Margaret Morganroth Gullette: Against “Aging” – How to Talk about Growing Older


Language shapes thought, and ageist language invisibly spreads ageist thinking.  Observing that embodiment theory has largely neglected to theorize age (a universal intersection), the author expands that theory. Here is a first attempt to fully critique the term “aging” wherever it implies ageism, and to suggest alternative language for “aging” in both its adjectival and its nominative forms. The essay also historicizes the recent move in cultural studies of age toward using the term age (as in Age Studies) instead of aging. Gullette argues that wording that replaces aging and explicates ageism helps undo submission to the ideology of life-course decline, liberating observation, potentially undoing internalized ageism and lessening the widespread fear of growing older.


age, ageism, Age Studies, aging, decline ideology, embodiment theory, language, liberation


“Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu.”–Mallarmé

Framing is all-important, as linguistic philosophy tells us. The language we use consciously, like the language we use thoughtlessly, both have important consequences in the world, because our choices of vocabulary—“only words”–represent our thinking to ourselves and influence the thinking of others. Haloes of connotation surround the highlighted cultural keywords that influence so many. The ways such words are used, even by scholars, may promote an ideology, or disguise one. Our age vocabulary is particularly problematic: limited; often vague, sometimes misleading; at times, actively harmful.  This essay asks us to examine a term that remains a major unquestioned keyword of gerontology and of everyday conversation as well: aging.

My argument is that hegemonic decline ideology stamps itself all over, under, through and around the term aging.  By contrast, ageism makes a complex, critical, cultural argument in one word.  I bring the two terms together first to show how the far more familiar term, aging, is often saturated with ageist associations. Aging, ageism—in common parlance and even in age studies, the two slippery concepts are often confused. I want us to come to new consensual understandings of “aging” that fix it more squarely in culture.  Ultimately, I hope to wrench the two terms far apart.

Ageism, an ideology based on a master narrative of life-course decline, affects people at every age, starting from childhood. It injures people in many domains of life, micro and macro—among them, family and social relations, the economics of their life course, the esthetics of their bodies, their access to medicine and medical practices, law, and social policy (see Gullette 2004, 2016, 2017; Nelson 2002; Ageism is allied intersectionally with misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, classism, and other biases, in the sense that any of these prejudices, and certainly the compound ones (e.g., against women of color), are likely to worsen with the increasing age of the targets.

Language usage may cause unintentional lacks of consideration, at best; and at worst, disseminate harmful ideas and hate speech, and help to keep ageism alive, despite efforts in many domains to combat it. Yet the term aging is used without explicit questioning even by progressive writers, scholars and theorists, by journals, and in conferences. It was once briefly rebuked—by a highly regarded professor of medical sociology at Duke University, Erdman Palmore—but his article (2000) has rarely been cited.[1]  Indeed, sincere gerontological efforts to enlarge the meaning of aging to include positive aspects of growing older mainly spawned equivocal adjectives like “successful.” “Successful aging,” having grown extremely popular as a set of practices around the globe, is now thoughtfully critiqued (as having become an “obsession” of culture) on the grounds of ageism (Lamb, 2017).[2] Aging, remaining unmarked and unremarked, suggests that unsuccessful aging is what the naked noun by itself refers to.

A major change in linguistic consciousness and usage can take a long time, but there are historical periods of “radical change, discontinuity and conflict” (as Raymond Williams says, in his locus classicus, Keywords, 1983) when pressure mounts to question a common, shared, and taken-for-granted vocabulary.  A new critique starts with unease about experiences and terminology–accompanied at times, as consciousness grows, by irritation, anger, outrage, and resistance. The sense of wrong may rise to challenge a reigning ideological paradigm, dominant values, or fake knowledge (including stereotypes).  A collective may form to oppose the dominant attitudes and institutions that maintain it. Queer and disability studies, anti-racism and feminism occasioned such periods of radical verbal change in the last decades (putting certain words in quotation marks, like “race” or “woman,” or reclaiming, in certain contexts, pejoratives like “queer,” “dyke,” and “crip,” or adding new locutions, like “ms.”). But the unease or rebellion may begin small, occasional, covert, timid, ignorant of the issues or uncertain about the rationale for objecting. This moment, it seems to me, is where we stand with the vocabulary and thinking of anti-ageism.

I am trying to make one latent conflict explicit through analyzing the uses of these two keywords. One may be said to be “orthodox” (aging). Another (ageism), was coined in English in 1969 by the American gerontologist, Dr. Robert Butler, but is only in the last few years beginning to get wider scholarly and public attention.  Despite being modeled on racism and sexism, two other body-based bigotries, ageism as a social phenomenon still strikes many as difficult to define; and, when observed in real life, can be considered trivial, funny, normal or acceptable, rather than mendacious, hurtful, often illegal, and even lethally dangerous.

To start the radical change we need in age relations and opposition to decline ideology, I propose we slow ourselves down, as general readers, teachers, writers, and theorists, every time we come upon the word aging, to ask how it works, and whether it works for old people or others, at any age in the life course.

The functions that aging serves in any context beg for analysis. One move that I practice and promote is to try out other available terms in any place where habitual training, rapid keystrokes, popular opinion, the deeply ingrained decline narrative or its medical or biological surrogates, have led writers  straight to the default term aging. Ageism is one of the terms that I propose to deploy, like a long-handled Archimedean hoe, to dislodge that boulder in the field, aging.

