An Unrecognizable Age: The Most Recalcitrant "Ism" of All

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - 9:27am
Photo by Tiago Cunha

An Unrecognizable Age: The Most Recalcitrant "Ism" of All

Norman Lear gave America its most beloved bigot, Archie Bunker, more than four decades ago in All in the Family. Yes, the subversive Mr. Lear, now 93, had some push-back from the networks, but that was all forgotten when the CBS show sat atop the Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976 and the Bunkers’ living room chairs were enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum.

Mr. Lear would follow that triumph with The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Maude, to name a few of his programs that were watched by 120 million people a week at their peak — all educating the nation, with belly laughs, about sexism, racism, and other deep-seated biases. But now, it seems, Mr. Lear has met his match with the most recalcitrant “ism’’ of all: ageism. Which is surely relevant with the first of the 76.4 million Baby Boomers turning 70 this month.

I, as a second-year boomer, take Mr. Lear’s five-year struggle to sell a script for a sit-com called Guess Who Died? very personally. The title comes from a refrain among people of a certain age as they read the morning obituaries. At 68, I’m one of them.

And lately, in the space of a week, there have been a succession of dead people, famous and not, who are too close to my age for comfort. David Bowie at 69. Glenn Frey at 67. Alan Rickman at 69. A former New York Times colleague at 66. The daily stream of people known and unknown lost to cancer or taking their own lives in their 50s and 60s. The Facebook friends whose pages outlived them.

In the mold of Guess Who Died?, I want to see a smart network television show about a retirement community like the one my late mother lived in long ago. She’d tell me stories, and I’d beg her to takes notes. At The Horizon Club in Deerfield Beach, Florida back in the 1990s, men who could still drive were pretty special, but nothing compared to those who could still drive at night. My mom’s first friend there left abruptly for a similar location; she’d exhausted the limited supply of widowers and was going hunting elsewhere. My mom’s second pal kept burying her gentlemen friends. I asked whether I should offer condolences when we bumped into her with the dead guy’s replacement.

These stories spooled through my head when I read of Mr. Lear’s so-far failed venture. He’s way funnier than my mother, which is saying a lot, but network executives don’t seem to care. Mr. Lear complained that they “behave like one Betty White covered a whole demographic," a reference to Golden Girls, a television show about four elderly women sharing a house in Miami. It ran on NBC from 1985-1992, remains ubiquitous in re-runs, and was ranked No. 69 in the Writers Guild of America’s all-time list of best-written TV shows, 65 places behind All in the Family.

Mr. Lear has no beef about the enduring popularity of Golden Girls, which in New York, on many nights, can be seen on Hallmark in back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes filling the prime time hours. But Mr. Lear wonders why his script hasn’t had a single nibble. The network bigwigs told him the only demographic they care are about is those 18-39. Haven’t they gotten the memo that those young folks don’t watch "destination" TV? They are the cord cutters, preferring Netflix and Hulu.

The closest Guess Who’s Died? has come to public consumption is a staged reading that Mr. Lear organized at the Austin Film Festival in the fall of 2015. Watch it yourself, thanks to the marvels of digital technology:

Notice that everyone, despite advanced age, has IPhones and IPads. The comfort with technology among the residents of Mr. Lear’s fictitious retirement village in Palm Springs, California is striking given the recent way that employers practice age discrimination without getting ratted out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

None would dare advertise a job for men only, or whites only — or specify an upper age limit.

So the term of art is “digital natives,’’ those who will get preference. Translation: You must be young enough that technology has always been a part of your life. Don’t tell that to Murray, Patricia, or the others who populate Mr. Lear’s script. And don’t tell it to Mr. Lear, either.

On his Facebook page, where he posts almost daily, he bristled at an article last month in The New York Times Magazine about the 80-year-old Dalai Lama nearing the end of life, which to Mr. Lear was a nice way of saying “circling the drain." Identifying himself as a lifetime subscriber, Mr. Lear tells his 19,000-plus Facebook friends, “I take issue with my newspaper, however beloved, when it suggests I have been hovering at the brink for 13 years now."

Mr. Lear wrote his first book, Even This I Get to Experience, when he was past 90. In it, he reveals both his difficulty recognizing the old man who has taken up residence inside his skin and, incidentally, his digital fluency.

“As I peck away on my computer," Mr. Lear wonders, "what my father’s hand is doing hanging out of my sleeve.’’ As I wonder at my vein-y, age-spotted one that looks just like my mother’s.


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Jane Gross

is a retired New York Times correspondent, who spent 30 years there covering all manner of subjects from sports to autism, aging and major earthquakes and wild fires in California. She is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — And Ourselves and creator of the "New Old Age” blog, now defunct, at the Times.

Prior to joining the Times, Ms. Gross worked for Long Island Newsday and Sports Illustrated magazine. Post-retirement, she volunteers mentoring New York City high school students and is trying her hand at ceramics.

