How to Rewrite the Narrative on Aging | Ashton Applewhite

Ashton Applewhite

What if not the “fact” of getting older, but actually the way we “think about” getting older is making us less healthy, less happy, and less human? And, what if it’s not just about how we think about it, individually, but how society does, and how culture, work, relationships, media, and entertainment put us in boxes that make our lives smaller and colder as we age, rather than expansive and radiant?

My guest today, Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, has been investigating these questions for years. And what she’s uncovered may forever change how you see the aging process.

In our conversation, Ashton takes us on a journey to understand where negative attitudes about aging come from in society, how they creep into our minds, and the toll they take on our bodies, our work, and our relationships. Along the way, she shares eye-opening research and stories that honor the realities of getting older, but also shatter common myths about decline and demise. 

Ashton explains powerful ways we can spot and challenge the ageism around us—and even within ourselves. And she reveals how aging can be a time of continued growth and thriving, if we can just remove the cultural biases clouding our view.

Ashton’s insights are grounded in reality and hope. If we can see aging clearly, not through the distorted lens of ageism, we can transform the last decades of life into a time of joy, purpose, and possibility.

You can find Ashton at: Website | Instagram | TED Talk | Episode Transcript

If you LOVED this episode:

  • You’ll also love the conversations we had with Karen Waldrond about the amazing parts of getting older.

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photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Episode Transcript:

Ashton Applewhite: [00:00:00] Ageism comes from the human tendency to place people in hierarchies of human value. In that sense, it comes from where all prejudice comes from. Most bias is unconscious, and we can’t challenge it if we’re not aware of it. So the first, most uncomfortable, most necessary step is to look at our own attitudes towards age and ageing. Right. Because we’re all biased. So any time, you know, age crops up in your own thinking, any time you hear someone say, I’m too old, I’m too young, people of a certain age should or shouldn’t do a certain thing, interrogate it, see what comes up for you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:37] Hey, so here’s a question for you what if not just the quote fact of getting older, but actually the way we think about getting older is making us less happy, less healthy and less human. And what if it’s not just about how we think about it individually, but how society does and how culture work? Relationships, media and entertainment put us into boxes that make our lives smaller and colder as we age, rather than more expansive, alive and radiant. My guest today, Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks, A Manifesto Against Ageism, has been investigating these questions for years, and what she’s uncovered may forever change how you see the aging experience. In our conversation. Ashton takes us on a journey to really better understand where these negative attitudes about aging come from in society, how they creep into our minds and the toll they take on our bodies, our work and our relationships. And along the way, she shares some pretty eye opening research and stories that honor the realities of getting older, but also shatter common myths about decline and demise. Ashton really helps explain in powerful ways, how we can spot and challenge the ageism around us and even within ourselves. And she reveals how aging can be a time of continued growth and thriving if we can just remove the cultural biases clouding our view. Ashton’s insights are grounded in what I would call reality and hope. If we can see aging clearly, not through the distorted lens of ageism, we can transform the later decades of life into a time of joy and purpose and possibility. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:30] Certainly the topic that you have been deep into for some time now is interesting to me. It’s interesting to you, and I know it will be to a lot of our listening community. I mean, your focus on activism and writing on the subject of age and ageism has been this deep through line. So whenever I see that a sustained sort of like devotion to a topic like this over a period of time, I’m always curious whether there was an inciting incident a moment or something, an experience, a happening that fundamentally changed your perception of aging and the concept of ageism that led you down this path?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:03:04] No. I wish there was some charming meet cute moment story to tell you, but there was not. It was really just sort of hitting my mid 50s and realizing that this getting old thing was happening to me. And I think that’s a surprise to everyone, partly because we live in a culture that tells you everything about aging is sad and icky and don’t even think about it. But I also think it’s really hard to imagine getting old. But I realized like, oh, I’m not going to be the only, you know, human being in history to never age. And so being a sort of nerdy person, I started looking into longevity and interviewing people over 80 and realized a matter of months, it felt like weeks. It felt like minutes that everything I thought I knew about what it was going to be like to be really old was flat out wrong or way off base. So I became obsessed very early on with why. Why we only hear one side of the story, you know, it’s not all the scary things are true. There are many reasons to be apprehensive about getting older, but our fears our way out of proportion to reality. And that fear is bad for us in so many ways, individually and collectively. And that just seemed to be right from the get go. A really important story to tell and message to get out there. Although it took many, many years to figure out how to do so.