If intersectional theorists, age critics, and informed speakers query, or turn against, the term, it is not because we are Peter Pans tempted by so-called “anti-aging” lures, believing we can live forever young. Nor, more seriously, is it because we think that unlearning the habit of using aging will be easy. Some usages denote a known “brand,” as in a journal title that might be confusing or costly to change, because of brand loyalty–although even journal titles can be changed. [3] Some usages are contextually free of toxic ageism. Some expansions of the term, modifying it, like cultural aging or pro-aging, declare their politics.

Whatever the eventual outcomes, this interrogation of the term aging should make clear how entrenched aging is, and how important it is now to distinguish between aging and ageism. Ultimately the distinctions should seem rudimentary.  One familiar example may suggest how illuminating it can be to notice the decline ideology flooding our common usages of aging.  In a description of their future issue on “Ageing,” the editors of Frame, a journal from the Netherlands, pointedly ask, “Why is it that we see men as maturing and women as ageing?” (email RfP). [4]  The word aging in this question about the gendering of the later life course means “declining” or “deteriorating” and cannot mean anything else, although readers can infer from it many different kinds of disparagement.

The decades-long theory move around “embodiment” that underlies the editors’ question is finally discovering the need to consider age in contexts where it is lacking, at least as a special issue. Let me dive briefly into this particular abyss of the unevenly untheorized. Embodiment theory (pari passu with social movements for recognition) increasingly differentiated bodies by gender, race and ethnicity, class, sexualities, and ability, and by their compound intersections. Even so, “the somatic turn” mostly assumed a body without an age–even when discussing topics that have clear (to me) age-related components: e.g., demography, life-course structures, agency, social stratification, phenomenology, shaming, abjection, subordination, compound stereotypes, care-giving, or rights. Age is a universal intersection, but respected books in body studies may lack any index entry for age, and texts can survey the development of embodiment discourse without even listing age as an etcetera. The unconscious age of the body when-not-in-question must be young—too young to be seen as weighted down by having a property like age. (My life-course overview is that bodies get “heavier” with stigma as people age past youth.) The way to be “ageless” in theory is to be located in body discourses that disregard age.

Of course, scholars cross constantly from writing ageless, or, more exactly, agefree texts, to writing age-centered or agewise texts, with transformational effects. Age studies and the cultural gerontologies, needless to say, start from bodies that already carry age. Newborn bodies, as in the title of my 2004 book, come into life soon to be Aged by Culture. The “situated” fields of age studies typically concern themselves with women and men at ages when their bodies are likely to be “cast aside, rather than objectified,” as Toni Calasanti, Kathleen Slevin and Neal King tartly observed in 2006 (p. 21) to younger feminist readers. Given the even heavier body-discourses tightly linking old age, cognitive impairment, and dying, the role of culture in the still-naturalized body remains so slippery that at every intersection “culture” needs to be summoned, analyzed, made explicit. This call to recall age culture returns me to my current emphasis on particular less-well-examined uses of aging.

The answer to “Why bother?” is to see where thinking takes us as we create new habits of thought. Training myself to interrogate the term “aging” and try to replace it has had many benefits. It led me, as I hope to show, to an expanded and more precise age vocabulary. It improved my close reading and the accuracy of my writing. The cognitive benefit, for anyone wanting to deploy the fleshiest, most biosocial social-constructionist arguments and also combat ageism, is great. My arguments against aging may cause elation in people who enjoy moving their mental furniture around. There are emotional benefits too, for those who fear aging because of its deep associations with decline, but don’t recognize the psychological burden they shoulder. The benefits for probing this distinction may be profound.

I have presented some premises and outcomes first, for clarity. Supporting arguments come next. My hope is that this essay may lead to clearer thinking and writing, in many disciplines and interdisciplines, on embodiment and other theoretical issues, and to changes in related verbal practices, further research on ageism, greater well-being, and radical anti-ageism.


Wondering “Is aging the most exact and appropriate word here?” is a thought experiment anyone can try at any minute. I council that we train ourselves to notice the automatic decline connotations of aging wherever they cling; (1) that we avoid the adjectival form of aging and try out alternatives, and  then (2) find more precise variants of the gerund instead of the naked noun, aging tout court.

As enshrined in a flagship journal, the Journal of Aging Studies, aging has been gerontology’s way of politely signaling which age class the scholarship is devoted to, without actually using the supposedly alienating adjective old. You may like the forthrightness of old, as I do, but “Old-Age Studies” might have an alarming ring. Like “Growing-Older Studies,” it is unlikely to be welcomed in the universities alongside Gender Studies or Queer Theory. Gerontology had long had two ambitions–improving service-provision to old people and understanding the science of the “aging process”–before age scholars with different orientations expanded into economic, literary/ cultural, critical, historical, and other humanistic studies of the life course and later life, often theory-rich, experience-near, politically engaged, and history-based.

Since the 1990s, there has been an alternative to the adjectival form in such connections. Age. Numerous writers are choosing age as their main conceptual keyword, on the model of gender or race or sexualities. Age Studies handles age in the same self-reflexive ways that have slowed down and enriched the analysis of cultural critics who use concepts of gender or race. It  envisions a “society for all ages,” in the words of a four-year funded European Union initiative called Social Innovation for Age.

