Ashton Applewhite speaks during TED2017 in Vancouver. The self-described “pro-aging radical” has circled the globe speaking out against ageism. (TED Talks)
In the 10-plus years since Ashton Applewhite, a New York City–based writer, began researching longevity and interviewing octogenarians at work, she discovered that almost all of what she had thought about aging was wrong.
Applewhite had expected, for example, that older people were more depressed compared with others — instead she found that they enjoyed even better mental health than the young or middle-aged. She had thought that a sizable percentage of Americans over the age of 65 lived in nursing homes, but the actual percentage, she writes in This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, is 2.5 percent. As she collected research about topics including cognition and social connection, and interviewed artists, park rangers, and pediatricians who were working into their 80s, Applewhite, who is now 66, found herself feeling better and better about growing older, she writes.
She also began to question why there had been such a big disconnect between her own vision of what it was like to grow old and the reality she encountered. “It was ageism,” Applewhite concluded, “the relegation of older people to second-class citizenship” — or more formally defined as discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age. “We know that diversity means including people of different races, genders, abilities, and sexual orientation,” she writes. “Why is age typically omitted?”
In recent years, Applewhite — who describes herself as a “pro-aging radical” — has circled the globe, speaking out against ageism, which she called the “least remarked-upon bias,” and its widespread negative effects on the economic, as well as mental and physical, well-being of everyone, not just older people. She is on a crusade, she writes, to “overturn American culture’s dumb and destructive obsession with youth, and challenge the way people at both ends of the age spectrum are devalued and disrespected.”
In her “Let’s End Ageism” talk at TED2017 in Vancouver, which she delivered to a standing ovation, Applewhite asked, “We know it’s not okay to allocate resources by race or sex. Why should it be okay to weigh the needs of the young against the old?”
In that talk — which has nearly 1.5 million views at the time of this writing — she said, “All prejudice relies on ‘othering’ — seeing a group of people as other than ourselves: other race, other religion, other nationality. The strange thing about ageism: That other is us.”
In an interview with Convene, Applewhite elaborated on bias based on age. “No prejudice makes sense,” she said. “They’re all irrational and they’re all wrong, but it’s especially ill-informed to say old people are ‘X.’ The older you are, the less that your age says about what you’re capable of physically, socially, and professionally.”
“It is time to ditch the ‘young-old’ binary,” Applewhite said in her TED talk. “There is no line in the sand between old and young, after which it’s all downhill. And the longer we wait to challenge that idea, the more damage it does to ourselves and our place in the world, like in the workforce, where age discrimination is rampant.”
Ageism also cuts the other way, placing a burden on young adults when it strips away the ability of older people to contribute economically, Applewhite writes in her book. “The mutually advantageous alternative is to see age as an asset.”
“Experience is not a liability,” she told Convene. “It’s nutty to even have to say that out loud.” More from our interview:
How has the conversation around ageism changed over the last decade? Are you seeing more research about it?
I’m seeing tons more. I have a Google alert set to ageism, and there’s more stuff on it all the time. The word is simply cropping up more, says the great algorithm in the sky.
My own trajectory serves as a litmus test. I just crisscrossed the country on a book tour [for This Chair Rocks, published by Celadon Books in March]. Four years ago, when I first tried to sell the book, I could not get a mainstream publishing company to pay the subject the kind of attention I thought it deserved, so I self-published it. And it’s the same book. So I think that’s an indicator.
Ten years ago, I was busy telling people what ageism is and why it matters. Now people are coming to me, or people talk to me on the tour, which is, granted, a self-selecting sample. But they are asking, “How can I be anti-ageist in what I do? How can I incorporate what I have learned about ageism in the company I am starting, the diversity program I am heading up?”
I got a fantastic letter from a medical-school student in London two days ago saying, “How can you talk about person-centered care in gerontology and not even talk about ageism? Not talk about the prejudice and discrimination in which older people are subjected?” It’s a really good question.
What are the truths and untruths about older people in the workplace?
Let me put it this way, not a single negative stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny. It might take an older worker longer to learn something — although this is not the case if it attaches to something we already learned earlier in life. We might be less fast, but we make fewer mistakes. If we hurt ourselves, it’ll take us longer to heal, but we hurt ourselves less often.
The point is not that older workers are better than younger workers, it’s that a mixed-age workforce is better, just like a mixed-race workforce, a mixed-gender workforce. We come to better decisions — we know that the business case is huge. We know that diverse companies work better. We know that they are more profitable. And age is a criterion for diversity.