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:33] Yeah, I want to deconstruct that a bit. But before we even get there, you know, whenever somebody says, okay, so this is a personal question to me, like, I’m this is landing in my life and I want to understand it better. And so let me go and really just pour myself into it and see what I can figure out. I get that, and I’m always curious. Then sort of like the secondary stuff was saying, okay, so I’m figuring something out here and it’s actually really landing for me. Like I’m curious about the compulsion to then turn around and say, like, I need to actually help center this in a more public conversation, and I want to be a part of that conversation. I even want to lead that conversation.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:05:06] You know, I cannot say that I ever had a plan. I mean, and I never envisioned becoming a public figure, and I, uh, certainly never imagined being a public speaker. And I didn’t even I never even imagined becoming a writer, although I was already earning my living as a writer. But it’s not like I ever had some great plan that I’m going to, you know, have world domination and wave my flaming saber and bring an end to ageism. But I do have a strong political center, I guess, and it became obvious very early on. I had a blog in the early days of blogs, and I had one of those word clouds. You know, where the words that are most salient are the biggest. And ageism was just like ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom right from the beginning. And it and it fascinated me. It was really interesting. I mean, I’m a curious person. If you told me, you know, 15 years ago that I would be fascinated by aging, I would have said, you, why do I want to think about something sad and depressing that old people do? And aging is not something old people do.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:06:13] It’s how we move through life. And it touches on every aspect of being human and every domain of inquiry. And I am a generalist. It’s I couldn’t figure out what to major in in college. I couldn’t figure out what to be when I grew up. But I like to think and I like to research. I don’t like writing much, but I like puzzling over things. Right. And this scratched all those itches in a way that seemed to me, although I can’t say I had any idea that I would reach the audience I have, considering I had no knowledge of the subject and no qualifications and no professional affiliations. But another thing about me is I am just really persistent. It’s just part of my personality. And I just kept digging away at it because, honest to God, the more I learned, the more interesting it got, the better questions I could ask. And also, it just felt really important in a world in which everyone, everywhere is living longer.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:11] Yeah, I mean, that makes so much sense. It’s interesting also, as you’re describing, that it’s also one of the only experiences that every person on the planet shares. No kidding. True. It is like no matter who you are, what your beliefs are like, where you came from, like it’s it is the one thing that every single person. Experiences and will forever.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:07:32] And when I get, you know, really my rainbow unicorn, you know, hat on. I think I know that there is potential to come to the table around that universal human experience of aging and encountering bias on the basis of age, and using that as sort of a way in to talking about how all these other forms of bias divide and harm us.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:57] Yeah. So true. So you use the phrase ageism, and I’m guessing that people probably understand it differently. So let’s let’s just define that when we’re talking about ageism in this conversation. What are we actually talking about?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:08:09] The term was invented by a wonderful geriatrician, whom I had the privilege of knowing in the last few years of his life, to whom I dedicated my book, um, named Robert Butler. And he coined the term in the 60s, during the heyday of the civil rights movement and the mainstream women’s movement, to piggyback on racism and sexism. So age is to ageism as race is to racism, as gender is to sexism, discrimination and prejudice. On the basis of age. The we are being ageist. Any time we make an assumption about someone or a group of people on the basis of how old we think they are and the goal of raising awareness of ageism. I love the World Health Organization launched a global campaign to combat ageism, and I’d be happy to talk about why the World Health Organization did it, not the World Old People organization. And they say the goal is to change the way we think, feel and act about age and aging because it has all those components.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:11] Question that jumps out at me immediately is, does ageism work in – at both ends of the spectrum? It seems like most of the conversation we have is about like the getting older part of the conversation. But but does it?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:09:22] Great question. It goes both ways. It’s any judgment on the basis of age, including that someone is too young. Air quotes around too young because there’s no such thing as too young or too old. Unless you’re talking about a legal age limit. You know, you might be. You might be too smart. You might be too lazy, you might be too out of shape. But it’s never actually about age. Younger people do experience it. Women experience it lifelong. We are never the right age. We are too sexy, then we’re too fertile. Then boom, we’re not cute or sexy anymore. So it is a problem. An issue discrimination that affects everyone lifelong. But we live in a deeply youth obsessed society and so older people absolutely bear the brunt.


Jonathan Fields: [00:10:08] Yeah, as you’re describing that. Also, I’m thinking of myself, the younger side of it and tell me if this assumption is wrong. I would imagine that most people quote age out of at a fairly early point in their lives, whereas the the older side of it we continue to age into and probably for decades. Um, so it’s probably a larger part of our experience for a much bigger part of our lives.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:10:27] Oh, yeah. I mean, especially a framing that I picked up in a book by a wonderful scholar who really helped my thinking name, Margaret Goulet, is she talks about people who are the young and no longer young. And if you think about, you know, a sliding scale of all of population, well, when are we no longer young and there’s no point. People are always saying, you know, when does age begin or when what is middle age? It’s different for everybody. It’s it’s silly and never a great idea to divide people into age buckets by number. But we are, you know, we spend most of our lives not being young. And that is, you know, a really punishing stigma that is imposed on us by the culture.


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:09] Right. It’s interesting to you because if you talk about, you know, if you ever talk about a young person or somebody who’s younger in their lives and use the phrase, oh, they’re, quote, old soul, it’s often used in a, in a kind way, and they’re like, they’re wise beyond their years or whatever that means, you know, and it’s not used in a pejorative way, at least in the way that I’m thinking about it. And yet that word old, just in general, often comes laden with a whole bunch of other like, oh, you’re not just quoting, commenting on somebody’s biological age. Like there’s a ton of stuff that’s that’s sort of loaded into that, that one word.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:11:43] I mean, it shouldn’t be a bad word, obviously. It should be. An age is part of our identity. Like where we live, like what kind of food we eat, like who we who we, you know, sleep with. And ideally all those things would be, would be mentioned, wouldn’t be hidden away, but would be neutral. Right where we run into problems, where it becomes ageist is if we when we assign a value to age, just like we are racist, when we assign people with different skin colors, different places in a human hierarchy. Same goes with age. You know, old soul is a compliment. There is an assumption that, you know, I agree with you that it is said in a. It is intended as a compliment. I will probably. Aggravate some of your listeners. When I say that that a stereotype can be positive as well as negative. The classic is like old people are wise. Lots of old people are idiots, right? And we have all met that child where you just look at this kid and you’re like, oh, this kid knows more than I ever will. So it’s not, it’s you’ll hear me say this probably ten times in our conversation. It’s not about age. I think that’s the second time it’s already come up. Right? I think as we live, we experience things and experience ideally contributes to wisdom. And, you know, in some sense of of better ways to act and think in the world. But it doesn’t go hand in hand. It’s not a given.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:10] Yeah. That makes so much sense as you’re describing that we, we actually run a separate company, um, that is deep into the world of, of archetypes and assessments and stuff like that. And we’re often asked, you know, is there an age cutoff for your tools? And my answer is generally every type of experience like this where like we’re always constrained by two, two major factors. One is the depth and quality of the experience that you bring when you’re actually like sitting down to do the work. And the other is the level of self-awareness that you bring in that moment in time also. And like you’re describing, you’ll get some 12-year-olds who have had stunning experiences and are just just really, you know, like incredibly self-aware. And then you’ll get some folks who are five times that age who’ve been very sheltered and very linear and sort of had a very homogenous life and are also just profoundly unself aware. And it’s like it’s not about like where they fall on the age spectrum. It’s like, who is the individual?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:14:06] Thank you for saying that so perfectly. You know, we give age more credit than it deserves for, you know, for affinity for attributes. You know, I hear people say, well, I want to, you know, sell XYZ to old people or develop, you know, market to old people. Well, guess what? Older people want pretty much the same things that younger people do, which are incredibly variable because we didn’t all want the same stuff when we were young either. And one fascinating fact about age is that the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. We have this wacky idea, you know, the marketing surveys that divide slice people into little year, you know, 22 to 28 and 28 to 35 and so on, and then end at 65. The population from 65 to 95 is way more heterogeneous, way more diverse, cognitively, physically, socially, developmentally than people. If you run run it backwards, then people from 65 to 35 who are much more alike. And yet we think, you know, you’re going to wake up someday and be shoveled into this bin that says the elderly and you’re all going to, you know, just join some homogenous, boring, sad, gray lump. And nothing could be further from the truth.


