- Aged by Culture
This is an interesting and thought-provoking book that offers new insights into the perennial problem of ageism in America. The author is a self-described writer and cultural critic with an avid interest in aging issues. Her central thesis is that age is a socially constructed concept wrapped in a decline ideology. That is, as a society and culture, we view aging in negativistic terms, focusing on declines and ignoring the potential for progress across the life course. Our inner discourse, or personal narrative, is fundamentally negative, rife with images of decline and loss, which are fueled and perpetuated by our families and our society as a whole. Thus, as individuals and as a society, we are aged by our culture.
Gullette believes that Western culture is pushing the onset of age decline back across the life course, beginning in midlife, a concept that she terms middle-ageism. She argues that social structures that support and promote progress for the individual are gradually being withdrawn from midlife. She urges us to be cognizant of the economics of the life course, the cult of youth,and other forces that drive ageism. In support of her views, Gullette draws on many sources of information present in American culture, as well as her own personal experience, to shed light on negative images and our implicit negativity to the aging process itself. Broad parallels are drawn between culturally constructed views of aging, and of gender and race. Her work calls us to question our own assumptions about the aging process, drawing the reader into a deeper and richer awareness of life course development in general, and what it means to age beyond youth in particular. Through aging studies, which she advocates, we as a society can become more aware of the acculturation of aging. [End Page 631]
There are two major sections in the book: cultural urgencies, and theorizing age resistantly. Each section is comprised of five chapters. Throughout each chapter, she introduces notions and ideas to combat the "insidious decline ideology" at multiple levels of analysis. The book begins with a poignant illustration of the vulnerability of youth to ageist images reinforced by the media. To be precise, she describes a Boston science museum exhibit that invites children to enter into an age simulation booth and watch their facial features age dramatically, often with unpleasant and distressing results. She refers to this technological innovation many times throughout the book, insofar as it symbolizes and strengthens her decline narrative perspective. Another clever point she makes is that Americans' obsession with a youthful appearance, including anti-aging remedies and other forms of cosmetic surgery, presupposes age-related defects that come with time. In the second half of the book, she takes on a more applied focus, with emphasis on how to identify and overcome ageism. She cogently argues that resistance comes only by changing our age culture.
There are many commendable features of the book. As a first point and general statement, her work invites sociological contemplation. In service of her goal of raising age awareness, she argues that age divisions or cohort designations (e.g., Boomers and Xers ) are socially constructed and have numerous social and political implications, such as contrived generational identities, intergenerational conflicts, and manufactured generational gaps. In a similar vein, she challenges our thinking in the name of social justice, pointing a spotlight at racial and gender inequities, equating them with age. In fact, one of the many take-home messages from this book is that ageism is likely to become recognized as a social problem similar in magnitude to sexism and racism as the young are cast against the old, sparking societal unrest as well as public policy debate.
A second positive is that her work underscores the multidisciplinarity of aging studies, a laudable contribution. Her interdisciplinary approach is sound and thoughtful. Most academicians will agree with her impassioned plea for creating a "post disciplinary space for aging studies" (112...