A Stigma Rooted in Denial: On Ageism and “Aging Thoughtfully”

A review of Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore’s “Aging Thoughtfully.”

A Stigma Rooted in Denial: On Ageism and “Aging Thoughtfully”

Aging Thoughtfully by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore. Oxford University Press. 264 pages.

TEMPTED TO SKIP OVER anything to do with aging? You’re not alone. Few respectable philosophers have tackled the topic since Cicero in 45 BCE. So hats off to eminent scholars Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore for stepping into the breach. Good news for the extra-averse: the authors are quick to assure us that their new book, Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret, “is certainly not about dying, gracefully or otherwise.”

The book’s form was inspired by Cicero’s De Senectute (On Aging), a conversation between the philosopher and his best friend, Atticus, when both were in their 60s. In Aging Thoughtfully, eight pairs of essays tackle various aspects of later life, from the nature of friendship and family relationships to the loss of physical and mental control. Drawing on high culture and low, the authors make no attempt to be definitive or detached. Nussbaum, a renowned philosopher, focuses on issues of ethics and emotional life, while Levmore, a lawyer-economist, takes a more pragmatic tack.

Ancient Greeks and Romans could expect to live to around 35, compared to almost 79 for Americans today. Our grandchildren may well become centenarians. This is new ground, culturally and biologically. Roles, institutions, and attitudes have yet to catch up, so it behooves us to come out of our don’t-want-to-think-about-it foxholes, reflect on the terrain ahead, and help to shape it. To that end, this erudite and entertaining book offers an abundance of guidance. Few of us, as the authors point out, feel comfortable talking about how to pass on property to our children, or how our bodies are changing, or how we hope to be remembered. Aging Thoughtfully ventures deliberately into such awkward terrain.

The book tackles a wide range of topics: bequests, retirement, plastic surgery, philanthropy, and May-December romance, among others. “We have tried to bring fresh approaches to these and other subjects,” the authors write, “to show that thinking and arguing about them is not only practical, but also one of the great pleasures of aging.” It is, indeed, because aging is living, and good conversation is one of life’s delights. Thinking about aging also makes good sense: the more we know about the process, the less terror it holds, and the better prepared we are for the old age we want.

Some chapters consist of Levmore responding to Nussbaum, or vice versa. Sometimes the two square off, as in the chapter on retirement policy. Levmore makes a persuasive case for reinstating a mandatory retirement age, which he argues could reduce rather than encourage discrimination against older workers. Nussbaum counters fiercely, calling mandatory retirement “one of the great moral evils of our times” and citing Mill’s justification for ending discrimination against women: “namely, the advantage of basing central social institutions ‘on justice rather than injustice.’”

As Nussbaum notes, it took a revolution to raise consciousness about the effects of sexism on women’s lives. When it comes to ageism, that revolution is only now gathering steam, so perhaps it’s unfair to critique the authors for not fully reckoning with their own negative — largely unconscious — feelings about age and aging. Age prejudice affects us all, of course, but if we are to age not just thoughtfully but as equal citizens to the end, we must move beyond our ingrained biases. As they grapple with the meanings of our march through life, Nussbaum and Levmore make clear how far we still have to go.

Part of the problem is semantic: the authors “see aging as a time of life, just like childhood, young adulthood, and middle age.” But aging is lifelong, not something that kicks in somewhere north of 40. Better, then, to call that stage “late life” or “elderhood,” and to refrain from using the word “aging” to describe activities and feelings that are age-independent, as the overwhelming majority are. Aging is heterogeneous, as the authors establish early on: the longer we live, the more different from each other we become. Better, then, to reject terms like “the aged” and “the elderly,” which imply the opposite — membership in some homogenous group — and which people never use to describe themselves.

Another overarching characteristic of aging, acknowledged early and often by both authors, is that it is stigmatized. That stigma is rooted in denial — our insistence that we’re “not old,” even as we enter our final decades. “Us versus them” thinking underlies all prejudice; the greatest irony of ageism is that the “other” is our own future selves. At 70 and 64, respectively, Nussbaum and Levmore are writing not about them (“the aged,” the frail, the bingo-players at the senior center), but about us: everyone with more road behind them than ahead. In an ageist world, to acknowledge and even embrace our aging — to challenge its representation as decline alone — is a radical act. Aging thoughtfully involves it, and age equity demands it.