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:23] Yeah. Can we parse that a little bit too? Because I’m really curious about about that data.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:15:27] These are such big ideas. They connect to everything. It’s it’s it’s a curse, but it’s what makes it so interesting.


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:32] Yeah. It is, it’s really it’s like there’s so many different tangents that we could go down here, like the notion of just being much less homogenous or like a the 65 plus age and versus the 35 to 65. Do you have a sense for why that is? Like, do we just become much more comfortable with just like being who we are and like integrating all the experiences and showing up as that person as, as we.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:15:53] Just pointed out that there are lots of older people you meet who have not done any of that work at all.


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:58] True, true.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:15:58] So no, it’s just a you know, every newborn is unique, but 17-year-olds have way more in common just physiologically, developmentally, socially than 37-year-olds and so on out just because we’re each on our track. And of course, there are aspects that you know that join us. We live through certain historical events. They’re different if you encounter them at seven and if you encounter them at 70 and blah, blah, blah. But really, the nerdy way that gerontologists say it is that the defining characteristic of later life is heterogeneity, which is kind of a beautiful paradox. The thing we share is that we are more and more different From each other.


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:39] Yeah, I love that. Where does ageism come from? Like, why does this phenomenon exist?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:16:46] You know. Ageism comes from it saddens me to say this, but God knows I’m no exception. The human tendency to place people in hierarchies of human value. It is in that sense, it comes from where all prejudice comes from. Ageism has become more I mean, in the olden days, whenever that was, you know, people didn’t live this long, there wasn’t that much old age. And in the 20th century, in the US alone, the lifespan jumped by 30 years. Average lifespan. That doesn’t mean everyone lived 30 years longer. But the major driver of population aging, which means more old people as a percentage of the population, is sort of counterintuitively, declining birth rates. You know, 150 years ago, people had a whole bunch of children, just as they do in much of the majority world, where infant mortality rates are much higher. You have a bunch of kids because you need some of them to survive. You, you know, it’s a terrible thought, right? People started having fewer kids as public health improved, as we got cleaner water, as we got better at vaccinating against and treating early childhood diseases.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:17:57] So there started to be more older people. Another driving factor is urbanization. People stopped living as much in small-age mixed communities and moved to the cities, which was a segregating factor industrialization, capitalism, right? We started going to school for longer, which segregated us age-wise. And we became, you know, this notion of every person needing to be productive. Watch out for that word. Under capitalism became more powerful. And that is not a way, you know, conventionally productive, usually meaning income. Of course, if I am watching my grandchildren so their parents can go to work, that’s certainly contributing to their productivity. I could go on about this for hours. I won’t, you know, that doesn’t there’s no value for human relations under this model. There’s no value for volunteer activities, etc. but that value system is not kind to people at either end of the age spectrum. Kids don’t earn money, kids don’t vote. And if that becomes the case when you are age you to lose value as a human being, which is a really ugly, horrible thought. Unless we push back against that.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:07] The way you describe it, it makes so much sense. You know, the and it really it feels like, I mean, the research that you’ve done, if you go back 100 years, if you go back four generations, at least in, you know, in, in Western culture, to your knowledge, do you see the same level of ageism, or is it just the fact that, like, we’re living so much longer now, we didn’t have the opportunity to see that kind of ageism before B to.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:19:31] Yeah, there was just less there was less oldness. Yeah. And also where people live in diverse communities, whether it’s racially mixed, whether it’s gender mixed, whether it’s age mixed, it’s really hard to hold on to your stereotypes and preconceptions, which we all have when you are bumping into people all day long who are different from you. Right? So in the olden days, we lived in villages and the role of people of all different ages was evident because people were living out those roles in public view and in communal ways. And when we live, you know, when we drive in cars with just us or someone in our family, and when we spend a long time in school with people who are certainly our our own age for the most part, and often our own socioeconomic class and so on, we have all these segregating factors now that make it easier to be biased. If you only spend time with people your own age. It’s of course logical to think, oh, I get along with these people because we share these experiences and we were born at the same time, which is one reason, but only one of many. Which is why I’m always encouraging people to reach out and make friends, try and make friends. And it’s conscious. It’s a little awkward. It’s not automatic, but make friends with people older and younger than you. Think of something you like to do and find an age diverse group to do it with. If you go to a when you enter the room, try to break that habit of making a beeline for people your own age. You may not like the people you end up talking to, but it’s not going to be because they’re older or younger. It’s be good because you share a taste or an interest, or you think their values are out of whack. It’s not. Again, I think that’s the third time. It’s not about age, but we tend to think it is.


