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September 11, 2021

Ageist: Changing the Narrative Surrounding Life After 50

If you’ve ever looked at articles or advertisements targeted at people over the age of 50, you’ve probably noticed that certain topics come up often. There’s frequently talk about planning for retirement, managing sickness, and even deciding when you should move into an assisted living facility. But, there are lots of people over the age of 50 who are healthier than they’ve ever been, independent, and bursting with ideas for the workplace and society at large. 

You may be wondering if anyone caters to them. Enter Ageist: a consultancy and branding agency with a media front end, as founder David Stewart describes it. Ageist covers a wide range of topics including food, fitness, money, style, travel, and relationships. And if there’s any doubt that the content is far from that usually targeted to the 50+ crowd, about half of the readership is actually under the age of 50.

You’ll find headlines like “Thongs Be Gone,” “How to Move House without Losing Your Mind,” and “Post-Vaccinated Dating. You Can’t Make This Sh*t Up!” You’ll also be able to read profiles of older people who continue to make their mark on the world. There are profiles of 50-plus athletes, musicians, makeup artists, fashion entrepreneurs, and many, many more.

Stewart, who is the face of Ageist, recently had a chat with WiseForce Advisors. He talked about what his company does, what being 50-plus means in today’s world, and what companies should really be looking for when hiring older employees.

Why Ageist Came to Be

Ageist specializes in consumer messaging and research around people who are 50-plus. Stewart founded the company because he saw a gap in the market. 

“I’m sort of the go-to expert for this sort of thing. I spent six years studying it. I’m part of it and we started this because we saw all the messaging they had out there that had to do with people my age with like AARP and pharma…

“It was this disempowering, medicalized, essentially infantilized vision of people our age and everybody I know just hates that stuff. They refer to AARP as the death card as they run from it like it’s a disease,” he says.

With Ageist, Stewart wanted to create inspirational, aspirational messaging for older people.

“We started Ageist really just to say ‘hey this is what is really going on. This is what people our age are really like – some of them anyway – and doing it in an inspirational, aspirational, attainable way. For some reason, once you get over 40 or something, it all becomes about the opposite of that. There’s nothing inspirational or aspirational in that messaging, it is all about the negative aspects, the medicalization as if we are all in terrible trouble, so people run from it.” Stewart notes.

Ageist reflects the full ecosystem around today’s vibrant, forward-thinking 50-plus crowd and it has been well received. Readers see Ageist as a movement, not just a content provider and clients draw on the company for advice and guidance in reaching more mature audiences.

“When “The Wall Street Journal” wants to know about these people, they call me. Venture capital people, private equity people call us because they want to know what’s really going on and we help them out,” Stewart says.

The ‘Two Demons’ Facing People Over 50

Asked what he saw as the biggest challenge for older people, the founder and CEO said it all had to do with beliefs about capacity or lack thereof.

“There’s a tremendous amount of negative messaging out there that says you can’t do something, you shouldn’t do something. This is a false narrative. Anyone this side of brain disease can learn anything in three years. It’s not that hard,” he maintains.

Prior to starting Ageist at age 56, Stewart was an award-winning photographer who admittedly had never used Powerpoint or Google Analytics. He’d never written an article or spoken on a stage.

“It was very humbling and humiliating to learn these things but I learned them. You just learn them. It’s not impossible; it’s just hard. Same thing with your fitness and bodies and longevity. It’s not impossible. It’s just hard,” Stewart says.

He makes reference to “two demons” that confront people over 50: negative external messaging which we’ve already discussed and internal messaging surrounding comfort. He talks about people who are content to sit in front of the television or continue using an old phone instead of learning to operate a new one.

“That’s going to get you a certain result. I’m fine if you want to do that but I can tell you where that’s going to lead. If you want to do this other thing, yeah it requires effort and work in a way that perhaps when you were 20 it didn’t, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Stewart points out.

The Mythology Surrounding Age

There are a number of stereotypes surrounding older people and getting older. Some of them are based on what life used to be like decades ago.

“In 1900, if you worked in some heavy industry your whole life, 45 or 50 was hard. That’s not how people live today,” Stewart says, noting that people today “believe in possibility.” 

“They believe in actualizing their capacity in a way that people from an early generation may not aspire to. We didn’t smoke, we take vitamins, maybe go to the gym for 30 years, so 60 now is probably what 40 was in 1980. It’s different,” he says.

“It has often been stated that ageism is the only form of discrimination that continues to be acceptable. It’s so common that people often don’t even notice it. If they do, they think it’s normal. Sexism, racism, and ableism tend to be taken more seriously.