   In the United States, the term Age Studies was first adopted in 1993 as the name of a book series, and first used in an essay of my own that opened the first collection in that series, Aging and Gender in Literature. [5]  Another pioneer of cultural studies of age, Kathleen Woodward, presciently used “Age” rather than “Aging” in the title of an important collection of feminist essays, Figuring Age (1998). In Aged by Culture (2004), in a chapter called “What is Age Studies?” I anticipated some convergences that might produce a field. That field has been constituted by generations of scholars and theorists,  and has moved into bold new phases—building on past work but, as historian Andy Achenbaum says, ready to “redraw the intellectual and organizational bonds between gerontology and the arts and humanities” (2014). Indeed, by now the name Age Studies refers to an approach that, as the German Americanist Rüdiger Kunow writes (2016: 102), is “one of the most genuinely interdisciplinary fields of inquiry that a cultural critic can get involved with.” [6]

As an alternative to “Aging Studies,” “Age Studies” is rapidly becoming assimilated in some quarters, led by the humanities. It is used by the Modern Language Association in the US. When the Center for Gender and Diversity at Maastricht University in the Netherlands hosted the inaugural conference of the European Network of Aging [sic] Studies in 2011, the conference was called “Theorizing Age,” not Aging. A 2011 issue of  Amerikastudien / American Studies edited and published in Germany, was titled “Age Studies: An Introduction.” The first interdisciplinary and international journal dedicated to the field, first published in 2015, decided its name would be Age, Culture, Humanities. [7] The first book to be called Age Studies, by a British sociologist, Susan Pickard, appeared in 2016. Wikipedia uses both terms, spelled in the British way, “Ageing studies (or Age studies).”

Institutionalized nomenclature has inertial power. (Dislodging is not fracking; it’s unearthing, bringing to light.) For gerontologists, the connection to old people via this word aging is a source of pride and institutional identity with history behind it. Usage doesn’t change much; at least, it hasn’t yet. The Gerontological Society of America, established in 1945, now with 5,500 members, sticks with aging, as in their 2016 “Annual Scientific Meeting,” titled “New Lens on Aging: Changing Attitudes, Expanding Possibilities” and their brand new 2017 journal, Innovation in Aging. The European Network on Aging Studies, when named in 2010, fit itself to the earlier paradigm.

In 2013 the North American Network in Aging Studies (NANAS) also picked up the older usage in naming itself, [8]  although the two networks and the NWSA contain thousands of people who find language questions, historicization, social theory, embodiment, and other theoretical questions intriguing. For ENAS and NANAS, adding age to the second /a/would be an easy change, not just typographically but intellectually.  Some call themselves age critics or theorists; some prefer literary/ humanistic/ cultural/ critical gerontologists. Out of their own auto-critiques, they (we) are moving in the multiple directions that Age Studies has followed, including expanding our concerns beyond one age class and sometimes taking the whole life course as the context for age-class changes playing out in culture; and transferring theory and methods across disciplines. One of the pragmatic goals of using this term for the field is to further a vast curricular and pedagogical reform, by bringing age and life-course issues, old people, and ageism directly into the undergraduate and graduate curricula, more fully than aging studies (often taught in Gerontology buildings far away from the central campus or siloed in special courses in sociology and anthropology departments) has been able to do.

Eventually, offering age studies in universities, in interdisciplinary–even first-year—courses, and in disciplines in which few people so far call themselves age critics, will become common, more or less like offering women’s/ gender/ sexualities studies or critical race theory now. Many scholars and activists are already leading us in that direction. The apparently modest changes of nomenclature so far are heartening. Can we anticipate a department of Age Studies? Or, better yet, may we anticipate teachers integrating age, intersectionally, in courses across the entire curriculum? Will Age Studies become a search keyword on the Internet that is not confused with “The Age of Enlightenment,” etc?

Changing the titles of conferences, caucuses, and journals and organizations with high visibility, would signal much more than a superficial academic nod. Nomenclature is symptomatic. Discussing naming vocabulary entices us to consider the graver and thornier issues of ageism that are raised by using the term aging when referring to older people, or, indeed, any old thing. The goal is for everyone to rethink our common speech. I am trebly a stakeholder here, as I am a speaker and writer growing old, and a woman in a society where maligned old age is subtly, although rarely explicitly, about old women, and I am also a wary cultural critic and theorist of age who has followed and contributed to the discussions for thirty-five years.


“Every [key]word,” Raymond Williams discovered, “virtually forced itself on my attention because the problem of its meanings seemed to me inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss (15).” I found this true enough with aging, although often the way it is used actually forecloses discussion.

The serious problem with the noun aging in the common culture is that it usually does not mean what “growing older” or “maturing” means. In fact it typically denies the complex open-endedness of living and interpreting the life course. Far from having its meanings determined by sensitive age critics and theorists, aging is habitually used in a limited physiological sense that I (and many others) find disheartening, because it  is unlikely to change the aversive attitudes of anyone in our society toward old people or expand possibilities for anyone.  A journal titled, simply, Aging, says its “scope includes all organisms from yeast to humans.” (Albany NY or AgingUS: Yeast does not have agency. Yeast does not have feelings, or relatives who have stopped phoning. The medical model, when transferred to human contexts, bereaves us of social relations and personal agency–except when physical decline can be blamed on individuals for having led the wrong “lifestyle.”

In many impressive and persuasive contexts—used by medical researchers and Big PhRMA, for example, and repeated and thus endorsed by the popular media, “Aging is a collection of diseases.” [9] Discourse about the aging process, even when this process is considered to be multifactorial, seems to reinforce various kinds of determinism (once hormonal, later genetic), that however historically changeable, can be summed up as decline.

