Photo: Valerie Massadian, “Mamoushka—Age Is . . . ” © valerie massadian 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
In the fall of 2018 a Dutch man named Emile Ratelband petitioned a court to change the year on his birth certificate to 1969 rather than the true year, 1949. “This is American thinking,” Ratelband said, to justify his intention. “Why can’t I change my age if I want to?”
It was easy to deride the fantasies of this 69-year-old, and the Twitterverse did this abundantly as ABC News, CNN, blogs, and newspapers all over the Anglophone world reported Ratelband’s petition and some interviewed him. The court, as anticipated, rejected his petition. But Ratelband, a publicity hound who had tried and failed to start a political party, had serious motivations.
At his age, the likelihood of finding love or getting a mortgage or a new job are undermined, as he knows from experience, by ageism — even though he’s male, and men have historically benefited from what Susan Sontag calls “the double standard of aging.” Indeed, women still suffer more in terms of stereotypes about losing beauty and desirability, and from realities like lower midlife and later-life income. At the median, wages of even college-educated women stagnate or flatline at age 40, while men’s rise, but only until age 49, when they too flatten. Nevertheless, like women, older men are finding themselves invisible and disrespected, socially and economically shunned. “Ageism is the first form of discrimination that many white men encounter, so I’m eager for some of those guys to get woke,” says Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks. Ratelband might be considered still dozing.
Ageism is an epidemic of confusion and real dangers, widely underestimated and misunderstood. In the US, where Ratelband thinks identity theory makes us “free” to change our gender, sexuality, or class at will, it is all too common to wish to be younger. He’s right about one thing: this wish is “American thinking.” The greater trouble is that such wishes are spreading around the globe like plague spores. What if everyone wanted to change their birthdate? The Dutch court may have feared this mad bureaucratic outcome when they denied his petition.
As for finding love on a dating site, the publicity that Ratelband achieved means that now every woman in the Netherlands knows he is actually 69. Even a legally granted age of 49 might have proved too old for attracting the women he desires, presumably women even younger than 49. (Certainly he is overlooking women his own age.) A friend of mine jokingly suggested that he petition the court for a document saying his income is much larger than it is. Consumption and display being key social values, wealth might trump age in the dating market. No joke.
Behind the economic fantasy of being younger, or looking younger, or acting younger, is grave job anxiety. The truth is that by age 69, many people are ill, disabled, unemployed, or still looking for work. The expectation that they are all retired and enjoying the life of Riley on Social Security is false. Even if Social Security were not so low on average — $1,461 per month in January 2019 — many people are still recovering from the 2007–2009 global bank crashes, mortgage foreclosures, and job losses. They need to work.
But finding decent employment at decent wages grows harder as people pass forty-five or fifty. In many labor markets, even 49 is “too old.” To evade middle ageism when job-hunting and avoid downward mobility, people tinker with their CV. Ratelband could have practiced the normal procedures that Americans try — omitting his birthdate and the date of his college degree. These are not attempts to be Peter Pan, but to protect the lone agent in a cut-throat job market from careless stereotypes and widespread age discrimination. In the US, the media repeat Trump’s boasting about how historically low unemployment is, but the labor count is false, as it omits people who have given up looking for work. The true unemployment rate for people over 55 was 7.4% in October 2018, according to Teresa Ghilarducci of the New School’s Retirement Equity Lab. We are losing generations of workers. Their children suffer. The jobless future (robots, etc.) does not promise better.
The government hiding the true unemployment and underemployment rates is a way of ignoring the economic problems that neoliberal capitalism has raised for working people for decades, by ignoring the poor, surfeiting the rich, forcing out small farmers, ending union protections, outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries. These problems would present a challenge to any government that prides itself on inclusion and full employment, but we don’t have such a government and have not had one since 1978, when Hubert Humphrey was able to get passed a landmark Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (Humphrey-Hawkins). It legally required the Fed to pursue maximum employment, which the Fed has mostly side-stepped accomplishing.
Since 1978, the growth of ageism means that much more in the way of redress would be needed. Indeed, the risk of being unwanted in many job markets after you turn forty (not just tech jobs and the fashion and entertainment industries, but in the media and corporations, and everywhere that employers want to pay the same wage to everyone regardless of experience) means that ageist issues have become collective.
As a cultural critic without much hope for political will to end middle ageism, I argue that the first steps must be to address the pervasive cultural issues and build a consensus that ageism is wrong, unjust, and ignorant. How does a society learn to counter Ratelband’s jaunty rhetoric, since he says precisely what so many Americans retort about growing older. They say, “I feel young.” Or, “Age is nothing but a number.” Or, “I have the mind and body of a 50-year-old.” Some say it to justify dyeing their hair or getting plastic surgery, but mainly people try to wriggle out of the age category — “old” or “older worker” — that is so unfairly besieged and belittled and betrayed. What looks like denial can be strategic, defensive.
The answer cannot be to tell people growing older that they are deceived about their looks and smarts. “Adjust to being losers.” They get too much bad advice already: if only they would have confidence, buy this pop book, get more technical proficiency (many of them already have long experience in tech). I read the business press, declaring to CEOs and personnel managers that midlife workers are valuable (which is unquestionably true), while at the same time my Google alert for “ageism” brings up innumerable articles proving how frequently people in these age groups are demeaned, demoted, and dismissed, and helpless to find recourse. With such blind spots in fact-checking and analysis, no wonder we are at an impasse in the economy.