Jonathan Fields: [00:21:18] Do you feel like there’s a cultural overlay here also? Like are we talking about primarily sort of like North American Western society from what you’ve seen. Is this different in Europe? Is it different in Asia? Is it different in in African continents? Is this does culture play a significant role in the way that we look at aging and the existence of ageism?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:21:38] Yes. Culture plays a huge part. I want to say right off the bat that I’m American, that the bulk of my I know a lot about how this operates in the US and Canada, quite a bit about how it operates in Europe, and much less about how ageism operates in the rest of the world, partly because there has been relatively little research conducted. But I have the privilege of working with the United Nations and the World Health Organization together on their global campaign to combat ageism. And if I can just point out that, you know, the World Health Organization is in the is in the job of helping people be healthy. Their goal is to increase health, span the number of reasonably healthy and active years we spend to have that increase along with lifespan. And they realize, you know this, that the most important thing we can do globally is not clean water. It’s not a standard conventional public health measure. It’s not medical research. It is literally to combat internalized and structural ageism. So they created the Healthy Aging 50 a year and a half ago, 50 leaders around the world working to make the world a better place to age. I had the unbelievable honor of being one of them. And we some of us are now reaching out to the others to say, how can we understand what ageism means to you? Why in Rwanda, in Tibet, right in Cambodia? And each one, of course, and each one is just a unique person in a unique setting, but they are operating at local, at national and at global levels.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:23:15] The problem is as diverse as each of those places as each of those individuals. Everywhere global capitalism has encroached, there is. Ageism is everywhere. It is mediated by a whole lot of things how how industrialized, how urbanized a place is, what their previous values were. People always look wistfully eastward and say, isn’t it better somewhere else, meaning the East or China? And indeed places that had, um, where Confucianism was a religion or had a tradition of ancestor worship do have a tradition, preexisting tradition of venerating older people, and that has mitigated some of the effects of ageism. But, you know, I don’t want a world where old people are put up on a pedestal for being old. I want a world where age is neutral. Those were often crappy societies in which to be young. You had to wait for your parents to die. You had to wait for your older brother to decide he didn’t want to do what you wanted to do. You had to wait for your older sister to get married if you wanted to crack. That is not an age equitable society. So I think we need to look, you know, beyond what individual countries have to an aspirational global goal.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:27] Yeah. And it’s such an interesting comment. Also, you don’t want a world in which older people are put up on a pedestal. You just want them to sort of have parity, have equal treatment, like you have value just like everybody else.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:24:37] Yeah. And younger people too. I mean, don’t you remember as a teenager, I mean, I just spent, you know, so much time. Nobody listened to me. People were telling me what to do. You know, I had worthwhile things to say. I think the voting age should be lowered, for example.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:50] Yeah, it’s funny as you’re describing that. Remember being in my late teens and just being excited to be in my 30s because I thought maybe people would take me more seriously? Whether that ever happened, it’s a completely different conversation, but still probably grappling with that. Um, what’s your take then, on I know you speak about this and write about the sort of the role in media in perpetuating the stereotypes that we have around this. I mean, it’s interesting also, in particular in the world of podcasting, because a lot of people say podcasting is sort of like a younger person’s medium. But then we have Apple just actually sort of like identified Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s show, where she sits down and talks to women generally in their 80s, as the top show of last year. And it is regularly very, very highly ranked. But it seems to be very much an outlier in this particular space, too. But more broadly, when you think about the role of media in this, where are we?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:25:44] Media is a popular whipping boy whipping post, I suppose a a member of the media. The media has an enormous role to play here, but it becomes something of an echo chamber, of course, of people in media talking about media. And we need to like, step back and try and see, like, how much are we making a tempest in our little teapot? Because our teapot is super interesting to us. There is a presumption that there are no older people doing doing TikToks. There are lots of us know older people doing podcasts or listening to podcasts. There are lots of us. If you make a really good quality product or say something smart and interesting and stick with it, people are going to find you. You know, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s show proves that. So does your podcast. So again, every time they say, oh, AARP has this, in my opinion, dopey thing called music. Sorry, movies, movies for older people. It’s like, guess what’s on the list? The same movies everywhere. One sees because people at any age want to see good movies. So pretty much any sort of generalizing about audiences as well. I mean, you know, there this keys into the notion that older people don’t use new technologies. Guess what? During the pandemic, older people, the ones who weren’t already using zoom, learned to use zoom and learn to use FaceTime. We learn what we need to use to operate in the world in a way that makes sense to us, assuming we can afford it and have the computer and have the internet, which a lot of people do not.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:27:16] So we learn what we need to learn independent of age. It’s I’m, you know, it can be intimidating to think like, oh my God, there’s this new thing I have to learn, this new thing I have to learn. But I remember probably 20 years ago, a friend of my son’s came over and I made some remark about how he must be using, I want to say Snapchat, but maybe it was pre-Snapchat. And he said, oh, I don’t know how that works. You know, my little brother uses that. So yes, we came of age before the internet. So there is a distinct dividing line there. But still this is relentless change. If you are a farmer you had to switch from a from, you know, using a plow yourself to hitching it to an oxen to hitching it to a old-fashioned gas engine, a tractor. And now tractors are supercomputers. Be a farmer today you need to learn how to work that supercomputer. It’s not as though the bus, you know, got on and all the old people fell off. We are constantly adapting to these changes in ways that in whatever way we can afford. And as long as there is an application that has has meaning to us in our daily lives.


