Gullette, an anti-ageism pioneer, speaks out

New book focuses on increase in age-based discrimination, and how to stop it

Photo/Mike Lovett

Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is determined to put an end to a growing form of discrimination that affects masses of people regardless of their race, gender or religion: Ageism. Gullette is a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, and her new book “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America,” published by University of Chicago Press, tackles topics such as Baby Boomers under assault, overcoming terror of forgetfulness and improving sexuality across the life course.

“I mean this book to be a rational and passionate indictment of the toxins emanating from the new regimes of ageism,” Gullette writes in the introduction. “A manifesto for fighting back and a judicious gauge of how well cultural combat is succeeding in some arenas.”

During a recent conversation at her home in Newton, she talked about the book and her recent op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Our Irrational Fear of Forgetting.”

BrandeisNOW: What would you say is the basic premise of your book?

Gullette: That ageism is worse than it used to be, worse than you think. It now includes middle-ageism and it’s attacking ever younger people. News has been widely promulgated that people lose jobs and are unemployed longer in their middle years. But for a book, the trend needed to be illustrated in many different ways.

What is one of the more disturbing things that you learned while researching your book?

book coverThat the end-of-life discourse was not limited to specialists, to some bioethicists. It was beginning to filter into the regular world; it appears that it is disturbingly more common to be told to consider ending your own life to avoid aging – the new fate worst than death.

Have you personally encountered ageism, perhaps on the street or in a social situation?

In this field of age studies, it doesn’t have to be personal that way. It’s close enough if your friends are suffering or everybody’s worrying about memory loss now. All of this is an experience of ageism: I feel attacked by the attacks on Social Security; the duty-to-die discourse is an attack on me. Also, I might be the victim of ageism and not notice it because I’m sort of an aggressive interlocutor when I need to be. 

What advice would you offer people who are beginning to feel down about aging?

Fear ageism, not aging. That turned out to be useful for me because for me, this has a conceptual side. You can feel old and even weak, and not feel bad if you have an anti-decline attitude. We need to know how to respond to the stereotypes. 

What is happening with memory loss?

People are now going to memory loss clinics, and it turns out many of them don’t have any memory loss. It’s true, some types of memory loss are age-related, but it’s not usually serious if it’s just age-related memory loss. Like I might forget the name of a plant in the garden that I have known, and usually it comes back. 

Would you consider yourself to be a positive, glass-half-full person?

I’m trying to be. In age studies you have two simultaneous tracks to worry about. One, for me, is that you want to push anti-decline as far as it can go because the culture is so decline oriented. As a matter of principle, you want to be a glass-half-full person. On the other hand you see all the negative energy that is coming from the culture, and it’s far worse than most people think. It’s much more linked to underlying structures, capitalism, the Supreme Court’s rulings, workforce, anti-unionism. Those are very powerful forces in our culture. If you just look at those, it’s very hard to be optimistic.

I’m hoping that there will be an anti-ageist movement, and it will grow. There are plenty of people who don’t need very much to turn them into anti-ageist activists.  These are the people who write to me, invite me on their radio shows and to speak in their classes. I want everybody to be more resilient and to recognize that they can fight a lot of this. 

What worries you about aging?

Your friends dying. That’s an inevitable part of aging. Other stuff is not necessarily a part of aging.

In what ways have you personally felt empowered?

Feminism helped me empower myself. And doing age studies for all these years has just been incredibly empowering. I do what I recommend. When I see the word aging, the concept that aging is bad, aging equals decline, I ask is there any ageism in this? What’s age got to do with it? Is it something else? Maybe it’s not age. I think the bigger your arsenal of strategies, the more empowered you’re likely to be. And I think, frankly, women are better off than men because women have had all these decades of feminism coping around a new ageism. 
What do you hope people will take away from this book?

That things can be different. That you can fight some of the powers. Working to make sure that seniority endures. Reinstituting seniority, with all that that means. You should be worth more as you grow older; to your relatives, your friends, and your workplace. While that may still be true in the family and among your friends, it certainly is not always true in the workforce.

I’m happy to be asked about personal empowerment, but that’s not what my book is about. My book is about is collective empowerment. We need a little personal empowerment to just get the engines going, to get off that engine of history that Henry James complained about, and make ourselves agents of history again.  Anti-ageism should unite more closely with the disability movement because age is an interesting factor all across the life course. In other words, little kids start thinking about what it’s like to be older. And if we have anti-ageist curricula, they will have better expectations all through the life course. 

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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