Do you think discrimination based on age is becoming more of a problem or less of a problem?
Well, it’s more of a problem as more people get older and are forced out of the workplace — over half of American workers over 50 are forced out of jobs. And at 50, you have 20, 30, or even 40 more years on the planet.
If older people are forced out of the workforce, who is going to support us? Not everyone’s going to want to step over our starving bodies. And it makes no sense. In my book, I debunk this idea that older people are a drag on the economy. The more older people that are employed, the more money we’d have to spend to benefit the economy, and the more jobs we create for younger people. It’s win/win. It is a fallacy that older people take jobs away from younger people. What’s good for older workers, broadly speaking, is good for younger workers.
You also address generalizations about the capacities of older people.
Aging is incredibly heterogeneous. It’s a defining characteristic of old age. As we age we get more different from one another. In a group of new- borns, each one is unique, of course. But a group of 17-year-olds have an awful lot more in common physically, socially, and cognitively than a group of 37-year-olds, who are way more homogeneous than a group of 67-year-olds.
Geriatricians say — and I’ve heard one say it — if you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old. If you see a five-year-old, you have a pretty good chance of guessing at their basic cognitive and physical capacity. Not so with old people.
Any judgment about people on the basis of age is ageist and most of it, I mean it’s all bias, how could any statement be true about an entire age cohort? In the broadest sense all this does is perpetuate existing power structures, which take advantage of us and exploit us.
I just saw an article about ageism in tech in China kicking in at age 30. This is not a story about how 31-year-olds [are suddenly less capable], this is a story about how people, before they hit 30, which, as I understand it means, they start families and they start to have some inkling of their value and priorities, are less exploitable than even younger workers who can be persuaded to work insane hours for really sh*tty pay. That is how capitalism uses ageism to pit workers against each other to benefit the people at the top of the food chain.
You talk in your book about how society looks at older people, and how much of that we absorb, can actually affect how we physically age.
A case I have been making forever is for an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative, because of the growing mountain of medical evidence that shows that attitudes towards aging affect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level.
The fact is we are all brainwashed into an overly negative opinion. People with a more positive attitude toward aging are less likely to get Alzheimer’s, even if they have the gene that predisposes them to the disease.
And the thinking goes that their positive attitudes buffer them against the stress of anxiety and prejudice and guess where those come from? Age- ism — and living in a world that bombards you with the message that because you are over a certain age, you’re useless, ugly, incapacitated, and should just shuffle away out of sight. Sorry, but you’re getting me a little fired up.
Sometimes I say I am in the “both-sides-of-the-story” business. We only hear the negative [about aging] because, honestly, for one thing, no one’s going to click on a news story that says: “Most people chugging along just fine,” which is the truth. … Alarmism sells, fear sells, shame sells. If we see aging as a problem we can be persuaded to buy stuff to “fix” it, or “stop” it, or “cure” it.
I’m talking about deep, deep upheaval to the way things work. And I’m also talking about you having to look at your own internalized menace. I mean the first step is to look at your own attitude towards age and aging — we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it.
Sherrif Karamat, President and Chief Executive Officer
Sherrif Karamat, CAE, is President and Chief Executive Officer of PCMA. Karamat also serves as President of the PCMA Foundation and Publisher of Convene magazine.
As CEO, Karamat leads the vision, mission and promise for PCMA’s global family of brands. Karamat serves the greater business events industry as a prominent business architect, enabling our community to become a catalyst for economic and social progress, organizational success, and personal and professional development.
In his previous role as Chief Operating Officer, Karamat led the development and implementation of PCMA’s new vision: driving global economic and social transformation through business events. In addition to his responsibilities at executive level, Karamat also directed streamlining of PCMA’s content creation and delivery channels into one organization. He oversaw partnership, business services, membership, business development and technology teams.
As part of PCMA’s growth strategy, Karamat has led a major data intelligence program and played a key role in the 2017 acquisition of Incentive Conference & Event Society Asia Pacific (ICESAP).
A leader in the business events industry, Karamat previously served as Vice President of Business Sales and Services for Toronto Convention & Visitors (Tourism Toronto). He has served on various boards and is currently a director on the Destination International Board of Trustees.
Karamat is a life-long learner. In addition to completing his bachelor’s degree and Masters of Business Administration from York University in Toronto, Canada, he has completed postgraduate certificate programs at Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. At Harvard Business and Law School, he completed a program on strategic negotiations for senior executives and a program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one on data intelligence and big data.