Jonathan Fields: [00:28:20] I guess the other whipping post that we often hear talked about in this context is the beauty industry and the media around the beauty industry. Yeah. And I feel like there have been efforts to change the campaigns to do some different things, but literally by like the angle of your head right now, I know you, you have different, a different take on this.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:28:40] Well, no, I have the same take as you. I’m laughing because I just wrote a post about this, the beauty industry. I will put right in the crosshairs here. You know, the anti-aging piece of the beauty industry, which is huge and it is a incredibly lucrative market because aging, everyone is going to come down with that, right? So you can acquire a consumer for life. And as I think we all know, there are girls who are, you know, 14 and 15 years old doing these elaborate, expensive wrinkle prevention regiments. You want to prevent wrinkles, don’t smile, okay? There’s no other way and never go outside. And you know, I don’t want to never smile and never go outside. The latest thing and I have is, um, a trend from labeling things anti-aging. We’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to call it age reversal. Those are the same things. And the thing I’m laughing at was that Kim Kardashian released a skincare line a little while ago. I don’t remember exactly, but she they don’t. They are. And they are avoiding using anti-aging in their marketing. And in the very same article in which she says that she says she would, this is a direct quote. She would quote literally eat poop every single day, unquote, if it made her look younger. So, you know, I call bullshit. It’s all the same thing. The message, the underlying message is that aging is something to fear and to deny, and that is because nobody makes money off satisfaction. This is a problem. The terrible problem. You might look your age. Ah, and this is a problem invented by an ageist, sexist, misogynist capitalist culture. They need to make you unhappy so they can sell you stuff to fix it or cure it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:30:29] I mean What’s going through my head is. Yes, but I also want to I want to anticipate what somebody who’s listening to this is going to say, like, especially to that very last part and say like, because and you kind of address this earlier in the conversation, but I want to make sure that we center it again, which is, well, yes. And there are legitimately scary things that accompany aging. And and can we actually acknowledge the fact that these are a part of that process and not sort of like take this polytheistic view and say, like, aging is awesome, everything is beautiful. It’s just like, it’s the best. Let’s acknowledge the fact that there are some things that we’re scared about. Yeah.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:31:04] Thank you for that qualification. Can I tag something on to the beauty piece of it?


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:09] Yeah. Yeah, please.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:31:10] I actually I want to qualify what I said in that I think I sounded very judgmental. Aging is really complicated, especially for women. There are so many voices out there saying you should dye your hair, you shouldn’t dye your hair, you should use Botox. You shouldn’t do this. That I try not to be one of those voices. We each need to navigate this in our own way. I have had women say if I didn’t dye my hair, my boss would know how old I am and I would get fired. And that shit is real. So we are all up against those. Powerful forces that we need to navigate in our own way without judgment, especially women judging other women. Let’s just do the best we can. Whatever is best for you. Your best is probably completely different from my best, and that is fine.


Jonathan Fields: [00:31:55] Let’s drop into some of those different sort of use cases, for lack of better word. You just brought up the workplace. Talk to me more about what you’re seeing with aging in the workplace. And what do we need to know about this?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:32:07] Yeah, I mean, we live under capitalism. Newsflash. So there is a lot of energy around ageism in the workplace. Both. I just, you know, tweeted a story today about saying that a 2024 is the year of a great year for retirees. I’m not even sure why they use that word. But anyway, uh, more are returning to the workplace and older people are staying in it. There’s a global labor shortage. You know, the machine needs workers, so there’s tremendous energy from that side to to address this problem. And also, I can’t tell you how many older people cannot find work, especially if we are laid off. It takes us much longer to find a new job. We are seldom hired at the same pay grade, and people send out literally hundreds of resumes and often don’t get an answer at all. And if they do, the interview is often over the minute they turn on their camera or walk in the door. And that is really deeply disheartening. There is evidence that shows that we know that diverse companies work better. There’s more ideas at the table, there’s more experience to draw on. Age is a criterion for diversity. There’s now data showing that age diversity itself is useful, helps companies make more money and be more productive, especially if they are involved in creative businesses.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:33:23] So the business case is there too. Not a single negative stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny. H is probably the biggest gatekeeper here. There are studies that show people in HR say, oh yeah, older people are some of my very best workers, but I still don’t want to hire them. They acknowledge their own bias. You know, bias is tricky. It’s unconscious. Most of us don’t know it’s operating. No one wants to be biased. I think often of an experiment conducted by an orchestra in Europe, which was mostly white men, and they thought, we need to do something about this. And what they finally ended up doing was doing auditions behind a curtain, and they even put a carpet so they couldn’t tell what kind of shoes someone was wearing or how much they weighed. And then it diversified. Because these biases are powerful. Even if you want a group that’s different from you, we default. It’s that tribal thing, you know, towards people who look like us. It’s more comfortable, it’s less scary. You know, I want HR to conduct all their researches, all their, you know, job searches behind a curtain in Europe because that is what would resolve the problem. But it’s slow, hard work.


