The phrase has always made me uneasy, partly because it’s usually accompanied by a picture of an older person doing something considered “age-inappropriate,” like wearing a wacky outfit or doing something acrobatic. The bigger issue is that it trivializes something important. Age is indeed “only a number,” as long as that number reflects how many times we’ve circled the sun. Age is real. Age differences can’t be wished away, nor should they be.
Needless to say, it’s complicated, just like the discourse around telling people how old you are. It’s important to claim your age, and just as important to push back: to ask what difference the number makes in the questioner’s mind, and why? The longer we live, after all, the more different from one another we become. That makes chronological age an ever-less-reliable indicator of what a person is capable of or interested in, so it makes a certain sense to decline to identify with it. That’s one reason so many octogenarians maintain, truthfully, that they still feel fifty, forty, or even thirty inside—that “age is just a number.”
The other reason they feel that way is internalized ageism: the belief that younger = better and that their older selves have less value than their younger selves. That’s why fudging or disavowing our age is so problematic. It gives the number more power than it deserves. It distances us from our peers. And it reinforces ageist thinking, by implying that our years are something to be ashamed rather than proud of, and suggesting that capacities might erode or relationships founder if the number came to light.
People can be far apart in years and have plenty in common, as we realize the minute we bust out of age silos. That’s why I loved an article by Gina Pell called Meet the Perennials—her witty proposal for what those of us who refuse to be constrained by generational moats start calling ourselves. “It’s time we chose our own category based on shared values and passions and break out of the faux constructs behind an age-based system of classification,” she writes. “We are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages.” My people!
So what’s not to like? The article’s tired tagline: “age ain’t nothing but a number.” (This may well have been an editor’s handiwork, not Pell’s.) It’s the age-based version of “post-racial.” It’s happy talk, papering over the very real differences between being younger and older. It’s important to acknowledge those differences because it’s part of what makes relationships authentic. Because the differences are interesting. Because the exchange of skills and stories across generations is the natural order of things.
Those differences aren’t what stand between us and age equity. The obstacle is ageism—the age segregation that cuts us off from most of humanity and the prejudice that justifies it. As Pell writes, “Tolerance feels unattainable when there are hard lines drawn between decades, and terms like Boomers, GenX, and GenY keep us separate and at odds.”
If we’re going to dismantle ageism, we’re going to have to collaborate across those artificial “generation gaps.” Gerontologist Jenny Sasser, whose Gero-punk Manifesto ought to be required reading for all Perennials, describes this beautifully:
The revolution around dismantling ageism can’t happen unless we can create cross-generational coalitions, which can’t happen if we can’t meet each other in the middle across age difference and become friends. Not despite age differences, but across them—because we are both similar and different, because we are all traveling through the life course at the same time but are at different phases of the journey. We need to ask better questions about when age and generation differences matter, and when they don’t. And help each other develop a keener critical capacity for seeing through the socially constructed ideas and structures that keep us in conflict rather than in cooperation.
Hold this in our heads and it’s far easier to reject young vs. old ways of thinking, to make friends of all ages, and to find common cause. Pitting the generations against each other is one of the major tactics used by the wealthy and powerful to divide those who might otherwise unite against them in pursuit of a fairer world for all. It’s like pitting groups of low-wage workers against each other, or the interests of stay-at-home moms against women in the paid workforce. The underlying issue is a living wage for all, and redress requires collective action. When issues are instead framed as zero-sum—more for “them” means less for “us”—it’s harder to see that the public good is at stake and the issue affects everyone. The objective, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, is to create a world “in which the deep eternal differences between age and youth are recognized and respected without being organized into a system of social inequality.” That social order has to work for all ages, and we Perennials and Gero-punks need to roll up our sleeves and help shape it.
Author and activist Ashton Applewhite is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. In 2016, she joined PBS site Next Avenue’s annual list of 50 Influencers in Aging as their Influencer of the Year. She has been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism. Ashton blogs at This Chair Rocks and is the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist? She has written for Harper’s, Playboy, the New York Times, and many other publications, and speaks widely, at venues that have ranged from universities and community centers to the TED mainstage and the United Nations. Ageism is emerging as a pressing human rights and social justice issue, and Ashton has become a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against it.