Robert Haas, Chief Administrative Officer
Robert Haas is responsible for PCMA’s IT, human resources, data and finance departments as its first Chief Administrative Officer. He utilizes data, content and personalized experiences to help PCMA better understand its members’ needs and develop an audience-focused strategy.
Haas has more than 15 years of database marketing, product development and consulting experience from working in business-to-business and business-to-consumer industries. He understands how innovation, research and technology intersect and evaluates what is leading edge versus cutting edge.
Haas will leverage data to determine best practices in business events and how the industry can drive global economic and social transformation.
He previously served as PCMA’s Chief Innovation Officer. He joined PCMA as Vice President of Business Development and Data Intelligence. His previous roles include Senior Vice President of Strategic Product Development and Marketing at Scranton Gillette Communications Inc. and in direct response marketing for Tribune Direct.
He has a bachelor’s degree in international business from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Mona Cotton, Chief Business Officer
As Chief Business Officer, Mona Cotton leads the Business Development, Client and Member Services, and Business Services teams. She has more than 20 years of business leadership experience in the areas of partnership, sponsorship, business development, media publishing and business services.
Cotton, a PCMA leader for more than 15 years, takes a strategic approach to transforming PCMA’s client relationships and business opportunities. Her role at PCMA is to facilitate connections between business-to-business organizations and business-to-consumer operations, identifying opportunities to fuel economic and social progress and success for PCMA and its members, customers and clients.
While she has watched as business events shifted from logistics to engagement, Cotton said the value of relationships remains steadfast in the industry.
Prior to PCMA, Cotton led and supported various sales efforts at the National Association of REALTORS, Airborne Express (now DHL) and Fox Associates, a Chicago-based magazine representative firm. She received a bachelor’s degree in marketing and advertising from Indiana University.
Michelle Crowley oversees regional brand development, content outreach and innovation as PCMA’s first Chief Growth & Innovation Officer. She is responsible for regional and revenue development in the Americas, Asia Pacific (APAC) and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) regions. In addition, Crowley is responsible for education and product development.
She leads PCMA’s global growth strategy by evaluating and identifying how the organization can deliver value to its members through new and existing business models, education programs and new products.
Crowley began her career at PCMA and continues to work with global travel brands, build strategic relationships and partnerships with key markets, and design year-round engagement campaigns. She has held various positions at PCMA including Vice President for Global Growth and Business Transformation.
Crowley is 2019 MBA graduate of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She received her bachelor’s degree from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Meredith Rollins, Chief Community Officer
As PCMA’s first Chief Community Officer, Meredith Rollins leads the community engagement team.
The team delivers programs and services that strengthen the connections between PCMA members, facilitate knowledge sharing and advance the network of professionals in the global business events industry. Her key areas of responsibility include community and chapter engagement, research, social impact and volunteerism. She remains Executive Director of the PCMA Foundation.
Rollins joined PCMA in 2007 and held roles in project management, global development and account management with the PCMA partnership program. She was Director of Strategic Development for the Association for Corporate Growth, a global community for middle-market M&A business leaders from 2012 to 2015. Rollins became Executive Director of the PCMA Foundation in 2015.
Rollins received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Gina Meier, Director, Human Resources
Gina Meier is Director of Human Resources for PCMA, a position she has held since 2006. She is responsible for helping PCMA execute its vision of driving global economic and social transformation through its human capital.
Her responsibilities including professional development, culture, talent development, employee integration and employee engagement.
Meier began her human resources career in 1999 as human resources manager for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide LLC, now a subsidiary of Marriott International Inc. She previously worked as director and manager in Starwood’s housekeeping division.
Meier received a bachelor’s degree in hotel/motel administration and management from Eastern Illinois University.
Bruce MacMillan, Chief Marketing Officer
Bruce MacMillan is responsible for PCMA’s global brand development and marketing strategies as PCMA’s Chief Marketing Officer. He leads the marketing, events and print and digital teams, which includes Convene magazine.
MacMillan has more than 30 years of experience in the global business events and tourism industry and has worked with business enterprises on every continent. His past leadership roles include CEO of VisitDFW, a regional consumer content marketing venture, CEO of Meeting Professionals International and CEO of Tourism Toronto.
He developed and led Vancouver, B.C.’s successful national bid for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. MacMillan also runs BANDWIDTH consultancy, advising destinations on event sales and marketing strategies and served as consortium consulting partner in the Destinations International DestinationNEXT global initiative.
MacMillan has received numerous awards including twice being named one of the Top Twenty most influential people in the global MICE industry.