This hegemonic decline position is, fortunately, becoming controversial among scientists too. Some feel that the needle-narrow focus of neuroscience and geroscience on disease is an overwhelming reduction of the possible meanings of aging, as if there could be human events without sentient subjects. A revisionist historicization from Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience begins,

In the scientific literature there has been a widespread call for classifying normal aging as a disease, a condition that can be “manipulated, treated, and delayed” (Gems, 2010; Kelland, 2010). The main argument given by supporters of this suggestion is that grant-awarding bodies would be more likely to fund research. . . . Labeling aging as a disease may or may not help research funding but it can only hurt public opinion of what it means to age. (Nieuwenhuis-Mark, 2011)

Indeed, some research scientists now feel that their core mission is to distinguish what about old age is not disease.  This conceptual turn may be inspired by the effort from outside the medical sciences, of researchers and theorists who have tried for decades to show that biology is not the only truth of later life and physical deterioration is not synonymous with the embodied psyche in culture over time. Emmanuelle Tulle, for example, warns about reducing “aging” to the body side of the mind/body ontology in trying to emphasize embodiment. “What needs to be achieved is, first, to capture the structural or situated dimension of bodily ageing as the meanings of ageing are not uniformly distributed across all ageing social actors (2008: 6). Even ageist societies like ours may recognize other “corpo-realities,” as Rüdiger Kunow cleverly calls them: subjectivity–growth, resilience, spirituality, and wisdom, as well as the sufferings caused by ageism–as significant potential experiences of aging-into-adulthood and toward old age.

 Attacking the narrow concept of aging-as-disease may help undermine the damaging and dominating medical model. But the decline narrative of many advanced cultures is much broader. People of now quite youthful ages are said to be “aging” in normal everyday discourses related to employment, as well as in the advertising that is continuously promoted by the capitalist dysfunction and uglification industries to sell us products and services. After “finding where they [potential clients] suffer the most, which is known as ‘the pain point’” (Halpern, quoting Cathy O’Neil (2016: 34), such industries invented the term “anti-aging” as a commercial response to the middle ageism and ageism that inflict that degree of pain. The system addresses its goods to people who feel helpless to fight decline’s demeaning and demoralizing ideology directly.  I get mail from an organization called “Stop Aging Now.” This name makes no sense to me, given (as the joke goes) the alternative.

“Anti-aging” could refer to doctoring your C.V. so it hides your birthdate from ageist personnel directors. Instead, it commonly refers to products and procedures labeled as such, intended to alter the bodily appearance of agedness, or alleged to delay or conceal “the aging process”–to pass for younger, rather like passing for white or for straight. Passing in such ways is still highly gendered, although men are more and more becoming subjected to demoralizing job discriminations. There are actually many times more quack doctors of “anti-aging” than credentialed geriatricians.[10] They have a confederation.  Anti-aging can work as a response to such socially-constructed pain only as long as aging functions as synonym for illness-decline-and-death (which helps people remain naïve about the claims). Attacking anti-aging claims is unlikely to have helpful outcomes without our making a specifically linguistic effort to target this word aging.

  Aging as an adjective for objects invariably has a pejorative smell. It can mean not fresh or interesting (a city with aging architecture) or badly deteriorated and in need of repair or removal and replacement (aging infrastructure). Such uses, carelessly borrowed from human bodies to apply to nonpersons, metaphorically convey linear and unalleviated decline in the objects. Then these material uses reflect back badly on flesh. Where aging refers to human beings in common speech, it is also often a euphemism, as in gerontology, to avoid the term old or the named stage of old age. Colloquially, “aging” can mean “not young any more” (aging feminist) or “not yet quite old enough to warrant being called old” (aging men).

One increasingly common usage conveys that having too many old people constitutes serious and permanent global problems: aging nations, sometimes referred to as population aging.  Blaming a group of innocent people for their demographic situation straddles the threshold from nonhuman to human, and from individuals to aggregates, with an ugly insinuation that nations are better off with fewer elders, or, in regard to the generation long known as the “aging” Boomers, will be better off as these people die off.  Demography-as-decline tends to flop back, in a vicious circle, on individuals. The general suggestion I make, that I would wish habitual, is that everyone, starting with journalists, resist any such toxic adjectival borrowings. According to Harry R. Moody, the co-editor of Aging: Concepts and Controversies, in a recent personal communication, some younger scholars use “age distribution of the population” rather than “population aging.”

The media, however, resist lengthier, more apt, descriptors. Try telling an editor who lets “in our aging nation” pass, that he ought to demand accuracy. As in: “In the United States, the median age is not rising rapidly, so the term ‘aging nation’ is at best misleading if not tendentious. If you are told that no demographic group grows faster than ‘people over 90’ that is because the base number is so small. Not only are people over 65 a minority, they will never not be.” Let writers in all nations investigate the politics of common usage rather than relentlessly circulating its hostile implications.


Sentences that use the gerund, as in “Aging is. . . ” may intend to connote something unambiguous and neutral, a synonym for “growing old.” This rarely succeeds. Experts who are defining aging sometimes specify their approaches (by using adjectives like “chronological,” “social,” “psychological,” “biological,” or the like). But sentences that begin “Aging is. . .” often insinuate decline. (Think of the reductive ways in which sentences that begin “Women are. . .” or “Blacks are. . . ” often end.)

