Many older Americans can keep working into their 70s and beyond if they choose, and many even embark on second careers or launch new businesses of their own. This wasn’t always the case. Previous generations of Americans often had their jobs taken away when they reached an arbitrary mandatory retirement age, and most of them were denied the opportunity to find new employment under the mistaken assumption that they were no longer capable.
Slideshow: AARP Champions of Aging
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While many fought to end that injustice, perhaps the most passionate and determined crusader against employment ageism — and in favor of whatever older people needed to remain vital, including access to transportation and health care — was Maggie Kuhn.
The longtime Philadelphia resident founded the Gray Panthers, an activist group with a name inspired by 1960s black militants. That wasn’t the only similarity. Kuhn emulated the strident, confrontational protest tactics of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, demanding that the nation give its older citizens an active role and an equal voice in society. In 1971, for example, she led a column of 1,000 protesters who circled the White House to demand access to a presidential conference on aging.
“The police came on their horses and rode right into us, you know,” she recalled in an interview with the Washington Post. “That was frightening, those enormous beasts and those hard shoes. A blow could kill you.”
Indeed, the diminutive, frail-looking Kuhn, who weighed less than 95 pounds, was knocked down in the melee, but she got right back up again. She wasn’t that easily deterred.
Public officials, when facing the intense, white-haired activist, often found it easier to back down. One time she pressured public transit officials in southeastern Pennsylvania into cutting non-rush-hour fares for older people by threatening to block trolley cars with wheelchairs and canes. She also famously chided TV host Johnny Carson about his ageist jokes, and even bristled at President Gerald Ford when she found his remarks patronizing.
Though she found her voice late in life, Kuhn began working to improve society in her youth. Born in Buffalo, she graduated from the Flora Stone Mather College of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she helped to organize a college chapter of the League of Women Voters.
In the 1920s she took a job with the Young Women’s Christian Association, and during World War II she worked with the United Service Organization, helping to improve conditions for the women who were recruited to take men’s places in defense plants. After the war, she joined the national office of the United Presbyterian Church in New York, where she became involved in fighting racial segregation and poverty and pushed for affordable housing.
Reaching the church’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in 1970, Kuhn was irked that she had to give up her post. She initially felt “shocked and wounded, at having to be sent out to pasture,” she later recalled. “Then, I figured there must be thousands of old people like me, so I decided it was time to fight back.”
A few months later, she and friends formed an organization called the Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change. Before long, however, people were calling the group the Gray Panthers. “It’s a fun name,” she explained to the Associated Press in 1973. “There’s a certain militancy, rather than just a docile acceptance of what our country’s doing.”
Under Kuhn’s leadership, the Gray Panthers grew to 100,000 members in 32 states and even spread outside the United States to five other countries. The organization successfully lobbied against the mandatory retirement age, which Congress raised to 70 in 1978 and finally eliminated altogether in 1986. It also pushed hard for nursing-home reform and for creation of a government-subsidized, single-payer national health insurance program.
Kuhn also stood out because of her eagerness to bring young and old together, and not just to campaign for issues that involved their common interests. She shared her own home in Philadelphia with youthful activists, and founded the Shared Housing Resources Center, which promoted group housing integrated by age.
Up until her death at age 89, the self-described “old woman” traveled 100,000 miles a year, wrote a book-length memoir and produced a monthly newspaper column. She showed how much impact a person older than 65 could have, despite the physical signs of age that she treated as a badge of honor.
“I have gray hair, many wrinkles and arthritis in both hands,” she once told the New York Times. “And I celebrate my freedom from bureaucratic restraints that once held me.”