Occupy Inspires Elders
The following quotes are from Gray Panthers who have joined in various Occupy Movement events across the country:
“News of Occupy Wall Street has given me hope for the future. I was of the opinion the younger generation lacked the [same] social responsibility and willingness to protest as my own generation. … Reading the comments of a 17-year-old stating they were ‘staying until greed is no longer the ruling principle of the nation’ gives me great hope and pride in the young people of our nation. ... I attended Occupy Tampa today. There were about 200 people of all age groups and various cause groups. … It felt like the 1960s again.”
—Tom Calahan, Florida
“Gray Panthers’ emphasis on ‘putting needs of people over profits’ and the initiatives of Occupy Wall Street highlight the critical need for a focus on accountability of public officials responsible to uphold, enforce, [and] obey laws that reflect the public interest (and the need to eliminate) fraud, waste, abuse, and corrupt practices.”
—Clint Smith, Texas
“Went to Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland—very inspiring! Heard Michael Moore Friday, he said that Occupy has killed despair and banished apathy, and these are victories. How true. In San Francisco, we were asked by our local NPR station if we thought the young were apathetic, and said, ‘No, they are all over the Internet, but the Arab Spring and Wisconsin told them that they had to be here with their bodies.’ ”
—Margot Smith, California
Maggie Kuhn was forced into retirement at 65 in 1970. Her outrage, plus a desire to continue her involvement in social action, led Kuhn to found the Gray Panthers, an intergenerational economic and social justice advocacy organization. Today’s Gray Panthers still accept Kuhn’s charge to “protest against anything we consider wrong” and “speak our mind, even if our voice shakes” in public and virtual protest—through email, Facebook, Twitter and on the Web.
Kuhn described ageism as “the segregation, stereotyping and stigmatizing of people on the basis of their age.” Ageism perpetuates prejudices that foster negative attitudes toward aging and ingrains ageist beliefs into our collective conscience. As a result, people of all ages come to dread their future lives and deny their own aging. This is unfortunate because, as Kuhn pointed out, “the one thing we all have in common is aging.”
A great deal of progress has been made since Kuhn’s fight for a more enlightened view of aging, but ageism persists—in media portrayals, employment challenges, service providers’ patronizing behaviors, marketing of anti-aging products to increasingly younger populations, inequitable healthcare practices and policy debates about Social Security and Medicare.
Ageism Sticking Around
A 2011 study by Luo et al. in Research on Aging found that age discrimination was the most commonly reported form of discrimination, followed by gender, race, heritage and physical qualities. And older adults were more likely to attribute perceived discrimination to their age. The study found that perceived discrimination had a negative impact on people’s health and everyday discrimination had stronger effects than a major discriminatory event.
In Margaret M. Gullette’s Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America (University of Chicago Press, 2011) the author describes such current social symptoms of age discrimination as increased job loss for older men, decreased pension values, peak earning years for women at age 45 and fears over loss of looks beginning in the late 20s.
The current political milieu, with its hyper-partisanship and concern about deficits and government spending, elevates the threat. People are openly pitting younger and older generations against one another, representing elders as draining our society of resources and threatening our economy. However, as Gullette argues, those now entering old age have the highest wage inequality of any recent generation, and those entering middle age have higher levels of poverty than any equivalent group of mid-lifers since the generation before 1914.
A participant sports a positive message during OccupyOakland's General Strike in downtown Oakland on November 2, 2011.
Photographer: Anna Graves
Occupy the Outrage
The Gray Panthers’ mission—to “create a society that puts people over profits, responsibility over power and democracy over institutions”—resonates with the intent of the current Occupy Movement. Outrage is a universal language across generations and the outrage that brought Kuhn and the original Gray Panthers into the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1970s, is bringing today’s Gray Panthers into the Occupy Movement. Nationwide, Gray Panthers of all ages have readily embraced Occupy, joining in marches, teach-ins and protests.
As in the ’60s and ’70s, there is growing public discontent with affronts to equity, liberty and democracy. Progressive Gray Panthers embrace the Occupy Movement because they, like Occupiers, understand that elders and Main Streeters feel dismissed and disenfranchised by the privileged and powerful few. The current circumstances of the unemployed, who are relying on government assistance, place them in a situation similar to the old, who are reliant on social insurance programs. Both groups are threatened with increased hardships, while being treated as outcasts of a system that rewards productivity and profit.
The Occupiers have revived strategies of grassroots activism, sit-ins, local actions and street protests, and rekindled a belief in the power of the common people to create change. William Black, former federal regulator and professor of economics and law, attended an Occupy teach-in and said, “What’s distressed me, and I think is one of the major reasons we get recurrent intensifying crises, is we seem to have lost our capacity for outrage. And it’s only people getting outraged that produces really positive social change.”
Kuhn knew that, if nurtured, collective outrage could spur intergenerational action, using the experience of elder activists to support the movement, as the young share their vision for a more just society and add tactics. If both aging and outrage are what we all have in common, one solution is to occupy together!
Sally Brown is the immediate past chair of the National Board of the Gray Panthers, serves on the National Board and Leadership Team and is convenor of the Twin Cities Gray Panthers network in Minnesota.
Brooke Hollister, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology in the Institute for Health and Aging at University of California, San Francisco. She serves as vice chair on the National Board of the Gray Panthers.
Visit www.gray panthers.org.
Photo Courtesy of Anna Graves Photography
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March/April 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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