In the last twenty years, the decline buried in the noun form has come to mean not only any bodily weakness or disability or frailty, but, more pointedly, mental impairment.  Despite the attempt in advanced scientific circles to better define “normal aging,” Alzheimer’s Disease (as portrayed by Big PhRMA, the media, cartoons, and even some Alzheimer’s associations) has made A.D. almost a synonym for growing old. This equation further delimits the connotations of aging, crushing its ability to mean, neutrally, “growing old.” A.D. “symbolizes the overall horror that is assumed to be a part of the aging process,” notes Sally Chivers, a film critic in age studies, in The Silvering Screen (2011: 73). “Horror” is scarcely a general truth of mentation in later life, given the robust research on maturational processes, increased satisfaction, lessened anxiety, retention of core emotional qualities, mentoring and wisdom. This important work in psychology, philosophy, sociology, brain science, and literature carries conviction to those who read it, but powerful forces obscure it. So “cognitive aging” connotes cognitive decline, not growing serenity.

Most physical declines associated with growing older are not predictable, as one key fact–that some die at 55 and others at 105–suggests.  As in other domains where we are aged by culture, even many adverse effects on the body-mind are imposed, not innate; deeply intersectional; and start to accumulate early. Think of how embryonic development is determined by access to medical care and nourishing food; how environmental racism shortens some lives; how poverty impedes healthy eating; how work stress can create hypertension and heart disease; how unemployment, sexism, homophobia, ableism or other prejudices, worsened by ageism, can devastate mental health and be life-threatening. Some cancers are certainly, and others may be, environmental. Reaching old age, as Ashton Applewhite says in her dry way in her manifesto, This Chair Rocks (2016) is always “successful—not just the sporty version—otherwise you’re dead.”

But even when someone reaches old age, the ability to enjoy “healthy aging” depends in part on how ageism operates in intersectional ways on the body identified as old. Healthy aging is precluded if medical malfeasance refuses old people adequate treatment because of their age. If you have a heart attack and you are over seventy, or perhaps merely appear to be over seventy, you may receive a much shorter attempt at resuscitation: 6 minutes versus 13 minutes. Not a negligible difference. “Sub-optimal attempted resuscitation efforts . . . may be a factor in poorer outcomes in this group.”  (Haden and Butler, 2012: 71) This is only one lethal example that has emerged from research about age discrimination in health care. Some younger people think “older people” are ready to die, as if it were another job we weren’t doing right. In recent work on “social fates,” I have expanded the impressive literature on the decline construction of old age to show how people with a still unexplained,  untreatable, and thus frightening disease (Alzheimer’s) are targeted for social death, and even encouraged to consider suicide while they still have enough executive ability to try it (2016b).

Even if we acknowledge that culture informs biological aging in specific societies at specific historical moments, it may still be hard to eradicate that formula I just mentioned, “We all start aging at birth.”  This sentence is said even by social constructionists, trying to make an inarguable universal statement. There are creditable reasons for trying to make aging the one social process all human beings share, intentionally contrasted to the way gender, race, class, ableness, etcetera divide us. We do all age (whatever that means) as year follows year. We all have, or used to have, a gender. We all have, or used to have, a race. Yet these supposed commonalities, where they exist, do not prove unifying. This formula of hankering for universal humanness is obfuscating. And the universalizing cast of such sentences–“We all age”–is not credible to the younger people to whom it is addressed, who know little about the life course.

Perhaps what unifies a generationally-divided society now (where age is concerned) is that younger age groups fear aging-past-youth because of the ageism they unconsciously anticipate and which they too often damagingly internalize and sometimes hurtfully express.  As for unification on the grounds that people of all ages have aging in common, my view is that this cannot reasonably be asserted until many unlikely conditions are met: inequalities in health and wealth over the life course are weakened or eliminated, (2) decline ideology and intergenerational hostility wither, and (3) there comes to be considerably more agreement about the fundamental concepts of age and the facts of ageism.


Having argued against using aging as an unqualified gerund, I want to move briefly to how I personally found ways to avoid using it, and why. This went in two stages. Because aging is a narrative, a cultural story, I started separating, distinguishing, and offering alternatives, first by deploying the terms aging-as-decline or aging-as-a-progress narrative (1997, 2004). My primary goal was not to pull narrativity into life-course discussions (although I was happy to see this practice popularized).  My goal was to disrupt the automatic assumption that we know what aging is without stories.  Aging-as-decline indicates the underlying ideology or “master narrative” of the life course, dependent on, inter alia, the collection-of-diseases definition, the discriminatory economics of the life course, and the dysfunctions that the commerce in aging invents or magnifies. Decline narratives typically ignore the ways ageism infects our sense of growing old. They exclude or minimize other possibilities that may come personally (through time, experience, maturation) or nationally through history, politics, or changed generational relations.

Aging-as-progress narrative is, as I see it, neither an “anti-aging” story nor a successful-aging story. It is the inner dynamic of plausible fictions and self story-telling that find aging-as-experienced worth living (Gullette, 2011). I wanted to break the binary between positive aging and aging as decline, to show there were myriad personal narratives.  “Progress narrative” and “decline narrative” are now found in many age-studies texts, but often as the false binary I tried to shake. Rarely, I suspect, do these usages explicitly displace the shorthand  gerund (aging).

To problematize this gerund, and get my head clear, I also started using more culturally-accurate temporal “locations,” like “aging past youth,” “aging into the middle years,” “aging into old age,” “aging into frailty.” Such distinctions have the advantage of being part of normal speech. Here is an excerpt from an oral interview I did with a gerontologist whose brothers are farmers.