A primary source of age stigma, as the authors address in Chapter Four, is the fact that older bodies, especially women’s, are perceived as unattractive and even repulsive. That distaste should feel familiar; all marginalized people have heard that it’s “natural” for others to be physically repelled by them. As Nussbaum writes, “the idea that the female body is disgusting [is] a staple of misogyny the world over.” She acknowledges that this bias, a physical demotion that awaits us all, perpetuates inequality. Yet, distressingly, she posits that, because evolution favors the reproductively fit, there’s an “element of truth in the stereotype.” Older people are indeed closer to death, but even if revulsion at physical decline is partly to blame for the stigma, why should we give it a pass? Ageism is no more embodied or “natural” than other forms of prejudice, ableism in particular. All such “-isms” are socially constructed, as Nussbaum acknowledges. They’re not about biology, they’re about power. Unless social oppression is called out, we experience that lesser life as “just the way it is.” The reason hundreds of thousands of buff boomers can’t land a job interview isn’t because they have one foot in the grave, it’s because they face entrenched discrimination. Hearteningly, Nussbaum ends the chapter with a rousing call “to oppose this type of immoral — and in many nations illegal — discrimination […] [and join] a movement against self-disgust.” Huzzah!

Chapter Five, “Looking Back,” discusses the nature and purpose of retrospection, comparing the perils of living in the past with the emptiness of inhabiting a hedonistic eternal present. Citing Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, whose characters are immersed in their painful memories, Nussbaum writes, “Whatever retrospective emotions an aging life admits and even seeks, surely this way of avoiding present accountability is both futile, accomplishing nothing good, and ethically heinous.” Her discussion is relevant to all of life, not just old age. In O’Neill’s great play, both parents and offspring are trapped, waking up a day older into an “aging life.”

Levmore rises to the defense of self-absorbed retirees who opt for an eternal present among others of similar age and background. “If this segregation seems like a step back in time, we ought not blame it on real-estate developers,” he writes. Agreed — how about blaming it on a culture that ushers older people out of sight? Given that the most important component of a good old age is a robust social network, what are the downsides to having friends only of one’s own age? If diversity in life is a good thing, why isn’t age a criterion just like race and class, and why shouldn’t older people benefit from this multiplicity as well?

“Why does age matter in romance?” asks Chapter Six, which is packed with insights into how gender and class shape love in late life. Nussbaum’s essay compares a middle-aged woman’s romance with a vapid teenager in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier to the love between Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. As long as both parties are grown-ups and full participants, she observes, “[a]ge difference in itself means little or nothing.” She concludes by critiquing “the staggering lie […] that love arrives only in neat couples, and that a person can love only one person at a time.” This is a radical thought and an eminently sensible one. Consider sharing!

In Chapter Seven, Levmore offers a raft of economic proposals to assist the (regrettably labeled) “elderly poor,” but he frames them in a deeply problematic way. Arguing that retirees won’t benefit from paid parental leave and a higher minimum wage, for example, ignores the fact that families are multigenerational and that a viable social compact for longer lives should support transfers of all kinds across generations. By the same token, older people should pay school taxes, not only for the greater good but so the guy delivering their oxygen tanks can read the instructions. Yet Levmore disagrees. While praising the effectiveness of programs such as early childhood intervention and job training for young adults, he claims that “it is impossible to make such a case for programs or transfers aimed at the elderly.” And, even more bluntly: “There are superior moral and economic claims when it comes to needy children, and while those arguments and sentiments do not preclude helping the elderly poor, they form a serious barrier in a world with limited resources.” In a book about dealing sensibly with longevity, an argument like this is more than confounding — it’s shocking.

Such zero-sum reasoning pitting generations against each other should always be challenged, not least for ethical reasons — and not only because a robust social safety net benefits everyone sooner or later. In theory at least, we no longer allocate resources by race or gender; why should it be acceptable to weigh the needs of the young against the old? Resources are not inherently scarce, and there are plenty of ways to finance programs that support younger and older people, such as raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, hiking the capital gains tax, eliminating the carried interest loophole, and cutting military spending. It should be said that Levmore redeems himself in the last chapter with terrific advice on how and when to part with resources. (Hint: Deferral is unwise.)

Nussbaum counters with a welcome — and thoroughly idealistic — approach that focuses not on incapacity but its opposite: “what people can actually do and be.” This agenda requires a set of policies that recognize the extreme diversity of older people and the way we age, combats ageist stereotypes, and supports and protects agency around such priorities as end-of-life choices, privacy, sexual safety and choice, and access to culture. Isn’t this the world we all hope to inhabit to the end, no matter what our circumstances might be?

“The pervasive feeling that capability losses in aging are just ‘natural’ is a huge impediment to the debate we badly need,” Nussbaum writes. Yes, it is, and yes, we do. We have a unique and unprecedented opportunity to exploit the human capital of millions of healthy, educated adults like never before in history. Of course, much about aging is difficult, but much of the difficulty is constructed or compounded by ageism. Of course, aging involves loss, but it also deeply enriches. Let’s tell both sides of the story, and work toward a world where no one ages out of having value as a human being. Aging Thoughtfully advances that goal, portraying the aging process as both universal and utterly idiosyncratic, and urging us to learn from each other and our shared history.


Ashton Applewhite is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (2016) and a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age.

LARB Contributor

Author and activist Ashton Applewhite is the author of many works, including Cutting the Knot: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well (1996) and This Chair Rocks (2016).


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