Ageism is a system rigged against people as they grow older, which affects everything — not only whether we are permitted to work or find love, but whether we will get invited to parties, get equal medical attention, get adequate cost-of-living adjustments in our Social Security, and, perhaps worst of all, whether we are treated as “burdens” to society and to our families.
If age were nothing but a number, many could pass muster as younger. But passing-as-younger has real social and psychological pitfalls. Being found out is one — a scene of embarrassment or shame, and possible social exclusion. Another consideration is deep damage, long term, to your mental health. When individuals reject their group and deny important positive aspects of their self-concept (in the case of age, say, becoming wiser, more efficient, more generative, nicer, more experienced at sex), the results may be lowered self-esteem, depression, passivity, and inability to cope emotionally. Harvard professor Michèle Lamont argues these consequences about hiding one’s race. The same consequences can result from age shame. Yale professor Becca Levy has shown that age denial can do worse: it may lower your life expectancy by many years.
Ratelband declares that age identity is socially constructed, and thus changeable at will. Transgender identity, his flip example, is not a good analogy, if only because it may well have a prenatal biological substrate. In any case, transgender individuals are victims of many abuses. Sure, some groups change the value of their ethnicity, but only as long as economic prosperity and cultural history work on their behalf. Italians, Greeks, Jews, and Irish immigrants, who were originally represented as on the “swarthy” side of America’s racial divide, became “whiter” without being forced to abandon ethnic pride, but only at the expense of people of color.
Age pride and anti-ageism come at no one else’s expense. Age pride and anti-ageism are really what this Dutch man — and “American thinking” writ large — need.
Age, finally, is not a number, changeable at whim, precisely because any life course is historically situated. An embodied psyche lives in history, year by year. Take memory. Although Ratelband said he needed a court document making him legally 49 so as not to lie, even had they granted it, he would have to lie continually about what he remembers. (I thank Doug Bafford of Brandeis University for bringing into this discussion the topic of memory, an element of life-course identity, consciousness, and social relatedness.) Ratelband was a young man in the 1968 sexual and political revolutions, for example, not a one-year-old. He has seven children. Indeed, some of them might be close to 49. Memory is an element of consciousness, of identity, of social relatedness. No court can alter that.
The body like the mind has its own contextual history. A person of 70 may appear fit and attractive, and yet have the lungs of an ex-smoker, the liver of a drinker, a bad shoulder. And talking about “lifestyles” — what we do to ourselves — ignores all the socioeconomic factors that impinge on all bodies. Individual health and longevity are influenced by multiple intertwined factors that we did not choose and cannot change ex post facto. Genes are literally not the half of it. Income, class, gender, race, and sexual identity have effects on health and longevity. The difference between groups that live longest in the US and those with the shortest life spans is decades.
The decline narrative of life would have us believe that aging-past-youth is an essential set of bodily and mental failures. Although our bodies will all die, this is still a mean-spirited distraction from the truth. The alternative view — developed recently in anthropology, history, literature, and age studies — is that age is a far more complex and fascinating category, and riddled with social issues. The key concept, enshrined in a 2004 book title of mine, is that we are Aged by Culture. Selfhood relies on being recognized not as a mere skin with marks of wear on it (or marks of color, or signs of gender, or all of the above), but as an embodied psyche, living in an economic system, a cultural system, and filled with experience and history, with stories that no one else knows to tell.
After much empirical work, science now knows to inquire about a population’s differential access to medical care and prenatal nourishment, education and marital status, neural development in response to stressors (from location, pollution, economic inequality, degrading and dangerous work, unemployment, discriminatory stereotypes). Inequality is the rule in how people age. But counterbalancing that, there are sources of resilience in nurture, networks, religion, positive discourses, universal values, and — here the courts might come in, if they sought justice in aging — enforcement of rights.
Collective issues require collective solutions. Democrats in Congress could make it legally more risky, and more expensive, for companies to ignore midlife workers in hiring, downsize them first when retrenching, hire them at lower wages because they are desperate, and let them be insulted while they are on the job. A full-employment jobs program would need to focus on people in their middle and later years. Stronger legal, economic, and social policies would give everyone hope, reduce poverty and inequality, and restore value to the concept of living longer.
Meanwhile, anyone growing older in ageist cultures would do well to decide to find value in growing older. We need a little consoling solidarity, whatever our age. When people make a joke about being old, don’t laugh; say something. When someone mistreats you, be prepared to talk back, not stay silent. Notice ageism wherever you encounter it — at an after-work party, a bar, in the locker room, the dorm, a union, a newspaper article. Look for candidates who understand that this is a fight not for one cohort alone but for the future of our country and the value of aging past youth in every domain. Fight ageism, not aging, whenever the opportunity occurs. At all ages, we can enrich our lives by actively combating the real foes, rather than trying laughable, pathetic, futile, and self-defeating workarounds.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, the inventor of the term “age studies,” is the author most recently of the prize-winning nonfiction book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, which has won both the Modern Language Association Prize for Independent Scholars and the American Psychological Association’s Florence L. Denmark Award for Contributions to Women and Aging.
The title image by Valerie Massadian, and a text about it, appear in Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People.