The same circumstances afflict some of their neighbors who are aging toward retirement. My brothers used to help older farmers in the past by renting and farming their fields. But now they themselves are aging beyond midlife and experiencing health problems (2017:  97) .

This woman wasn’t quoting me in saying “aging toward retirement” or “aging beyond midlife.” She needed precision to make her meaning plain.  Susan Pickard, in her book Age Studies uses “ageing through midlife” and “aging-through-the-life course” (2016: 89, 91) without attribution, normalizing them within scholarly age studies.

Such terms have the advantage of being less positivistic than social science’s reification  of “stages.” It was common when I started writing in the 1980s, to declare (for instance) that the midlife began at 45 and ended at 65; then someone else would say 40 and 70. Any such positivist efforts seemed to me ahistorical, acultural, non-intersectional, impersonal, and pre-theoretical approaches to the life course. Neologisms against reification: that is my hope in using and promoting such terms.

I continue to use and tweak these to make sense to myself of the changes in culture over time. These neologisms are more precise than phony chronology, since they reflect historical changes in age relations. One ironic category, aging past youth, recognizes a pernicious effect of middle ageism: that an adult life course, conceivably eighty years of living, can be considered as an inferior period following on a brief state of alleged perfection—“a mere supplement, a footnote, as it were,” as Kunow ironically notes, to the main story (2016: 107).  I felt a need to recognize in common speech that, even without being given proper names (e.g., the disgraced “menopausal,” once used as an adjective for all women over fifty), meaningful social transitions can be observed. Aging toward old age may recognize middle ageism or desexualization, rather than physiological conditions. Aging into frailty is my attempt to avoid the hard-edged distancing connotations of the reified (and so often feminized) “Fourth Age” and carries a critique of the term.

 Aging past youth and aging past midlife reflect one of my earliest startled observations from the 1980s and 1990s: that many formerly recognizable “stages” of life were being prolonged (“youth” went on way past adolescence) or delayed (“maturity”) or curtailed (“prime age”), with people treated like pawns in the macro games of the life course. Some gerontologists were also noticing long fuzzy transitions, but without always relating them to socioeconomic causes. Neoliberal capitalism’s drive to the bottom in wages had incidental outcomes that distorted the life course, like the age-wage curve already mentioned, decreased midlife labor participation and midlife job discrimination, extended adolescence, imposed or enticed retirement; and partly because of youth unemployment, wage stagnation, and inequality, later marriage and later child-rearing.

Ageism does worsen with chronological aging, via what Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs call “the appearance of agedness” (2011: 140).  But being judged to be aging past midlife, or even to be aging past youth, is not dependent on a person’s having facial lines, gray hair, or a disability. American capitalism imposes its demotions early. Adverse age-related judgment can begin about 35, as in Silicon Valley or Hollywood job discrimination. Age can dog a person as early as 45 when the sign, “No unemployed need apply” is only one way to undermine job searches. Examples like this, which could be strengthened by data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or from graphic drops in labor-force participation, or oral histories from women who suffer discrimination ten years younger than men and sue, demonstrate how young Americans can be, when first afflicted by decline thinking and middle ageist practices. As aging-as-decline started backing down the life course, another of my neologisms—middle ageism—emphasizes how disastrous its effects are, worsening job discrimination with allegations of incompetence. Middle ageism may begin at whatever undecidable age we are when our boss, or colleagues, or friends, begin to make too much of our, or their, memory loss. The failure of capitalism to provide enough work at decent wages for all undermines the entire life-course imaginary. Weighing such factors, I see one trend: mean-spirited impositions of decline start earlier in life and make growing older—aging past youth, aging past the midlife–seem more fearful. It isn’t increased longevity that is damaging many opportunities across the life course, but the circumstances in which so many people age, and the difficulty of improving their conditions.

To me, many sentences that use aging instead of one of the more precise alternatives are simply illegible. Semantic heavy lifting has gone on in other zones of human life where a movement was able to provide new information and create new empathy. People with disabilities and people with different abilities replaced many unpleasant thoughtless terms. Think back to the time when the generic category “woman” was commonly used in phrases like “The Woman Problem”; and how feminism changed it first to “women” and then undid its link to sexuality, and thus expanded and disaggregated “women,” and having undone its relation to a vagina and hormones and genes, now includes “woman-identified.” Now the term woman, except in such terms or for a single female person who is not a girl, would be illegible. If, reading aging, I often can’t figure out what period of life the writer alludes to, or what that writer’s definition of aging might be, others who know the deformations of decline culture will eventually share this puzzlement.


Finally, to return to the pesky underlying disease-riddled concept, the process of aging, or the aging process. Does the biological determinism in process, and its implicit denial of whatever makes old people find that phase of life enjoyable, make the term almost unusable in critical age studies? (I have used process in this essay only in “maturational processes,” which should become common knowledge in relation to aging into later life.)

Or might process be redeemed through a fresh definition, that doesn’t deny biology but plants our human temporal processes firmly in culture? I offer one. It also begins “Aging is. . . .”   This may look suspiciously like another bad definition, but it has a revolutionary twist at the end.

Aging is the process that, whatever else it is, serves as a trigger for ageism (2017: xiv).

If this definition proves disruptive, it’s partly because it makes everyone who is growing old innocent. Ageism is undeserved.  “To age is a ‘sin’.” So Madonna bitterly said society thinks, when she gave her acceptance speech as the Woman of the Year at Billboard’s event, Women in Music 2016 (Rosenberg). It is not a sin. Nor a crime. We old are the victims of an alien trigger–like Muslims, people of color, transpeople.

