Ageism: the last funny “ism”

Ed Park, MD ageism, aging, dr ed park 4 Comments

I am spending the weekend in Cambridge for my 30th college reunion and the word for the day is “ageism”.

The first thing that people who knew each other 34 years ago say is “you haven’t changed!” We all do it. We want to be kind. But is it really true? Not a chance.

This brings us to a question about ageism. Is it bad? Time Magazine did a piece on leaders in aging and I found it interesting that the majority of the people they lauded were tackling issues of ageism as if that were a significant evil, not the underlying aging itself. So let us discuss why aging may not quality as a full negative”ism”. Maybe ageism is good and will someday be even better? (read on)

When we talk the “othering” or discrimination on the basis of age it is something that we all need to do. Who we love is now thankfully not a controversial issue when it comes to same sex unions. But if one person is not old enough to give consent, it is a still a crime no matter what the sex of the participants. Good ageism protects children.

Secondly, aging is egalitarian to an extent. We all, no matter what identifiers we cling to, seem to age. It is the ultimate leveler of playing fields. Tonight, I was speaking to a person who in college looked like a Calvin Klein model and through no fault of his own, he seemed to have acquired some of the traits associated with aging during the last 34 years. 

While we can certainly agree that sexism, racism, and ageism exist are harmful and warrants redress in some form, I don’t think we can assign the same negative valence to ageism as we do the others.

Aging is not a good thing or a mitzvah (good deed or commandment). I am not saying it is a tragedy or even something that won’t be mitigated and controlled. I’m merely saying that nobody except 20-year-olds want to get older. Ok, maybe there are some 64-year-olds who want to flip the odometer to enjoy the senior pricing at the early bird buffet, but chances are most everyone over the age of 30 would gladly, if they could keep their wisdom and experience, trade their current body for the one they had when they were twenty-one. Unlike gender or race, aging is an undesirable, unpleasant, and ultimately deadly acquired trait, not one which we are born with, and something that people feel quite morally justified in combatting.


Possibly my favorite movie, Harold and Maude, takes a funny look at a romanic relationship between a young man and an old woman and in doing so, has some very profound things to say about society, belonging, and authenticity; it comes complete with a wonderful Cat Stephens soundtrack as well.  Listen to this hilarious diatribe by the clergyman who is trying to dissuade Harold from sleeping with Maude:

“I would be remiss in my duty that the idea of intercourse…and the fact of your firm young body co-mingling with the withered flesh, sagging breasts, and flabby butt…makes me want to vomit.”

I imagine there are people who once held and expressed such views about interracial and same sex relations, so perhaps ageism is just the same sort of thing and we should embrace ageism as a universal evil?  Then again, maybe not…

There is a Dutch man who has mounted a legal challenge to change his birthday to -20 years because he allegedly has the body of a 45-yo as a 69-yo. This just seems like fraud, wouldn’t you agree?

Then again, I’m confused because reassigning gender is good (a craze among the “non-binary” youth) yet reassigning race is cultural appropriation as we saw with the cruicifixion of Rachel Dolozel’s for positive and aspirational “blackness”.  Not surprisingly, the rules of self-identification bend if we agree with your politics. Witness Elizabeth Warren getting a pass despite DNA haplotyping concluding the mere “possibility” of one Native American relative 6-10 generations ago and playing the Native American card when applying for faculty positions.

For a humorous take on the non-sensical arguments when the pseudoscience of race meet the fear of cultural appropriation, watch this video:

So in a society that practices blatant ageism for mate and job selection, there are compelling reasons why a person would self-identify as younger.  For more about the comedy of agism, one of last politically acceptable “isms” read this blog about the TV show Younger, created by the same man who brought us the Beverly Hills: 90210 and Sex and the City.

Most of the ageist humor at the college reunion is self-deprecating, or as I like to call it “self-defecating”. But there is rapidly approaching the day when the latter will be quite literal and that is terrifying to us all. A lot of classmates have already had cancer, most have had parents die, and some have even passed themselves.

Happily, this “gallows humor” of pointing to how old we are getting may someday become a thing of the past as we use technologies to reverse the biological effects. Unlike the other identity biases of sex and race that are largely innate, age may surprisingly be the one thing that we can actually do something about. 

Jokes about weight are actually a grey area now so now it seems that the only thing that we can mock people about (especially ourselves) is age. Someday, when we can all voluntarily maintain the minds and bodies of young people, then ageism may take a whole other meaning. It would be tantamount to being a health Luddite or a Amish person if one refuses to avail themselves of telomerase activation, senolytics, and stem cell and exosome rejuvenation.

