AGE (STILL) MATTERS
A STATEMENT BY TONI CALASANTI
When I was writing my 2001 book (with Kate Slevin) we found that our friends—academic and not—were interested to know we were writing a book, but discussion stopped when they realised that the topic was aging. If pushed, everyone thought that aging is an important topic, and would even admit to the existence of ageism. But no one wanted actually to talk about it. As far as research topics go, it was—and is—as far away from ‘sexy’ as it is possible to be. Kate and I followed this book with the 2006 edited volume,Age Matters: Re-aligning Feminist Thinking. I wish I could say that the attitude we came up against no longer holds, or that age matters less, or that feminist thought has recognised the importance of age inequalities; but recognising a few feminist scholars as the exception, I cannot say that. Despite the popular forecasts that ‘aging baby boomers’ will dilute ageism, this has no more happened than gender equality has been achieved. Indeed, much like the fight for gender equality, the picture has merely shifted: just as all women need do is ‘lean in’, neoliberal ideology assures us that, with effort, one can ‘age successfully’. Blame for inequality falls on the shoulders of elders.
How often does feminist inquiry focus on old age? Despite some recent concern about aging (likely a result of feminists arriving at middle age), rarely do feminists study those whom we would consider old. Similarly, while feminists are concerned about intersecting power relations, we still ignore the intersecting axis of age.
To be sure, some attention has been paid to the ‘double standard of aging’ (by which women are judged to lose their physical attractiveness more quickly than men do—a concept introduced in 1972 but not developed since). But focus remains on issues of middle age, the stage when physical markers of aging, such as menopause and wrinkles, emerge, as well as the issue of care work for aging parents. While these issues and time of life are important, we should not conflate this with concern or study of old women or taking them and their lives seriously. For instance, almost none of the care work research examinesold women who give or receive care. And for the most part, feminists have not actually talked to old women to explore their daily experiences. And none of the few exceptions examine old age itself critically, in terms of age relations.
Our ageism—exclusion of the old—is apparent not only in what we study, buthow. When we do consider age, how do we do it? We may see old age as a social construction, and critique the gendered double standard, but we do not critique the construction of old’ itself as a stigmatised status. We have given lip service to age relations by including it on lists of oppressions, but we have rarely theorised it. Analogously, with gender relations, we have analysed how terms related to girls and women are used to put men and boys down while also reinforcing the presumed inferiority of women. But we have not examined the age relations that underlie our use of markers for old age to keep both older and younger age groups in their normative places.
Feminist theories are based primarily on young and middle-aged women’s experiences. For example, balancing work and family is a central concern to feminist theory. But this focus allows for little attention to those who are not engaged in labour markets in later life, or to the different kinds of unpaid work that old women (and some old men) perform, such as spousal care work or care for grandchildren, work that is often even more invisible than childcare earlier in life. Feminists have paid little attention to the ways in which such work is exploitative and occurs at a time of life when physical changes makes its performance all the more difficult. And the biases can be far more subtle as well. For example, much of the feminist argument against cosmetic surgery and the skin-care industry centers on its male-definednature; there is no recognition that aging constitutes an inequality that intersects to exclude old women, and many old men as well, in unique ways.
Given the negative sexual imagery and powerlessness of old women, an issue more salient to them than sexual exploitation might be that of being cast aside—of being invisible altogether. Such invisibility occurs not only in relation to men, but also in relation to women, including younger members of the women’s movement and lesbian communities. The nature of this invisibility calls forth a different set of issues and dependence than that experienced by younger women.
Although some scholars have noted the growing invisibility of aging women as sexual beings (with the withdrawal of the male gaze, for instance), this recognition falls short of putting old women’s sexuality at the center of theorising. How might our theories change if we explore the lives of old, heterosexual women who are interested in men, who still see themselves (or might want to see themselves) as sexual?
Age relations intersect with other social inequalities to shape old women’s de/sexualisation. For instance, younger women benefit from this ‘casting aside’ of old women, in much the same way that white women have benefited from the subordination of women of colour. Younger heterosexual women are relatively advantaged by their ability to be sexual partners and to align with those with power—men. Many younger women can benefit from the depiction of old women as less/undesirable, as this would enhance their opportunities with privileged men.
What I have described results from the ageism rooted in age relations. Similar to gender relations, age relations encompass the ways in which age serves as a social organising principle (appropriate behaviours and obligations are based on age) such that age groups gain identities and power in relation to one another, with consequences for life chances—for people’s abilities to enjoy the good things in life. People recognise their own placement, and that of others, into different age categories, and they gain identities as they strive to live up to age-specific ideals of behaviour; these categories matter for power. One or more age groups gain advantages at the expense of another. Thus, age is not only the basis for differentiation, but it is also a system of inequality. Gender, class, and other systems of inequality may influence when ‘old’ occurs, but the result is a loss of power for all those so designated, regardless of position on these other hierarchies. Old age does not just exacerbate other inequalities, but is a social location in its own right.
Similar to other relations of privilege and oppression, age relations result in unequal distributions of authority, status, and money, such that those who are advantaged feel entitled to exclude the oppressed group from the networks and institutions in which they manage money and other resources; stigmatise and devalue the oppressed group; and regard these inequalities as determined by a natural order and thus beyond dispute. For instance, ageism in the labour market, both overt and the more subtle incorporation of age in staffing and recruitment strategies, career structures, and retirement policies, results in lost status and income. In addition, the inability to earn money in later life means that most old people must rely on others—family or the state. And when we consider the economic dependence of old people, the oppressive nature of age relations become apparent. The fiscal policies and welfare retrenchment occurring across many countries provide one lens through which to examine the discrimination faced by old people, as they face cutbacks while younger groups are protected. Demographic projections about aging populations are often used to justify such changes, even though appropriate evidence is often lacking.
