Jonathan P. Baird: The age of ageism

For the Monitor
Published: 5/5/2019 12:35:18 AM

Not too long ago, I was hanging out with a group of guy friends and we were talking about the presidential race. When the subject of Bernie Sanders came up, my friend Tom responded that old white men like Bernie should get out of the way.

The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed titled “Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are too old to be president.” In her Feb. 23 piece on Bernie in the Monitor, Katy Burns also accused Bernie of being old. She mentioned how exhaustingly stressful the modern presidency is.

Not long after, Burns attacked Joe Biden, for, among other reasons, being old. When accused of ageism, she still stood by her argument that Biden was too old to be president. She cited declining physical stamina and the statistical possibility of dementia.

Bernie is now 77 and Biden is 76. There is no evidence that either is, in any respect, impaired.

President Donald Trump is now 72. No one can accuse him of being a spring chicken. While writing about the state of his mental health is a cottage industry, there is no smoking gun evidence that Trump is impaired either.

Candidates should be judged on the merits of their positions and ideas – not their age. Speculation about what might happen, that hasn’t happened, is worthless.

Generalizations about the declining capacities of older people are no more defensible than racial or gender stereotypes. Here I am not arguing for any particular candidate. I think that the age problem is ageism. By ageism, I mean stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination against people on the basis of their age.

Ageism is rampant in America. It is no exaggeration to say we are youth-obsessed and caught up in age-denial. There is a massive fear of aging. Just consider the wide range of anti-aging products and treatments.

Off the top, I could think of skin care, hair care, cosmetic surgery, supplements, anti-stretch mark products and anti-wrinkle products. Sixty is the new 40 or 80 is the new 60.

To grasp the roots of ageism, it first needs to be seen as an institutionalized form of discrimination. Capitalism scrap-piles older workers at younger and younger ages. Try getting a job if you are in your 50s, let alone your 60s. It happens, but I have seen a pattern of well-qualified people in their 50s consistently get turned down for jobs. They are seen as more expensive because often in their recent histories they had commanded higher pay and benefits.

Older workers have to fight stereotypes that they cannot master new skills and technology, that they will slow things down, that they cannot perform physically demanding work and that they burn out. In hiring, younger managers typically prefer younger workers who they will say are more exciting than the older worker. That may not be discrimination but it is a bias.

There are so many other negative stereotypes around being older. Among the stereotypes, old people are sad, incompetent, ugly, sexless, mindless, forgetful, conservative and irrelevant. It would take a book-length response to combat all the stereotypes.

You have to ask: Why the veneration of youth? Whatever happened to older people as the repositories of wisdom and life experience? Once elders of the tribe were held in high regard. That is certainly not the case now where older people have to fight off stereotypes that they are doddering geezers.

Sometimes older people themselves can be the worst at reinforcing the aging stereotypes.

Look at President Trump’s ridiculous assertion that he is young, not old, like his contemporaries. All the tanning, scalp surgery and hair coloring in the world do not change the reality that he is 72. Maybe he would be better off accepting, rather than denying, his age. It is okay to be 72, no need to be embarrassed.

Maggie Kuhn, who organized the Gray Panthers back in 1970, was the first person to put her finger on the issue of ageism. She felt older people were an untapped energy source, and she also felt old age could be a time of great fulfillment.

I always liked this quote of hers: “Old age is not a disease, it’s not a social disaster, it’s a gift of the Almighty. It is a result of struggle and victory over many vicissitudes, it could indeed be the flowering of life, a time of enormous freedom – freedom to transcend our own narrow self-interests that we had to preserve when we were middle-aged. But old age is freedom to look beyond our skin and clothes to those who come after us, and to a new way of life that is truly human and shared. To achieve this, old age must be lived, poured out for others. And so lived, it could be one of God’s great surprises – that those nearest death should be chosen by Her to point to where new life may be found.”

Whether we like it or not, if we are lucky enough, we will become old. Whether it is choosing a president or competition for a job, candidates deserve consideration on the basis of their merits – not on outdated stereotypes.

Along with the fight against racism, sexism, class prejudice and homophobia, ageism also must be combated. A good society would not be putting old people out to pasture prematurely when they have so much potential to contribute.

Older people have had to deal with loss and tribulations and have had to reinvent themselves. There is much to learn from that struggle against adversity.

We need to stop the devaluation of older people, recognize their reservoir of life experience and find new ways to tap their creativity.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)




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