The Turn of a Phase: How Middle Aged (and Older) People are Redefining Aging and Activism

The first time I can remember someone telling me that I’d grow out of my passionately-held beliefs was when I was in high school. Due to the fact that I’ve been a pest about my convictions my whole life, I’m sure it happened earlier but my most distinct memory was when I was about 16. In the mid-1980s, I worked as a server, then known as waitress, for a brief time at Bakers Square, then known as Poppin’ Fresh. Taking an order from a woman at one of my tables, she asked me about the chili. I told her that I was a vegetarian, but other people seemed to order it a lot. We had a short conversation about my vegetarianism that ended with her looking at me in a gentle, knowing way before she said, “Don’t worry, dear. I’m sure it’s just a phase.” Because she was so sweet about it, my usual hackles weren’t raised but she said that as though my vegetarianism weren’t a choice of mine, just something I had to live through to get to the other side of it, like puberty. In a way, she was right: my vegetarianism was just a phase. It was a phase that lasted for over ten years, though, until I set my eyes on a new goal, which was to go vegan. Going vegan, something people scoffed at and told me I’d quit the first time I couldn’t eat pizza, has been an even longer “phase,” going on nearly 24 years now.

Same thing in college. I became deeply involved in activism: protesting U.S. involvement in Central America, speaking against rape culture at the Take Back the Night march, boycotting companies that wouldn’t divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa. It didn’t end there, of course. From getting the word out about animal testing to protesting the Miss America contest (complete with sashes upon which my friends and I painted words like “Miss Ogyny”), I was a Jill-of-all trades lefty activist, ever-ready to hop on a musty bus to go to Washington, D.C. or road-trip to Wichita with my fellow social change agents. In retrospect, I was a little like Marcia Brady when she first went to high school and had such an identity crisis, she signed up for every club. It wasn’t an identity crisis that lead me to hopping on every left-leaning, bumper-stickered bandwagon, though. It was a sheer entrancement with the smorgasbord of causes I was dying to plug into and this zeal was something I was told repeatedly by the adults in my life I would abandon once I experienced “the real world.”

Clearly, I was fervent and maybe a little slap-dash with my activism but I meant well. And you know what else? I am still an activist, more than ever, though perhaps a bit more results-oriented and purposeful with age. In other words, my activism has matured, but I still haven’t grown out of it. On any given day, you are just as likely to find protest signs in my car trunk as a sled for my son, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What’s interesting to me is that my experience runs counter to the trope I grew up with, one that says as we age, we become both more conservative and more resigned to “the way things are” as if its some universal, indestructible behemoth we must ultimately accept. This trope says that with our youthful enthusiasm and idealism behind us, we settle into a world weariness that is both a sign of maturity and apathy, a world weariness that sneers at the foolishness of believing one could actually make a difference. All my life, people have told me I’d grow out of caring when I understood “the real world” better, that my passion for activism was well-intentioned but naïve or, more harshly, an obvious ploy for attention. If anything, though, the more I live in the so-called real world, the more my convictions about social justice deepen and become more integrated, as well as skew ever leftward.

This is also true of many other people I know around my age or older. The trajectory we were told to expect of aging is one of settling and becoming complacent. I have not found this to be the case. At all. I am part of the phenomenon of people who wholly reject the notion of docility as we age.

I’m fortunate enough to have some pretty amazing people in my vortex, many around my age (51). Some are like me in that they have been longtime activists but somehow missed the memo that this was meant to be a passing thing; others became active after the stage in life society usually deems as age-appropriate — our teens and 20s — and are making up for lost time with their engagement today. Some have always burned with a desire to fight injustice and others had circumstances in their lives that altered their thinking, which had a ripple effect on everything.

What unites us is we are not going gentle into that good night. We’re starting organizations, painting protest signs, showing up at our representatives’ offices, fundraising, marching, using our social media platforms to spread the word about causes and going door-to-door as canvassers: anything but resigning ourselves to “the way things are.”

As Debra Roppolo, 52, told me, her lived experience contradicts this expectation that we’re supposed to mellow with age, but she’s also noticed the side benefits of maturity in her advocacy, which serves her message well through her outreach on behalf of other animals. “I’m definitely more engaged. And more outspoken — and at the same time, I’m better able to phrase things in a way I think people can hear. So I’m more willing to open my mouth, but less likely to alienate people with my language and tone when I do. The benefits of age,” she said. “I also didn’t volunteer when I was younger, and now I tend to take on more than I should, because I have such a strong belief in the importance of the work. My world has broadened with age, not narrowed.”

Debra hints at something that seems to be a recurring theme with many I talked to about this: perhaps one of the biggest motivations is that as we age, we realize more how our time here is limited and we want to make the most of it. One of the things we take for granted when we’re young is that we have plenty of time. We may not have that sense of urgency. There’s nothing like getting that first AARP card in the mail, though, to put a fine point on the fact that we are all aging. As Eric O’Grey, 59, Director of Philanthropy with Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of Walking with Petey said, “The older I get, the more I realize that my time to motivate others to awaken and become responsible, kind people is growing shorter. That is what motivates me to increase my activism each day.”

