TEDxMelbourne Salon is a series of intimate gatherings where we deep dive into themes that affect us all and that need community-level discussion in order to tackle them successfully. On Sunday 10 November, we spoke with Ashton Applewhite, the leading voice against ageism, one of the most widespread and systemic ‘isms’ of our time.
We could have chosen to measure the span of our lives in many different ways. A Romantic perspective could have prompted us to quantify us in the full moons we’ve seen. A Surrealist one in the dreams we have remembered. But we chose age. Now, beyond the preferred method, why does it matter so much? When did we allow age to segregate us as a society, labelling different age groups unfairly?
Ashton Applewhite, US activist, author and TED talker, is determined to combat one of the most silent yet expansive forms of discrimination: ageism. We construct stereotypes according to age; rather than taking the time to discover who a person is, their interests and capabilities. We make assumptions based on the years they bear. ‘Too old to wear that outfit’, ‘too young to occupy that position’, and so on; in a snap, our value is reduced to a number.
With the objective to navigate age bias in a youth obsessed society, we organised TEDxMelbourne Salon, an intimate event held at the State Library. Ashton is the leading voice of the first national campaign against ageism, and through her talk and conversation she shared her knowledge around this ‘global human rights issue’. Because it’s the only ism that will undoubtedly affect all of us, as it’s a long-lasting denial of what we will become.
A thought that echoed throughout the Salon is that our minds play a decisive role in the lives we want to live and we have the power to mould our own experiences. Ashton, who has released a new book, ‘This Chair Rocks: a Manifesto Against Ageism’, is living proof of it. Her journey started from her own fear of getting old and ending up with dementia. She was impressed however, when she discovered that we’re actually more haunted by the anxiety of losing our minds than the actual risk of that happening. Ashton urged us to be ‘less afraid’, as it’s that fear that can affect our physical, social and emotional health. Keeping our ‘sense of purpose’ as our north will determine what kind of pilots we’ll be and that may involve a myriad of things, like getting to see our grandchild compete at swimming tournaments.
So ageism implies discriminating against our ‘future selves’. Nobody’s exempt from the passage of time. The fact that it is a collective can make us leap towards a ‘cognitive liberation’ where, as a society, we can finally dismantle ageism and free ourselves from it. It’s time to contribute, to transform our communities and the places we live, in order to make them ‘all-age friendly’. Let’s design objects and public spaces with all ages in mind. Ashton invited us to wake up and do something against this ‘preconceived prejudice’ and to be ‘intersectional in our activism’ (borrowing the feminist term that seeks to be more inclusive, interweaving race, social class, and more).
We can begin to make that change in the different areas of our lives. In the workplace, it starts by promoting diversity, as that’s the real motor behind creativity. ‘Experience is an asset, not a liability’; when did we start believing otherwise? We can also encourage intergenerational friendship as it will help us increase our sense of empathy. As Ashton emphasises, values are not determined by age and we can, ‘learn to look at each with more generosity’.
And of course, we need to become more honest with ourselves. Our revolution can start by being mindful about our motivation to ask another’s age and what judgment we make once we find out. It would be interesting to delve into what this says about our own insecurities, do we put pressure on ourselves to have achieved certain milestones because ‘society’ thinks we should have? ‘Think about how you use the words ‘old’ and young’, Ashton said, inviting us to discover the true emotions that we’re hiding beneath those words. We have the power to stand from a positive viewpoint; reiterating her original TED talk she asked, ‘why did we stop celebrating our ability of our bodies to adapt?’
The difference between ‘ageing’ and ‘ageism’ isn’t just a bunch of letters. A world lies between them, ‘ageing is living’; it is a universal human experience that unites us all. Let’s advocate for that rather than contributing to a culture that seeks to generate the opposite.