a problem. Often when we jump to problem solving we blindly reuse old strategies and miss out on new and different possibilities.
Engage in the counterfactual.
Sometimes, in order to imagine the world of unlikely possibilities, we have to ask new what-ifs.
What-ifs are counterfactual when we think we already know what happens. Ageism tries to tell us that we know what will happen. But what if we counter?
We would suppose that most women in their late 90’s, especially those blind and in wheelchairs, don’t work and live in nursing homes or other forms of assisted living. But what if we what-if this? What if women in their 90’s have great diplomatic power? What if ego-maniacal leaders listen to old ladies? What if old women are able to reach deep down inside of the early needs grown men and get them to see things differently?
Ageism needs counterfactual thinking. It’s a form of play that we all used as children. Liu and Noppe-Brandon state that along the way, we let our counterfactual muscle atrophy. We stop playing with what-ifs.
Enter Lorriane and her emperor fixing skill. Imagine this: What if we can get other elders to be dictator whisperers all over the globe?
Finally, We have to give ourselves permission to feel foolish
Foolish is good. It’s the feeling we get when we take action outside of the expected norm.
If we are going to defy the dictates of ageism we have to be willing to let go of being cool, status worthy and popular. According to the ageist rule we are going to lose all this anyway. Let’s dare to welcome foolishness and step out from under the oppressive story of the norm.
Liu and Noppe-Brandon say this:
We cultivate imagination and make its exercise possible when we create permission to nudge what had once been foolish into the realm of the OK.
Is it foolish to go back to school and learn to be an artist in your 50’s or 60’s? Let’s hope so. We think we should do it anyway.
For most of us, the way we defy is to resist. But resisting is not enough.
Michelle Alexander in her debut Op Ed piece for the New York Times calls for us to be more than the resistance. She was speaking of resisting authoritarianism, sexism and racism. But I think the same can be suggested for ageism.
Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and restrict our field of vision…
Resistance is unimaginative. And does not make room for the possible. Instead, Alexander encourages us to enter the “revolutionary rivers” and take part in active change.
Active change starts with active imagining.
There is much to be done. Many challenges to invent. Millions of what-ifs to play with.