Yes, it’s undeniably bittersweet but getting older is something we will all have to grapple with at some point, if we are so lucky. Even as someone who’s been an activist for a long time, for Linda Rapp Nelson, 62, “growing up” has only meant a deepening commitment to her advocacy. “I’ve always felt the imperative, but getting older has brought an energizing urgency to try to help now while I can,” she said. “Helping the vulnerable whether they be exploited non-humans or humans is what bounces me out of bed every morning.”

Janice Stanger, in her mid-60s, described a similar passion that grows as she ages. “As I get older and it really comes home that I have a limited amount of time left to make a difference, I am more of an activist — not less. Also, I don’t care nearly as much about social approval or acceptance or appearances as I did when I was younger. So none of that stuff slows me down. I will never stop working for a compassionate world and an earth that blossoms with life, not poisons.”

Janice’s words speak to something so important, especially for females who have been pressured by society to achieve conventional norms of attractiveness and strive to be considered likeable. How much mental energy we waste caring about what others think of us may be incalculable, but I can’t help but think of Rep. Maxine Waters, 80-years-old, and the unapologetic confidence she exuded when she responded to former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s mocking of her looks.

What Maxine Waters embodies is the kind of self-possession that comes with age: she couldn’t care less about what an individual like Bill O’Reilly, who was ordered to pay settlements of astronomical sums for multiple sexual harassment lawsuits brought against him when he was employed by Fox, thinks about her hair. Whereas a younger woman might have been rattled by his public mockery, Rep. Waters has the self-assurance that comes with age to focus on what matters and to know that O’Reilly — and those like him — are not deserving to breathe the same air as her, much less worthy of one iota of her self-doubt. It’s not a surprise that someone like Bill O’Reilly would attempt to insult Rep. Waters based on something shallow rather than something of substance — that’s how men like him try to put confident women in their place — but what he may not have realized was how utterly bulletproof she is to his kind of taunting. To say that his puerile little punch didn’t land is an understatement.

Some of the people I talked to are men who are trying to undo the damage of the O’Reillys of the world and integrate their activism with the growing awareness that they don’t want to fall back on overbearing behavioral norms in the process, people like horticulturist Mychael McNeeley, 53. “I am learning more as time goes by about how to work on what matters to me in a way in which not only are ‘entanglements of oppressions’ recognized, but also in a way that doesn’t harm other movements or individuals. This is an ongoing process,” he said. “I have made, and continue to make, mistakes. I keep listening to others, have attempted to often accept the lead from those who are other than white guys, keep apologizing where I have erred, and keep attempting to be a better friend to those who may have a different experience or come from a different background than my own.”

In addition to challenging us to engaged with one another in new ways, age can also add much more nuance and awareness to our worldview. For Maryland-based CPA Kimberly Roemer, who is in her 40s, getting older has not made her more complacent but, if anything, more driven to effect change. Recognizing injustice has also compelled her to keep going. “As I’ve grown older I see much more how stacked the system is. Middle class, lower class, people of color, women and so on are really at a disadvantage,” she said. “Activism is so much more important at this age as we have enough life experience to challenge a corrupt system without worrying about things a younger person would be concerned with. Saying screw you to the system is so important as we age.”

But isn’t giving the middle finger to the system the kind of revolutionary attitude we typically associate with youth? Not necessarily. Many people I talked to described more complacency, not less, when they were younger. As engineer Laurie Green, 51, explained, her experience going vegan at age 40 kick-started changes within her that continue to inspire her to rise up against injustice. “Becoming vegan became an awakening to the suffering and mistreatment of every living being, not just the animals. It was a domino effect of expecting justice on the behalf of every sentient being. Once I realized the cards are stacked against that philosophy, I became ‘woke’ if you will and started to apply my vegan mindset to the plight of others left and right of me that I had not given a second thought before.” As the adoptive mother to a biracial young man she would “kick doors down” for, Laurie isn’t driven by youthful naïvete. Like many others I interviewed, Laurie is a mature person who owns both her power and the responsibility of her privileges, something she has grown into, not out of, with age.

Humanist minister Trey Capnerhurst, 50, reinforced how much more empowered and focused she has become with age. “I have gotten far more aware, enraged, aggressive and effective in my activism than I ever was when I was younger. I’m more courageous, and willing to take bigger risks,” she said. “It has been said that post-menopausal women are the most dangerous in activism, because we no longer have kids to worry about, our reputation is no longer a big deal, and our energy, no longer focused on reproduction, can be effectively harnessed for the change we have always needed but had to put off.”

Trey’s sentiment is so powerfully at variance with the notion that as we age, we naturally become stodgier and dispassionate, but it’s consistent among so many I spoke with when I started researching this. What if we raised children with the idea that passion burns brighter with age, that it’s expected we’ll get more active and altruistic as we get older, and that this will be complemented with the discernment that comes with age? How would that change our cultural norms and personal arcs? How much more fulfilled would people be if they knew that there is always a place and a need for their voices and contributions?

I don’t have the answers to those questions but I will say one thing about those like me who have long outlived the “phase” period of our engagement: we’re not sitting idle waiting to find out. We’re actively creating this new reality, one where people of all ages can and should be expected to actively participate in creating a better world, and we are committed to it.

In other words, if this is a phase, it’s not like one I’ve ever seen before.