“Age is different from gender or race. Most of the time, gender and race are fairly fixed. You are what you are. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and be a black woman, but my age is dynamic, and my perception of my age is dynamic. Sometimes I feel older, sometimes I feel younger, and I think there’s the fact of mortality that’s tied into this.  

“Increasing age increases the proximity to one’s end. That, I think, frightens people. Age in the past has been associated with disease and decrepitude. That’s not something people want, so that gets baked into it,” he says.

Stewart also points to a “sort of reptilian motivation around reproduction.”

“Age is a much more complex thing than these other things, and I think there’s a reason why it’s sort of the last “ism” that we all have to look at” he says.

Changing Views on Aging

Stewart also says he’s seen changes in the approach to aging over the past few years. People are seeing that getting older doesn’t have to mean going into decline. Ageist shows how many modern older people look and what they’re doing. Stewart believes that the company is making a real difference and as more 50-plus people see their peers living full lives, they will be inspired to do similarly.

As far as Ageist’s brand work goes, Stewart says there’s no longer any need to do outreach. People understand there’s a way to message a range of consumers outside just the youth market and reach more people,” he says. It’s a far cry from the early day when people needed to be convinced about what Ageist could offer.

The Importance of Optimism

Along the way, Stewart has learned both personal lessons and a few things about aging. On a personal note: “Just because you’re good at one thing doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at something else or that it’s not going to be hard to learn. Every day 25% of what I do I’m not very good at. I’m still trying to master it.”

Stewart has discovered something that all of the people featured on Ageist have in common.

“If you interview enough people and you sort of put it all together, it’s like you have the perfect parent, and you learn all the things that you should’ve learned when you were 12. We’ve spoken to people who are quite famous or billionaire wealthy, and we’ve also spoken to teachers and gardeners. It’s a real range of people all around the world, and there’s a certain commonality to all these people.

“People want to know ‘how do I get into Ageist’? ‘How do I get a cover profile on Ageist?’ Well, you need to be looking forward, you need to be looking through the windshield, not the rearview mirror,” he says, stressing the need for optimism.

Advice for CEOs

It is well-known that 50-plus employees are often overlooked for promotion and recruitment. However, when it’s time for layoffs, they’re often the ones targeted. We asked Stewart about how he would advise a CEO who is reluctant to hire mature workers. While he advocates for older people, he isn’t blind to the fact that older people aren’t exactly like their younger colleagues. 

“Age counts. It is not an invisible factor. It’s a number that has importance but it is not of primary importance. It depends on the task you want the older worker to do. Do you want them to drill down and code for 12 hours a day? That’s probably not the right job,” he says, while suggesting that a 25-year-old would probably be a better fit.

However, he says older workers see things more broadly because of their experience.

“They see things a different way because their hard drive is just bigger. That’s a good thing, and that’s a bad thing. The good thing is much greater pattern recognition. Because you’ve seen different things,  you’re able to read people really quickly, you’re able to read situations fairly quickly and you’re able to have this top-down view of what’s going on. That’s super useful to have somebody like that in a team,” he said.

The downside is that some mature people can be stuck in their ways. 

“If they say to you ‘I did such and such 20 years ago  and this is how it worked out so this is the way we should do it’, not so good. You want someone who is looking to the front, who says ‘this is just so interesting what you’re doing. It’s so curious. Tell me more,’” he suggests.

CEOs should hire older people who display curiosity, Stewart recommends.

“Curiosity indicates a capacity to learn. Whoever you’re hiring for whatever job, I don’t care if they’re 16 or they’re 80, that’s the key attribute that you want,” he says.

As Stewart points out, older and younger workers are motivated by different things. While young people often want to climb the corporate ladder, mature people are often more concerned with contributing to the organization and engaging with other people. They’re also less interested in getting involved in office politics or engaging in bad behavior and more likely to go the extra mile to feel useful.

Companies that can bridge the gap between older and younger workers stand to benefit significantly.

Leverage the Strengths of 50-Plus Employees with Help from WiseForce Advisors

Attitudes towards older people and getting older are changing. Individuals and organizations are starting to see the value that mature employees bring to the table. However, the changes are perhaps not happening fast enough, and some companies still see older people as a bad investment. 

At WiseForce Advisors, we help companies attract and retain those vibrant, curious, and creative 50-plus individuals that Ageist caters to.  We can assist you in making sure that your policies and practices don’t discriminate against mature people. If you want help in building a multigenerational workforce, contact us at info@wiseforceadvisors.com to book a consultation.