Jonathan Fields: [00:34:34] So is there a version of that, you know, is there more sort of like, um, sensible version of what you just described in the hiring process? If this is like a major thing we.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:34:44] Know a lot about, about, you know, we’ve learned a lot from diversity, equity and inclusion training. And each form of bias is very different and it affects every worker differently. But still, there are broad skill sets and tools that are applicable to addressing this bias in the workplace. Lots of them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:35:01] But even if we address it on a on a hiring level, I can see this as almost like an intervention. Like these three policies would take 75% of the bias against ageism out of the hiring process. What about the actual like day-to-day working process or experience?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:35:16] It is? Managing a diverse group is always tricky. There are loads of people who know much more about managing than I do. I am not a manager. I sit in my little room all by myself and so this is not my field of expertise. But I can tell you the internet is full of legitimate expertise on this subject. I think. To zoom out a bit. Again, there is an assumption that and partly and a lucrative industry has developed around so-called generational consulting. You know, what are those pesky Gen Xers need or Gen Y so hard to manage or boomers so stuck in their ways? None of these stereotypes are true, and they are really divisive and harmful. The minute we hear a generational label, all of us. I’m not pointing fingers here. All sorts of assumptions click into place and what the research actually shows. And this is out of the Harvard Business Review and other sources, is that most workers want the same things. What we want is much, much, much more similar than the few areas in which different age cohorts diverge. We want flex time. We want to be heard. We want opportunities to be trained. We want to look around and see people who look like us. And that can be if you’re a 22-year-old, you know, trans tech worker, or if you’re, you know, a 75-year-old person in marketing, it’s just it’s what humans need. It is true. That older workers do in greater numbers, require flex time and require accessibility, and maybe don’t want to work as long hours. But that’s also true if you’re 20 and have a chronic illness, if you’re 40 and have a caregiving responsibilities, etc., you make the job market adaptable in those ways. You make it a better job market for everybody, and you are a better and more desirable employer for everyone.


Jonathan Fields: [00:37:05] It’ll be so Interesting to see how post-pandemic work policies start to affect. I just saw a study at the University of Pittsburgh this week that looked at return to office mandates and basically like looked at it across, I think, 137 different companies or something like this, and basically said that in 99% of the companies performance was down and job satisfaction was substantially down with return to work mandates. And I wonder if, like the more that organizational leadership gets hip to the fact that we actually need to build more flexibility and accommodation into like acknowledging the humanity and the individual needs of the individual of the people, that that might be one of the things that also helps bring a more diverse workforce.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:37:52] Sure makes sense to me. Me, Jonathan. Especially in a in a work, a global, you know, global globalized workforce where few, very few people have, you know, careers for life, where a lot of us are juggling a number of gigs, that makes complete sense. I mean, in this article I saw this morning, it made this slightly convoluted argument, if I understood it correctly, that older people, if they might not be suited to modern workplaces or might, you know, there’s a notion that we have trouble, you know, adapting well, if everyone is working remotely, that might make us more suited to working remotely. If we have different expectations of the workplace, it doesn’t matter. I think that’s more a question of temperament and of the kind of work you do. You know, the pandemic, I was very lucky in that I am self-employed and I have always worked alone. So the fact that I didn’t have to go in and go to meetings was just nifty. But for a lot of people, that was a tremendous loss, both because of the nature of their work and their personality, temperament, you know, your temperament, your temperament is formed, in my opinion, when the sperme hits the egg. Right? That does not change across your lifetime.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:54] When you think about, you know, this is kind of building on the workplace, but it really extends more broadly. You know, like I would imagine some of the things that people think but don’t say are also well, but you know. Yeah. Like what about their cognitive abilities? What about their memory? Are they as fast as it used to be in terms of thinking and both in terms of it being incorrect and in terms of being somebody who is on the receiving end of those unspoken assumptions, but sort of like clearly interpreting, like reading the tea leaves there. What is the impact of somebody, I guess what is the impact more broadly is what I’m asking of ageism on somebody who is receiving that on their mental health, on their cognitive ability, on their physical health.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:39:40] The impact is terrible. It’s terrible on our self-esteem. I mean, most of us internalize these negative messages lifelong, which is why older people can be the most ageist of all, because we’ve had a lifetime of absorbing these, you know, stereotypes. And if we don’t stop to challenge them, stop to examine them, they become part of our identity. And it’s why we assume, you know, that we’re not going to get that job interview. It’s why we blame any ache and pain on age when it could be just because you cooked dinner for ten people, or you helped a friend move or you, you know, banged your leg? I mean, it’s the old gag that I use in my TED talk. I stop blaming my sore knee on my age when it dawned on me that my other leg doesn’t hurt and it’s just as old. So there are all sorts of ways this stuff harms us, individually and collectively. More and more data about the way it harms our health. Uh, affecting not just depression, mental health. These things become self-fulfilling. Stereotypes were less likely to take good care of ourselves. If you think it’s just going to all fall apart because you’re older. I remember a story that the New York Times Magazine does a monthly bizarre symptom. What could be wrong with this person thing, which I love? And one guy had a pretty serious autoimmune condition that he almost died of because he didn’t have it looked at because he was hitting his 30s and I and he thought, you know, this just happens with age.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:41:05] He was in his 30s, and he had already been poisoned by this idea that he was too old to get better. Right? That the physical decline was inevitable. Physical decline is inevitable. You know, that is a scary thing. Your body will work less well. Cognitive decline is not inevitable, but we all know about 20% of the population escapes it entirely. And I know you can think of some 90-year-olds right now who seem to remember every single damn thing they ever did, can, you know, are just like so on the ball. Most of us lose processing speed, the ability to remember where you put your glasses or you know, the name of the movie you saw. With what’s her name last week, but that’s all we lose. And where ageism kicks in is that if we and this is underlying this fascinating body of data that’s growing all the time about how attitudes towards aging affect how our bodies and minds function at the cellular level. Right. If we think we can’t find our glasses, I must be getting Alzheimer’s.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:42:05] That is a terrible primal fear. And that causes stress. And that stress is bad for us people with more positive attitudes towards aging, which really means more realistic attitudes towards aging. Because like you said, we can’t paint over the scary stuff. Cognitive decline is a legit and terrifying fear. You know, it’s I don’t think there’s anything scarier. So of course it’s in our minds. We can’t paint it away. But if you understand how low the odds are of actually getting Alzheimer’s and the chance that you lost your glasses, you know, if you don’t know what your glasses are for anymore, you got a problem. This happens to millions of people at every age. Young people forget things to all the time. And there is a wonderful study that shows that people with this better attitude more, more, more reasonable, more, more fact-based attitude towards aging are less likely to get Alzheimer’s, even if they have the gene that predisposes them to the disease. And we also we walk faster, we heal quicker, we get better medical care because we expect it, you know, when we don’t let doctors, hopefully easier said than done, you know, condescend to us and push back against all the, you know, structural bias to.