This sociological observation, Aging is the process that serves as a trigger for ageism, urges us to revise many sentences, our own and those of others. A friend, a good sociologist, writes that “aging is the enemy of the self.” Does she mean that old age leads automatically to, say, “dementia” (which would be untrue)? Not at all:  She means to point to the identity-stripping that befalls so many as we age in hostile societies. Her sentence is meaningful only if it is understood that the appearance of not being young serves to trigger ageists into action. In this context, “the enemy of the self” is ageism.

 The exercise I practice, interrogating “aging” and trying to replace it, has brought me closer to understanding ageism in society and the media. The improvements in my thinking led me at length to this newly conceptualized relationship between aging and ageism (“Aging is the process that serves as a trigger. . . ”). These benefits are to me proofs of concept.

It could be interesting for readers, could it not, to mentally put aging into scare quotes, in any context, before reading further in some sentences or arguments? Writers can hesitate, pondering, not to automatically eliminate the word, but to make its use less sloppy, to assure it is doing uncompromised work. We can make better decisions about what we want to say and what audiences need to hear. Perhaps this prolegomenon will serve as a nudge in those directions.

The distinction between aging and ageism, which I initially said was rudimentary, may become indispensable emotionally. Major cognitive advances in thinking and language never occur without emotional consequences. Many young people are frightened by being told that disease is what awaits them for growing old, like a punishment. Older people, learning their complex selfhood is treated as nothing more than a collection of diseases, resent it. In old age some encounter a range of ageisms (including bad jokes, hate speech, elderspeak, continuing job discrimination, habitual stereotypes, rude and assaultive or negligent behaviors, exclusion from work and social life, loss of income, physical assaults, fraud, rape, incitements to suicide)–a spectrum from embarrassing or humiliating to traumatic and devastating.  Whenever ageism is internalized, wistful desire for youth or masochistic despair are not good guides. A good old age becomes harder to envision, let alone encompass. Can we sharpen the distinction between a trigger and the pain caused by discharging the gun? To make that meaningful, we need a thicker concept of age-related trauma.

Once ageism is clearly in our purview, “fear of aging” becomes visible as an emotion caused by some factors unrelated to, and prior to, personal biological changes. People are quite capable of learning to distinguish outside assaults from whatever the risks may be of aging in the body. Let us peer beneath the shroud of fear to uncover the entire spectrum of ageisms–lest we forget how dangerous they can be for us as we grow older. The slogan “Fear ageism, not aging,” is another result of this enlightenment.

What can each of us do to turn internalized ageism into self-esteem, fear into resentment, resentment into grievance, and grievance into social reform? In this essay I limit myself to vocabulary changes, but they can be liberating. Using the word ageism with confidence correlates with a development in mind, heart, and guts that may protect solitary individuals from experiencing the full force of a trauma, or help them recuperate and gain agency in the process. Targeting the sources of “ageism”—naming the perpetrators and the systems–may have, I submit, major psychological effects. Disrupting decline ideology, even a little bit, smooths the life course, and positions old people to enjoy the accomplishment of making it so far, so well. “Let me be young forever,” a hopeless sentiment from the “anti-aging” thesaurus, can be transmogrified into a broad reform program, “Let us end ageism.” This transition proves radical.

Many activist responses across many domains are needed in an evil conjuncture. As Raymond Williams wrote, analysis of vocabulary does not bring “resolution” to major social issues. But he saw that some meanings, “beginning in particular, specialized contexts,” became quite common in “wider areas of thought and experience” (1983: 14). In more political language, a liberating language can move from margin to center. Here and now, wording that replaces aging and explicates ageism undoes our submission to the ideology of life-course decline, with everything that follows.


Imagine a world in which there is a way, via a big-data survey, to count an entire country’s written usages, a sort of Google Alert that covered academic writing as well as the media. I have a Google Alert for ageism, and over the last year or so the weekly digest of articles with that critical keyword has grown (there may now be as many as ten a week), whereas, of course, aging would receive untold numbers of citations.

In this future world, then, imagine that the number of clicks on ageism has increased exponentially (and the number of thoughtless citations of aging has dwindled). This alteration of the current ratio would come about, I believe, not because people come to be less concerned about preventing or solving the physical issues of growing older, but because more people become outraged by the ageisms and start working to eliminate them.

What would have to happen in our society for this to occur?  It will be exhilarating to watch such changes unfold, and worth becoming alert (and living long enough) to look out for them.


My thanks to early readers.  Emily Fox Kales, the author of Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders, posed enlightening queries and encouraged me to add body commodification and age erasure. Ruth Ray Karpen has one of the great editorial pens in age studies, with her deep knowledge of feminist gerontology and her long experience of teaching writing, and of writing her own books, including Endnotes and Beyond Nostalgia. Frances A. Maher, co-author of The Feminist Classroom, raised important questions about feminist readers’ needs. Andrea Petersen proves to be the “common reader” of Virginia Woolf’s and my dreams. Smriti Rao, Jan Freedman, Edith Chears, and Helen Berger of the Women’s Studies Research Center were a great help in clarifying ideas.


Achenbaum, Andy (2014). “Poised to Pass the Torch,” Age Culture Humanities Issue 1.

Aging. (Albany NY) or AgingUS:

Applewhite, Ashton (2016).

