When Ashton Applewhite hit 55 years old, she dyed her hair. So what? That’s what women the world over do, you might think: dye grey hair to hide their age. But what Applewhite did was different: she dyed her hair grey. Not Kim Kardashian-platinum grey, but defiantly uncool, bog-standard grey.
“I went to a matinee, so it was all old people,” she says, grinning widely as she absentmindedly tousles her hair, the brown roots showing. “When it finished, everyone left via an escalator. I looked down and there was not a grey head to be spotted. I suddenly thought: ‘This is one way we collude, en masse, in making ourselves invisible as older women – and that’s a real problem, because when people are invisible, so are the issues that affect them’.”
When Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, gave a TED talk titled Let’s End Ageism in 2017, it was an unexpected hit, with 1.5m views to date. In the video, the audience gives Applewhite repeated standing ovations as she talks about how it is not the passage of time that makes it so hard to get older, it’s ageism: a totally illogical prejudice that pits us against our future selves. “Ageing is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured,” she exhorts from the TED stage, to shouts of support. “It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.”
How did old people become political enemies of the young?
But back to the matinee: “I stood at the top of that escalator,” Applewhite, now 66, says, “and I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to have the year of letting our hair go grey, so the world can see how many of us there are and how beautiful we are and how diverse we are?”
Applewhite, who is based in New York, inherited her mother’s no-grey-hair gene. But she decided that if she was going to talk the talk, she needed to walk the walk: “The big, if shallow, surprise is how much I liked having grey hair, because I didn’t expect to,” she says. “But other people’s reactions varied. My manager at work said: ‘You don’t look older’; my friend Mer said: ‘You look older’; and her husband Josh said: ‘You look hot!’”
“But what was most interesting was a contributor to my blog, who said: ‘Fine for some, but my hair doesn’t look good grey.’ OK, no judgment, but I wonder how much of her opinion is coloured by what the grey signifies to her – because that’s what we need to work on, in ourselves and in the culture: decoupling ‘older’ from ‘undesirable’ and ‘old’ from ‘ugly’.”
‘How come so many of us assume that depression, diapers and dementia lie ahead?’ ... Applewhite. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
This is the elevator pitch for Applewhite’s exuberant, thoughtful and surprisingly entertaining book. “My call to action skews towards the first and foundational step of confronting internalised ageism,” she says. “But that is only the first step. It is clear that upending discrimination on the basis of age will require fundamental changes in the way society is structured.”
“We have to come up with fairer and broader ways to access productivity, devise more ways for older people to continue to contribute, support them in their endeavours and decouple the value of a human being from success along any of these metrics,” she says.
It is not news that the population is ageing. Life expectancy in Britain is growing by a dramatic five hours a day. Furthermore, in 2014, the average age of the UK population exceeded 40 for the first time – up from 33.9 in 1974. This is no mere blip; the trend will continue as life expectancy increases. In fact, this year marked a demographic turning point: for the first time since the early 1980s there were more people either too old or too young to work than there were of working age. The number of people in the UK aged 85 or more is expected to more than double in the next 25 years and by 2040, nearly one in seven Britons will be over 75. By 2066, 26% of the total population will be aged 65 years and over. Some 10 million of us alive in the UK are likely to live past the age of 100.