David Harry Stewart, shown at the inaugural Your Best Life conference in June, partnered with former Google exec Matt Hirst four years ago to create Ageist, a media company out to redefine life after 50. (Photos courtesy Ageist)
A new event launched earlier this year to celebrate people over age 50 and defy the ageist stereotypes that put most of this demographic in retirement mode.
YBL, or Your Best Life, took place in Los Angeles in June, organized by Ageist magazine and The Experience Factory. The goal, as the Ageist website says, was “to examine the economic and social impact of the modern 50+ demographic.” Speakers at the daylong conference at the Valentine DTLA event venue — which drew about 200 people — included Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, and Diane Flynn, cofounder and CEO of ReBoot Accel, which designs work cultures that advance women.
Award-winning photographer David Harry Stewart helms Ageist, a media company out to redefine life after 50 with content at weareageist.com. The company also advises businesses, brands, and organizations on trends and ways to engage people 50 and over.
Stewart, now 60, noticed in his work while photographing ad campaigns that the “messaging aimed at people my age was all about us having a handicap of some kind,” he said. “You know, like we have a problem that’s in need of immediate fixing or we’re going to die. And I just thought, I don’t feel that way. I don’t know anybody who feels that way.”
Nearly four years ago, Stewart partnered with Matt Hirst, Google’s former global head of brand experience, and created Ageist. He spoke recently with Convene about the Ageist movement and what it was like to plan his first conference.
Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, speaks at the Your Best Life conference in Los Angeles.
Did you have a Chip Conley moment where you were the only “Elder” in the room and thought, “What’s going on here?” How did this all start?
There was this moment where I thought, oh, people like us, we have three things that nobody has. Most of us have health, we have time, we have money. We feel like we’re at the peak of our powers. Why isn’t anyone speaking to us? And I thought, let’s imagine what it would look like if companies spoke to these people the way they felt about themselves —which is self-empowered, discerning, decisive, not in need of immediate medical attention. So we started Ageist. … I was just curious. I thought, what is this obsession with young people who don’t have any money?
Tell me about the Ageist website.
We started doing interviews because we really wanted to understand life after 50. My life at this stage is radically different than my mom’s life was at this age. So what’s changed, what’s different, what are people’s ambitions, what are they doing? The people we talk to don’t even think about retirement — really, it is not on their radar.
How did YBL, the Ageist conference, come about?
First off, I want to say it f—— killed me. Once I got convinced to do this, it was come hell or high water, we are going to make this work. And it was just a lot of work.
So you’re an event planner now?
Well, I’m not, you know. And so what happened was, we’ve always known that the magic is going to happen when you physically connect people. I mean, in our Facebook group there’s member-to-member interaction, but it’s not that much, and it’s distant. That’s a very different thing than putting a couple hundred people in a room and having them interact. That becomes a much stickier, more emotionally powerful experience for everyone. I mean, people would come in and they would look at this room [where YBL was being held] and their mouths would just drop open. It was like, there are 200 people in here that are just like me. They’re this age and really cool and doing great stuff, and this is amazing.
And it sold out?
Yeah, we maxed the room. We hit fire code. We sold it out, so that was success for us. But the greatest success was for the delegates who came and were able to hear these great speakers. And the power was having the community in the room.
Was an event always in Ageist’s plans?
We always wanted to do this, but I always knew — like oh, man, events. We’d done a couple that were 15 or 20 people. But when you do something at this scale, that’s another thing.
So John Loken came to us. He worked at Endeavor IMG. He left there and started his own company called The Experience Factory and he said, “I want to do this thing with you.” And so he convinced me. And we hit the “go” button at the end of March, and we did the event June 12.
Attendees mingle during the Your Best Life conference in June at the Valentine event space in downtown Los Angeles.
Are you going to do it again?
Well, we have to do it again. … Though truthfully, I’m still recovering from [the first YBL]. And even you just saying that phrase fills my heart with terror. But the next one will be much easier, much, much easier. The first one is just so hard. So, yeah. We’ll do it again.
Where will you meet?
People have asked us to do it in other cities, in Toronto or London, and some people are very serious about doing a very large-scale version of this in Milan.
You know, we didn’t know if anybody would come [to the first YBL]. You just don’t know. But it turned out … they all came. So there’s this real need. No one’s speaking to this group of people.
What message do you want to convey about ageism?
First of all, ageism didn’t always exist. Let’s just be clear about that. In human history, this is a very new phenomenon. It used to be the antithesis of this. If you look at the movies from the ’50s, look at how Grace Kelly dressed. She wasn’t dressing like she was 18 or 20, she was dressing like she was 50, because that’s where the power was, right? And then in the 1960s, with youth culture, this changed.
I tell this story all the time. Alexander the Great was out doing his thing in Asia Minor at the age of 18, so did people say, “You can’t do this because you’re 18”? No. And the guy who was the head of Alexander’s personal guard was 65. And so 65 didn’t mean sitting in a chair back in Greece. That meant he had a shield and a sword, and he was the guy in the front doing that thing, right? Now did anybody say, “You’re 65, you shouldn’t do this.”? No. It wasn’t really a metric that came into the conversation.
What’s in your forecast?
Well, I think that we’re now at a point where we can imagine a world where ageism doesn’t exist. We can see that. And we can imagine a world where we’re connecting all these people that are in this group, and we’re putting them out there for other people to see. Imagine what that looks like. Imagine that world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.