Say what you will about Ronald Reagan as a policymaker, he’s had little competition for the ability to defuse “the age issue” with a one-liner that can stand through the ages. When Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign was making an issue of Reagan’s re-election age of 73, Reagan used his impeccable Hollywood timing in a debate to instantly toss it all aside:
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan said, getting even Mondale to smile and give it up.
The age issue has been headed downhill ever since. Thirty-six years later, the question of who has greater mental faculties, Trump at 74 or Biden at 77, is coming to dominate the discourse between the campaigns and across the national media. How depressing for those of us who have dedicated our lives to changing both the experience and the perception of aging in America.
As funders of efforts to improve the lives and the perception of people over 50, we felt that before COVID hit, the narrative around aging had begun to change for the better. A larger portion of the public seemed more open to recognizing older adults as assets and contributing members of society who work, volunteer, and support the GDP, among other activities.
Then the world was turned on its head with the emergence of COVID, and with it came the resurgence of long-held negative stereotypes associated with aging and a profound increase in the occurrence of ageism.
We had government officials calling for older adults to sacrifice themselves to restart the economy. Policies dictating how to address equipment and supply shortages used age as a determining factor whether an individual would receive care or not. Measures were taken to ensure children had meals and technology to assist with remote learning; no such measures were taken to ensure older adults had the same supports to assist in mitigating isolation.
As the world started to open up, older adults were told to stay home and rely on the rest of their community to do the right thing, adhere to pandemic protocols and limit the virus spread for what was portrayed as the “powerless, over-50” crowd.
As COVID advanced, so did our democratic process. Two septuagenarians are at the starting line for November, and both sides have made it clear that all previous rules about openly attacking an opponents’ mental acuity are now out the window. Queue the quips from each candidates’ corner, alleging the other candidate is too old to do the job, or is already showing signs of dementia.
Americans are now hearing and seeing literally millions of messages a day telling them to look out for signs of decline in their above-50 mainstream presidential candidates. At the same time they’re being told to keep their older family and friends at home under virtual lock and key. How damaging is this narrative of feebleness to the ongoing effort to remind people that older Americans are the heart of the economy, the workforce, the social structure?
The older adults we know – and we know this is true for anyone reading this who stops to think — retain their youthful spirits, a desire to engage with the community, the drive to take on encore careers, mentor younger generations, and stay physically and mentally active.
We also know that, like everyone else at any age, they occasionally struggle to find the most appropriate word, the keys they set down a minute ago, the next line of the speech they thought they had memorized. Tragically, those mental blips we all go through, from age 3 onward, are now known as “senior moments.”
This stereotype is so obviously unfair, inaccurate, and damaging that we assume it goes without saying that it needs to stop. So let’s go ahead and say it again: Classifying all older adults in this way is not just wrong and hurtful, it’s economically and socially destructive.
The great thing about our democratic political process is that the populace gets to choose their candidates via voting. The 2016 Republican Presidential Primaries had a 64-year-old, a 45-year-old, 46-year-old, and a 70-year-old, among other ages. The people voted for the 70-year-old to assume the Republican nomination, despite the younger contenders.
The 2020 Democratic presidential primaries had two 38-year-olds, a 70-year-old, a 77-year-old, a 60-year-old, two 55-year-olds, and a 45-year-old, among other ages. Yet via polling, financial support, and ultimately voting, the people chose the 77-year-old over the younger candidates.
America chose both the 2020 presidential candidates based on their experience, knowledge, platforms and ability to do the job, knowing full well the years in which they were born. Why are their ages such an issue now?
Jim Clyburn, Anthony Fauci, Maxine Waters and Jimmy Carter, among others, prove that one can do their job, be invested in community, and have an impact, at any age.
Let’s stop the dangerous narrative around aging. After all, each one of us is aging every single day; let’s not punish our future selves by propagating this damaging portrayal.
Diana McFail is the president and CEO of the NextFifty Initiative.
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