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:18] It feels like there is probably a lot of structural support for a combination of gaslighting and self-aging or self-ageism. You know, it sort of compounds. I had the opportunity to sit down with Ellen Langer recently and talk to her about her 45 years of research in this space now, and and it brought back to her very original like research that kind of like she became known for what a lot of people refer to as the counterclockwise study, where she took a group of men in their 70s and 80s and basically put them in a home that everything was like it was in their 20s, and they measured their like their all sorts of like physiological markers. And after a week, you know, like higher cognition, like their eyesight improved, their hearing improved all these different things simply because their visual environment, like their lived experience. And, you know, she she uses the phrase which I love. She doesn’t use the phrase mind-body connection because it assumes that they’re two different things. She uses the phrase mind-body unity, which is is designed to acknowledge the fact that, like, there’s nothing to connect here, like they are one and the same, and it’s one system, like, really realize that what we think and what we believe and our expectations have profound effects on our physical well-being.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:44:29] I love That. Thank you. I know she was one of the first to investigate this connection, which we know more about. It reminds me of a construct you hear a lot of now about people’s chronological age versus their physical age or whatever. And I don’t love that because I think there’s a lot of age denial there. Oh, well, you know, my liver has the function of a 42-year-old. Well, it’s up there right next to your 71-year-old lungs. We have your body is a system. Your social being is a system. And if you are justifiably delighted that your organ function is excellent, but it’s still in a body that is a given age that has to navigate the world as a person of that age. It’s all a system and we need to accept our age, I think, but push back against the notion that there’s some way a I mean, I happen to be 71, a seven-year-old looks, moves, acts, etc.


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:25] The other topic I really want to explore a bit is ageism, sexuality and intimacy. Like how do ageism and societal expectations and stereotypes around it really impact? Sort of like the notion of sexuality, intimacy as we get older?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:45:42] Well, more I mean, we didn’t used to study sexuality in older people because there was assumed that you just because icky, I suppose. And there was an assumption that you sort of aged out of it, you know, if and why would we, you know, even I mean, human touch, why would we not want that to the end in some, in some variety? So data now shows, you know, that people who have a partner and, or, you know, someone to engage in sex with and masturbation is sex too, right? It’s sex with yourself. People do remain sexually active into their 80s and probably beyond. They probably just haven’t studied enough 90-year-olds. But we do so in a society that we’re one of the most, you know, awful. You know, I can’t even say this phrase without my lips wrinkling, but the sexless senior blah. You know, what a horrible thing to be tarred with, you know, label. But we do live in a world. And I will say that gender plays a huge part in this. You know, there is a double standard of aging. I’m sure that’s not news to you, but that old equals ugly, especially for women. So women are harder on ourselves when we, God help us, you know, appear to visually age and lots of data. I don’t I haven’t seen data about LGBTQ people. I have heard anecdotally it’s more tolerant but that straight men.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:47:02] There’s a famous graph on OkCupid they did once where, you know, it’s your it’s your age and the age of people that you want to date. And men get older and they keep wanting to date 17 year olds and women get older and, you know, are willing to date people that are aging along with them. So there’s all sorts of evil, you know, gender stereotypes at play here, too. The fact is that if you if sex is important to you and you are willing to embrace a broader notion of the forms sex takes, you can continue to have deeply satisfying sex your entire life. But it means it means struggling. It means working against this very popular notion. You know that somehow, as an older person, you are less sexually viable and less sexually desirable if for the purpose of this conversation, and it’s a very limited and ableist way to frame it. But if we take being sexually active as the measure, if you look at people who are sexually active, they are not the youngest, they’re not the thinnest, they’re not the blondest, they’re not the whitest. They are the people who know their lovers are lucky. And it is harder to hold on to that idea in a society that privileges the thin, the white, the young. But we can do it. And it works.


Jonathan Fields: [00:48:16] Just talking to Emily Nagoski recently, who is in the space of sexuality. And so she and she she asked me a question. She said she’s done a whole bunch of research. She just actually did her own study with, I think, close to 3000 people. And she said, I want you to, guys. She said, we asked them like, you know, like sort of like we identified the subsets by age. And one of the questions was something along the lines of, you know, like something that would let them share that they’re basically in a moment where they’re having the best sex of their lives. And she’s like, what age group do you think actually had that? Like that was the top of the bell curve there. And it was it was 55.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:48:49] I’m just going to guess 60.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:48:51] Yeah. You know, which sort of like goes and it’s interesting, like it just goes against the sort of cultural stereotypes about what happened. Like as you progress through life.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:49:02] Right. And also affected by demographics, of course, there would be probably it wouldn’t drop off, but people die, you know, your partner dies. It becomes harder to find sexual partners on the open market, if you will, especially for women, for reasons we’ve just talked about, for men who sense of themselves as sexual being is very wrapped up in, you know, erectile function and all of that, that’s an obstacle. Also, you can have lots of good sex without hard penis, but that I don’t envy men having to internalize that knowledge and learn to think of themselves as sexual beings in a different way. These are not easy things to do. But if sex matters to you and you can and now you know there are many more ways. Thank you. Internet dating apps to to find people who I think find us attractive. I am always if people ask, you know, suggesting that women try to date younger people because I think there’s so much anxiety about how we look and, you know, thinking that, oh, no one will desire me. I don’t think that’s that’s the case. I think there’s a lot of younger people who find older people attractive. And there’s, you know, there’s more opportunity than we think, but we need to be open-minded and we need to be brave, and you need to have, you know, the time and the leisure to pursue it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:19] That kind of leads us more broadly also to just the notion of and kind of shifting. Also more into like, well, where can we go with this? What can we do about this, this particular thing like on yes, there are big cultural and societal things and probably policy and legal things that would be like make a lot of sense to advocate for. But if you’re listening to this right now and you’re this is really landing with me, and I see how this is probably touched down in a lot of different ways in my own life, both from the outside in and from the inside in.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:50:46] Ummhmm.