Butler, Robert (1969). “Age-ism: Another Form of Bigotry,” The Gerontologist9 #4: 243–246. doi:10.1093/geront/9.4_part_1.243

Toni M. Calasanti Slevin, Kathleen F. and King, Neal (2006). “Ageism and Feminism: From ‘Et Cetera’ to Center,” NWSA Journal 18 #1 (Spring): 13-30.

Calasanti, Toni and King, Neal (2017). “Successful Aging, Ageism, and the Maintenance of Age and Gender Relations,” Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 27-40.

Chivers, Sally (2011). The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Gilleard, Chris and Paul F. D. Higgs (2011).  “Ageing Abjection and Embodiment in the Fourth Age,” Journal of Aging Studies 25 #2: 140. (135-142). Accessed October 3, 2015.  DOI: 10.1016/j.jaging.2010.08.018

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth (1993).  Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth (2004). Aged by Culture.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth (2011). “Our Best and Longest-Running Story: Why is Telling Progress Narrative so Necessary, and so Difficult?” Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth (2016a). “How Ugly is Ageism in the United States?” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 8.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth (2016b). “Politics, Pathology, Suicide, and Social Fates: Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” Modern Drama 59 #2 (Summer, special issue on Aging and the Life Course).

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth (2017). Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Haden, A. R. and J. Butler (2012), Abstract, “Length of Resuscitation Attempt versus Age—An Ageist Approach? “ Age and Ageing 41, Supplement 2 (July).

Halpern, Sue (2016). “They Have, Right Now, Another You,” New York Review of Books, December 22.

Kunow, Rüdiger (2016).Postcolonial Theory and Old Age: An Explorative Essay,” Journal of Aging Studies 39 (December).

Kunow, Rüdiger  and Hartung, Heike, eds. (2011). “Age Studies: An Introduction,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 56 #1.

Lamb, Sarah, ed. (2017). Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Nieuwenhuis-Mark, Ruth Elaine (2011).  “Healthy Aging as Disease?” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience  3 #3 (February 22).  Accessed December 7, 2016. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2011.00003

Palmore, Erdman (2000). Guest Editorial, “Ageism in Gerontological Language,” The Gerontologist  40 #6 (December 1): 645. 

Pickard, Susan (2016). Age Studies. A Sociological Examination of How We Age and are Aged through the Life Course. SAGE.

Rosenberg, Eli (2016).  “‘To Age Is a Sin’: In Blunt Speech, Madonna Confronts Bias in Various Forms,” New York Times, December 10.

Segal, Lynne (2014). “The Coming of Age Studies,” Age, Culture, Humanities. 1 #1.

Tulle, Emmanuelle (2008). “The Ageing Body and the Ontology of Ageing: Athletic Competence in Later Life,” Body & Society 14 # 3.

Williams, Raymond (1983). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. New York: Oxford UP.

Woodward, Kathleen (2003). “Against Wisdom: The Social Politics of Anger and Aging,” Journal of Aging Studies 17 #1 (Feb): 55-67.

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[1] In 2000, Palmore wrote a three-paragraph critique of the term “aging,” which contained this advice, “I suggest a moratorium on the use of aging as a euphemism for deterioration, because it gives aging a ‘bad name.’ . . . [I]f one means decline or deterioration, it would be more honest and clearer to say so, and instead of aging use deterioration or debilitation.”  I find only four citations to this article since 2002.


[2] The rapid dissemination of the term “successful aging” was made possible in the first instance by the MacArthur Foundation, which gave the first book with that title, by Rowe and Kahn, to every member of the Gerontological Society of America, according to Toni Calasanti and Neal King (2017: 27, citing Martha Holstein and Meredith Minkler 2003).


[3]  One instance of making an enormous change in nomenclature is the journal of the American Aging Association (not to be confused with the journal of the American Society on Aging, Generations), which was changed in 2016 from Age to Geroscience. This change admits that the journal has a far narrower remit than “Age.” Their advice to writers recognizes that there is a large world beyond geroscience:  “Papers concerned with social, economic, and political issues of aging will generally not be considered unless they relate directly to biomedical gerontology.”  “Cultural” does not appear among their  “issues of aging.”

[4] A kind request from Frame’s editors to contribute to that issue, led me to write this summary of my long meditations on the pre-theorized uses of aging and the cultural conflicts in which the term is embedded. My title is inspired by Kathleen Woodward’s important and persuasive essay, “Against Wisdom” (2003). Others will think of Susan Sontag’s title, “Against Interpretation,” as well.

[5] The series, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen, ended in 2001.

[6] Age studies attracts thinkers from all the cultural/ critical/ humanistic gerontologies, and increasingly from anthropology, art, film, economics, literature, the medical humanities, philosophy, theater, women’s studies and cultural studies, to name some disciplines represented in the international networks.

[7]  Age Culture Humanities is edited by Cynthia Port, an American, and Aagje Swinnen, from the Netherlands. For a mission statement, go to

[8] At early NANAS meetings that discussed branding our fresh organization, some of us suggested making the second “A” refer to both– “age/aging”–to indicate the overlaps and the aim of writing for the broadest audiences. The addition of age would not be a repudiation of gerontology, nor would the substitution of Age for Aging. (Age critics sometimes find themselves declaring that we are not planning to hide behind the breadth of “age” in order to switch our focus to children or Millennials as a way of ignobly ignoring old people.)

[9]  See below, within the next quotation, two citations, of Gems, 2010 and Kelland, 2010. There are others:

[10] At a 2011 count, provided me by Harry R. Moody (personal communication), there were 26,000 non-board-certified touts, vs. under 9,000 geriatricians and geriatric psychiatrists.