I look forward to the day when the decision to voluntarily age is viewed with the same disdain as those who smoke cigarettes. Positive ageism as a way of shaming people into staying young!  That is something to live to see.


P.S. I don’t feel that Harold and Maude is a dark comedy about inappropriately matched lovers; to me it is just a story about two people who connected with each other for all the right reasons in a world where everyone was obsessed with status, attainment, and ego.

Comments 4

  1. This is an interesting subject.

    As humans, we are conflicted by our self-perception and our public perception. Our species survived by group think. But we are drawn strongly to our individuality. Where any of us sit on that spectrum is determined by what? If I were raised by flower children, would I rebel from that environment, or embrace it? If I were raised by staunch conservatives, would I rebel or embrace? Plenty of people could be found to ‘prove’ whatever bias one had. So, is it genetic? Epigenetic? Maybe it’s both, neither. Who knows? Why care?

    Generally speaking, there are two types of people who drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. There are those who see it as they would a mountain. It’s just there. Then, there are those who are in awe of the force of will, the audacity of men who believed it was possible, and then fought with reality, drove it into existence. I choose awe, but that’s just me. If I try to ‘force’ an uninterested teenager to share my awe, eyes will roll.

    We are all born into the prison of self. It’s up to each of us to either escape, or wait complacently for the end of our days. Oh, the end comes for us all. Don’t we tend to over-estimate the value of when, and undervalue the how? To me, to find myself at the end with a smile on my face and thankfulness in my heart for a life well lived is far more important than how many years I leave behind.

    The foundations of how we view ourselves and our lives are being shaken right now. If I had an accident that cost me my hand, I would feel as though I lost a part of me. In years to come, with stem cells, 3D printing etc. such an event would be nothing more than a nuisance. Just have to wait a few weeks to get that hand back. I would view my hand as a carpenter views a hammer. It’s just a tool. I would not see it as a part of me.

    I feel old. I’m worn out! I remember my youth. I miss it. But, I remember how I thought about things back then. It’s embarassing! How could I have been so stupid? I miss the energy. I miss the innocense. I miss the audacity. But, my lessons have been worth it. I wouldn’t trade them for those things I miss so much. At some point, if I survive long enough, I’ll have that energy back. I will look in the mirror and see that face that looked at me when I was 25. I can’t reclaim my innocense, though. And audacity? Maybe, but it will be tempered, not by lack of energy, but an appreciation for consequences.

    So, here I am. Still wondering who and what I am. Still in a world with incredible structure, existing in blatant defiance of entropy. That, to me, is exquisite proof of the existence of God. Flutter through the revelations of physics, the bosons, fermions, quarks etc. and it’s all swirls of energy. And energy never ends, just changes form. Matter doesn’t really exist the way we commonly perceive it. It’s just swirling waveforms of energy. This reality is, at the core, virtual. So, this body isn’t me, no matter the state of it. I am something different. If I lost a hand, felt as though I lost a part of my being, I would be wrong. When the time comes, when I lose my body, I will have lost nothing as well.

    My whole life is that bridge and I am in awe. Something beyond me imagined my existence, brought me into this experience. And here I am, with a smile on my face and thankfulness in my heart. I am doing well, no matter how it plays out. My search for God is hampered mostly by my human tendency to say, “This is what You are!” Instead, I am reaching for, “Who are You?” How many people are trapped in the delusion that, “God needs me to kill those infidels!” What? A being capable of defining the universe, forcing it to come into being, can’t do it Himself? Sounds a lot like the delusion so many were trapped in during the crusades. It seems to me the place to look for God is within us, wrapped up in compassion and patience. If God is going to reveal Himself to me, it seems that is where He will start.

    So, Harold didn’t love a 79 year old woman. He loved Maude. He had eyes that knew how to see. Maybe someday my eyes will know how to see me. Maybe then, in pure and unadulterated form, I will find “I AM.” Maybe this is God, and He is in us all, waiting for us to see.

  2. Consider this. How many anti-aging specialists or pioneers are asked to return to annual conventions to speak? We are Always looking for “younger blood.”

    Are we willing to accept a 75 year old or even 80 year old president?

    Anti-aging medicine is about turning back the clock. The fountain of youth is a preternatural yearning.

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