Jonathan Fields: [00:50:47] What are some things that we can start to think about to reverse engineer our way out of this a bit?


Ashton Applewhite: [00:50:54] That’s a great way to put it, Jonathan. You know, all change starts with awareness. I didn’t make that up. Gandhi did, or Buddha or somebody. But the most biases unconscious and we can’t challenge it if we’re not aware of it. So the first, most uncomfortable, most necessary step is to look at our own attitudes towards age and ageing. Right. Because we’re all biased. And so anytime, you know, age crops up in your own thinking, any time you hear someone say, I’m too old, I’m too young, you know, people of a certain age should or shouldn’t do a certain thing, interrogate it, see what comes up for you. How do you, you know, do you what do you attribute to your age that might not have where age might not, and almost certainly doesn’t have actually anything to do with it, that, you know, you couldn’t reach out to a person who’s very different from you in age, that you’re too, too young to be getting those AARP mailers. That’s a bad one. Too young to be offered a senior discount, too old to wear a two-piece bathing suit. These are obviously off the top of my head. Well, who says so? Where do those messages come from and what purpose do they serve? Because once you realize they’ve taken up residence inside all of our heads, the next step is a lot more pleasant. We start to see. Once you see it in yourself, then you see it in the world around you. That’s what consciousness-raising is, and that’s really liberating. It’s like, oh, this crap is everywhere. It’s in the billboards. It’s in back to the media.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:52:24] Where the media can really do better is simply representation. Have more people of all ages. The next time you see a show where everyone in it is 12, unless it’s a show for 12-year-olds, you know we’ve gotten better. At least I think most of us at noticing when everyone on the panel is male, when everyone in the meeting is white, bring that same lens to age diversity that we have learned to do, you know, around other forms of diversity and practice that because once you start to see it, then you do start to see the ways. Once you see it in the world, you realize it’s a problem, that we can come together and do something about. And that’s very liberating. Right. And I just want to mention a website called Old School, the Old School Anti-ageism clearinghouse, old school info. I don’t make any money off it, but gosh, 2018 now I thought, you know, this global anti-ageism movement, it’s getting off the ground, but it’s new. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was one place a repository for all the best resources podcasts, you know, graphics, stuff about ageism in the workplace, stuff about ageism in your health, blah blah blah. Everything’s free except the books. So go noodle around, you know, see what there is of interest to you. Search for something that interests you. Search on gender or just noodle. It’s really, really interesting because the subject is interesting and you can find a thousand ways there to educate yourself in a way that suits you and from the point of entry that is appropriate for you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:53:49] I love that, and something you mentioned earlier in our conversation also probably makes sense to circle back to here, which is also the notion of being proactive about creating intergenerational relationships. I imagine a lot of people would sit there and if you basically said like, name five people off the top of your head who you’re connected to, you know who you see on a regular basis in work or in friendship or in life, that a lot of those would be sort of in a similar age bracket, you know, and that like just the invitation to say, huh, what could I actually start to do to expand my sphere of people to people who are, like, both a generation older than me, a generation younger than me, and purely just to run the experiment and like, see, like, test all of my assumptions.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:54:33] Yeah. And, you know, I mean, if it were easy, my friend cohort is extremely age-diverse, but it’s still pretty white, you know, and I’m not happy about that and I am. It’s slow and it’s awkward to reach across these. But if we don’t consciously reach across those boundaries, then we end up just surrounded by people who look like us, which tends to be people who are likely to think more like us. Not necessarily, of course, and so on. One habit I would love people to break is using the word generation instead of age group, or just older and younger, because even when we hear the word, the idea of a generation is that all the millions of people born roughly around the same time are the same, obviously can’t be the case. Generational labels are even worse. But talk about age group instead. Or just talk about older people and younger people because. That is inclusive. It doesn’t divide and people because what’s older to me, maybe younger to you, so to speak. Right? Or it depends if you’re sometimes I’m the oldest person in the room more, more and more often I have to say. But you know, a five-year-old will assure you that she is older than her three-year-old system in the sister, right? In the classroom, they have very different meanings. Little tiny age differences are salient when we’re younger that aren’t. So, you know, these emphasize that we’re all on this journey together relating to different aspects of it in very different ways that change our to our year to year.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:58] Yeah. Thank you for that. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up.


Ashton Applewhite: [00:56:09] Uggh. I never have an easy answer for these. The thing that sprung to my mind is, is be less afraid. But I think that that’s a very sort of privileged way to put it, because there are things to be afraid of. You know, if you you can only afford to take a deep breath and be less afraid if you have the brain space and the luxury to not be worrying at that moment about your health, about your physical safety, about the well-being of people whom you love. And there are an awful lot of people who are not in a position to do that. But I would say, I think I could say be less afraid of aging. We are aging life long. It is a beautiful, powerful process that we are all embarked on. That should not, you know, when as we age, we continue. We absolutely continue to grow.


Jonathan Fields: [00:57:00] Hmm. Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you’d love this episode Safe bet. You’ll also love the conversation we had with Karen Waldron about the amazing parts of getting older. You’ll find a link to Karen’s episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.

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