Positive Aging is the latest meme for describing new approaches to life post-50, approaches that focus on changing the conversation about aging to encompass the reality that the years ahead of us hold more potential, not less—for meaningful work and business, making a difference, and living lives of significance, value, and visibility.
I am wholeheartedly on board with this movement and what it represents for women especially, for we often bear the brunt of the negative aging stereotypes. Culturally, women are still judged based on their appearance, at every age, and many of us internalize this equation of appearance = value. This makes aging particularly difficult, as our appearance naturally begins to become less and less in line with our cultural standards of beauty.
And this is where I feel we need to be vigilant about not reinforcing these damaging stereotypes under the guise of “staying positive.”
Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert wrote in Stumbling on Happiness that we tend to underestimate the bad and way overestimate our happiness, especially when projecting our future. He goes on to explain the many psychological illusions that tend to distort our perception of happiness.
I surely am an example of this, stumbling around seeking happiness. I never see what happens to me as tragic. And I’ve surely had my share of bad times. I always find the silver lining, the nearly invisible gold thread, some positive rationale as to what my takeaway is going to be.
We women are really adept at this. The good news is that it means our psychological immune system is working at optimal levels. The not-so-good news is that we tend to go into positiva mode and not see reality for what it is. Instead, we keep the story going and stay in denial.
Denial of aging comes in many guises, from (literally and figuratively) buying into the idea that we’re only beautiful if we look young to not saying our age for fear that we’ll be discounted. The problem is that the more we perpetuate this, the more we reinforce the idea that at a certain age, we should be discounted. What if more of us proudly proclaimed our age? Would we make a dent in the stereotype that life ends at 40 or 50?
As it stands, so few people do this that those whose age is known are far too easily disparaged. I wrote about this in January, the comments from a client about Hillary Clinton being too old to run in 2016 and those of a CNN reporter, a woman, commenting about Hillary’s hospitalization as being particularly serious at her age. A blood clot from a concussion is serious at any age!
Then in March, I was watching the news reports on the conservative PAC—definitely a whole other worldview than that demonstrated at the PAC (Positive Aging Conference) I had just left! My jaw dropped when they showed clips of Mitch McConnell making Golden Girls cracks about Hillary Clinton. And as if that wasn’t enough to get me marching again, another jerk Republican declared that Hillary should get a face lift. (Thank you, Paul Begala, for coming to her defense: “No, she’s not going to get a face lift. She’s not a Republican socialite woman!”)
Then recently, a usually sharp MSNBC woman pundit adamantly nixed Hillary as a winning candidate in 2016 because of her age. Hearing this ageism again was infuriating, and from a woman, someone’s daughter!
These are examples related to just one woman, and they only contribute to a focus on her age that detracts from focusing on her substance and the good she could for our country if elected, the good she has done already.
We see women like Hillary as the exception not the rule when it comes to women post-50 in positions of power, making a difference. I believe this is in part because so many of us out there making a difference do not often enough come out of the age closet.
Our attempts to focus on the positive by ignoring or even denying what we see as negative ironically only make our society less open to positive aging in general.
I think it’s time to embrace reality and who we really are, including our age. We are the visionaries we’ve been waiting for—because of our age, not in spite of it.
What do you think would be the impact of more people proudly owning their age?