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I spend much time visiting adults in elder care situations, independent, assisted, nursing...where their network of friendships, concern, aides , health challenges, and personalities ( not far from the playground at times) is great fodder for a tv show. There is much to be gleaned,set in an assisted living facility, to tell the joys and trials, while also educating via family interaction ( and lack there of). The aides themselves could tell stories of connection and rote actions to just get the job done. I also learn lots of history via the reflections of the elders, see concern for the care needed, confusion and over medication, and the independent streak too. A funny heartwarming educational sitcom that opens our hearts and minds is much needed. Apparently in the UK there was one called Waiting for God.

This reminds me of my dad's assisted living facility . It was very much like high school. There were the popular ones and the trouble makers. You knew who were going steady... good times

At the end of each day, I trade in my preschool teacher's hat for that of screenwriter. For the last several years, I've been contributing scripts to a web-based TV series called "" -- which, for the most part, addresses real-life "situations" in the form of conversations between two people, who happen to be sitting in the front seats of a car; hence the title of the series. They are 5 - 10 minute snapshots of their world. Different topics, characters etc for each episode.

My first episode, in Season 1 ("Everybody Knew"), addressed the topic of Autism, and my most recent, in Season 4 ("First Date"), tackles the subject of aging. It's loosely based on my father, who at the age of 81, decided it was time to "get out there," and begin dating, after my mother had passed away the year prior. They'd been married for 50 years.

I like to think that I "nailed it," with regards to addressing the importance of honoring one's past, and at the same time, moving forward, later in life -- and by the overwhelming response from viewers, I believe that I succeeded in reaching that goal. And in true Hollywood fashion, my father has since found love again, and is incredibly happy with the choices he's made. I couldn't have written the script any better myself!

I for one would love to see his show made! But I have to share this - when I clicked on the book title to go to Amazon and put the book on my list, they recommended "The Walking Dead - the Pop Up Book" along with Mr. Lear's book. All things considered, I had to laugh.

Thank you Jane for your article! I am well aware and have very painful experience with "ageism" in the work arenain. Your well penned article is the first time that the experience has been given an appropriate label; something other than "age discrimination". Strangly, your term, "ageism", gives me comfort. The realization than an icon such as Mr. Lear experiencing seminar age related rejections, is comforting because now I understand that it isn't "me", it is about my age.
As a 56 yr. old mom of 19 & 17 year old daughters, I am surrounded by the age bias that comes with beauty & youth. I celebrate this with them daily. In the occasional teachable moment, when one of them makes a reference to my age, I point out that, "growing old is better than facing the other alternative and if they are lucky, they too will become as "old" as me!"
As our media reports on racism...."black lives matter", native Americans protesting professional sports teams..... Flags being removed, monument relocated....all in the effort to bring awareness to the oppression and discriminations a particular populis. I say, let's start a revolution! I want lead a campaign that puts an end ageism! Whose with me?!

"...what my father's hand is doing hanging out of my sleeve." HAAA! I TOTALLY get it! IMO, one of the great things about age is the expansion of one's sense of humor, not it constriction.

Congratulations! You are willing to expand. That's rare in most people.

Actually Boynton Beach Stories and In Her Shoes were good reflections of what it really means to be 55+, these days.

Thank you. I tire of the stereotype. At 62, I'm considered to be some dried up, flabby, no-desire person. I still have sexual desire; it's just that I'm more selective of who I let "in." I'm more discerning and tire of people who are happy in their mediocrity. I played that game when this "surface society" demanded it of me, but now I want a man with an inner spark of joy and intellectual curiosity. Keep pursuing your dream Norman, follow your dream.

they may not always have the wisdom of the ages yet they do have the stories of times long past and knowledge that has already been forgotten. this one sounds like a keeper even though it butts heads with the collective fears around aging, dying and death in this country - "hope I die before I get old...." from the song "My Generation" by the Who......and therein lies the collective fear

Yes, it's a tough one - I never expected to be semi-disabled in my life - partly deaf and with sore feet and legs, can't walk far. My main disability is with mobile phones, cameras (hard to remember what to do!), passwords (can't remember or can't find them) and with codes for discounts (can't get them right!) Hand-writing's got wobbly... The best bit is a perspective of life that reaches back to times when things were different - for better and worse... and enjoying the passing parade.
Being retired is great - the pension comes and I can buy what is needed....still.

I'n 68, too! But I just don't feel 68. It sounds so old! But I do notice that I don't really care to go gallivanting around at night as often as I used to. I guess in little ways I'm slowing down some, but still not ready for a rocking chair. My boyfriend will turn 70 a year ahead of me, so at least I've got someone to blaze the trail for me!

I took a while to trail you from the NYT; happy to see you still are one of the best writers dealing with our new old age. A particularly weird thing about the studio/TV/cable heads is that I find it is pretty easy, at 69, to get along with the generation they want to cater to -- and have they not noticed which demographic group is mad about Bernie?? There must be some way to get this made and running - Netflix? Amazon? What i look for from Lear is humor and a complete lack of solemnity, which there is quite enough of. The best way to deal with the most serious subjects is on the path of Archie Bunker ( or South Park 's 4rth graders?): I don't need any more beautiful, sorrowful elegies ( Away from Her and Amour suffice): I want raucous black humor suitable to the indignities to come.

Norman Lear is surprised at his father's hand emerging -- I have my mother's -- and what is somewhat alarming is that -at her nursing home - people keep saying we look just alike ( she's 94 ish) . . .