In their daily lives, old people experience powerlessness in their loss of authority and ability to be heard and exert control over their bodies and personal decisions. Doctors may dismiss their symptoms as ‘just old age’ rather than as signs of illness or injury that merit care. Family members or medical personnel may make decisions at odds with an old person’s desires on the grounds that they are protecting them, while young men, for instance, may engage in life-threatening behaviours without overt interference. Ageism can be and is in fact used to make judgments about capabilities because of the equation of mental and physical incapacity with old age; in the workplace, this logic may intervene such that older workers in positions of authority are expected to step aside.
Finally, that old age bears stigma is apparent in the anti-aging industry that grows throughout the global North. Indeed, the fact that an industry can call itself ‘anti-aging’ without censure is itself noteworthy; would an industry designated as ‘anti-woman’ exist, let alone thrive, without remark? Old age has been framed as a natural and unavoidable process that leads to inevitable decrements, and this view has resulted in limiting the rights, respect, authority, and autonomy of old people. If so much is at stake, it is no wonder that people go to great lengths to avoid visible signs of aging.
Ageism is expressed in two different ways, one of which is much harder to see than the other, but both of which communicate the same idea: to be old is to be different (from those ‘not old’), and difference is unacceptable. The first expression of ageism echoes this: People who are ‘not old’ regard old people as different—diseased, wrinkled, forgetful or demented—and thse characteristics are judged as bad, laughable, worthy of scorn, mockery, and devaluation. I often use an exercise in my classes wherein I ask students to explain to me the cues they would use to designate someone as ‘old’ when they first meet them (just as we might judge someone’s gender or race). They often start tentatively. But soon someone mentions slow drivers or funny clothes. Others laugh; students grow bolder, and come up with more indicators that amuse them. Like most of us, these students understand this level of ageism. They know that they have spouted negative stereotypes. When pressed, they define ageism as acting as if the negative stereotypes about old people are true, and not giving the individual a chance to show that they are, in fact, ‘young’.
This brings me to the second, more hidden form of ageism. A superficially more positive stance, it emerges when we say that old people are acceptable because they can be like younger people. For instance, we applaud those whom we feel are ‘young at heart’; we point to 90 year-old athletes, and laud them as examples of how old people can be ‘ageless’ (by which we mean not old). “‘Old’ is in your mind,” people will say; and so some old people, then, really are not ‘old’ because they ‘still act young’. But underlying these seemingly positive images is the idea that old is different, and that is not ok. The only way that old people can be accepted and valued is they are notold—if they are like ‘the rest of us’.
I first recognised this ageism within myself when I noticed my tendency to avoid saying ‘old’ in the classroom. At some point, I heard myself using the term ‘older people’ with my students. I am sure I had said that numerous times before I really noticed it, but I began to wonder why I was doing it. I realised that it was an attempt to ‘soften’ students’ perceptions of old people; to encourage them to care, to see old people as not so distant or different from themselves. But despite my positive intentions, in trying to help my students see that ‘old people are people too’, I was implicitly reinforcing ageism, by trying to say that we are all the same, regardless of age.
Good intentions aside, we are not the same. To be sure, there are similarities across age groups; but old age does matter. Old age is a social location, and a subordinate one. Stigma does accrue. Disadvantages accumulate. Lifetime experiences shape us. And old people face ageism.
This second sort of ageism, in which we turn a blind eye to social realities of old age, is akin to saying that we should be gender-blind—for instance, saying that women can be in the paid workplace and be valued, if they act like men. Or that Black people are acceptable in corporate boardrooms or prestigious universities as long as they act like white people. To the extent that we don’t acknowledge that these groups can be different and still be acceptable, we are being sexist or racist. In the same way, if we cannot say that old people are different, and that this difference is ok, we are ageist.
Saying that ‘old age’ is just a social construction—something in your mind, and nothing more—reflects this ageism. As Molly Andrews (1999: 302) observed some years ago, all lifecycle stages are social constructions, but ‘there is not much serious discussion about eliminating infancy, adolescence, or adulthood from the developmental landscape. It is only old age which comes under the scalpel’. In other words, we don’t have the same difficulty saying that childhood is different and that it is ok; unlike old age, childhood we value.
Finally, understanding and theorising age relations is critical for looking at all inequalities. Age relations differ from other power relations in a critical way, theory of which should inform our understandings of all inequalities. Age is fluid, and group membership shifts over time, such that people can experience both advantage and disadvantage over the courses of their lifetimes. Such dramatic shifts in other social locations can occur but remain uncommon. By contrast, we all grow old or die first; where individuals stand in relation to old age must change. And it does so slowly, such that one can experience the process of passing into disadvantage (indeed, this is the impetus for the anti-aging industry). The fluidity of age relations, and the fact that ageism is the one oppression we will all face, complicates theories of gender (and other forms of) privilege as it means that even those whose lives have been most shaped by advantage will lose status (even if this is cushioned by certain privileges); and they may be the most surprised by this loss in power. They may come to see how precarious their position actually is, and power relations—including their own privilege—may become more apparent. This consciousness can provide the potential for social change not only in relation to ageism but also to other systems of inequality.
This article is featured in HYSTERIA #6 ‘Eruption’. Support us producing this issue and receive a copy!https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/829143091/hysteria-6-eruption
Calasanti, Toni M. and Kathleen F. Slevin. 2001. Gender, Social inequalities, and Aging. CA: Alta Mira Press.
Calasanti, Toni M. and Kathleen F. Slevin (editors). 2006. Age Matters: Re-Aligning Feminist Thinking. New York: Routledge.
Artwork © Georgia Henn