Let’s talk about “old.” Everyone else is. The president is old. The former president is old. The Senate minority leader is old. The House minority leader is old. Very old? Too old? Let’s face it.
Old is news.
Joe Biden will turn 81 in November. He wants another term in the White House. If he serves those four years, he would be 86 in his final months. Media critics have cited actuarial tables showing a high chance of him being dead before that.
Nancy Pelosi, 83, just announced she wants another term in Congress, a place she has worked since Ronald Reagan was president. Critics say she should have retired years ago. Her speech is mocked. She is pilloried for her wrinkles. Old is her moniker. Old holds her hand.
Mitch McConnell, who is 81, had a news conference last week. It wasn’t to discuss the issues facing the Senate. It was to assure people that he is not suffering strokes or seizures, and that, contrary to his critics’ contentions, he hasn’t passed his expiration date. Old is his shadow. Old rattles behind him like a chain.
Now, you can make an argument that such powerful governmental positions demand full faculties, quick thought, a great deal of stamina. We’ll address that in a moment.
But it doesn’t counter the gleeful sneering that comes with age criticism. And it strikes me as I get, well, older, that we have advocacy groups for pretty much everything in this country — race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, heck, you can find groups arguing for people’s rights to dress as animals — but almost nobody besides the AARP stands up for the old.
Instead, they tell them to sit down.
So much for ‘respect your elders’
I understand this when it comes to the presidency. That is arguably the hardest job in the world, besides being Kanye West’s publicist. And whoever sits in the Oval Office needs to react quickly and decisively, often to matters of life and death.
President Biden, with his reliance on teleprompters, avoidance of the media and numerous embarrassing flubs, exaggerations or apparent confusion, can undermine people’s confidence — and confidence in the president is critical to the nation.
You could argue the same thing for Donald Trump, 77, who wants to be president again, or for Pelosi and McConnell, who hold powerful positions in the House and Senate.
But what about the underlying attitude in the age criticisms, the tone, the imitations, the cloying sense that it’s OK to mock seniors, or that using “old” as a pejorative is acceptable?
Why is it that healthy, virile college freshmen must have “safe spaces” from verbal discomfort, but it’s fine for them to dismiss seniors as “old men” or “get off my lawn guys”?
Why is “respect” and “being seen” demanded by young people, who then treat their elders as invisible, and show respect by snickering, “OK, boomer.”
Studies reveal that a ridiculous amount of age discrimination takes place every day in the U.S. Some 80% of adults over age 50 have experienced it. Some 60% have experienced it in their workplace. And a recent UN report revealed that half the world’s population is ageist against older persons.
That might make it the biggest prejudice on the planet.
Follow the leader?
Yet when was the last time you heard of someone fired for being ageist? When was the last person canceled for being insensitive to seniors? In a nation where saying “all lives matter” can get you dismissed, shouldn’t lambasting the old come with consequences?
Instead, we speed along in a society that increasingly worships youth, while shunning its citizens who have lived the longest. A world where, crazily, the youngest, not the oldest, are hailed as “influencers.”
Take the case of Charli D’Amelio. Have you ever heard of her? (Careful. You might be showing your age.) When she was 15, Charli started posting videos of herself dancing on TikTok.
Today, she has 151.2 million followers on that platform. That’s almost half the population of the United States. Companies would crush one another to get a Charli mention. Charli shapes opinion. Charli moves needles.
Charli is 19.
But amassing followers is one thing. Giving them substance is another. Jesus had many followers, too. He didn’t get them by twerking.
Coming of age once meant something
The danger of a society that always wants to look younger, act younger, talk younger and dance younger is that the wisdom of the aged is dismissed as archaic, the creativity of the aged is dismissed as uncool, and the contributions of the aged are ignored — or worse, resented.
The recent rise of an old word as a new pejorative, “gerontocracy,” exposes a younger class that resents the old for holding onto positions of power, no matter how hard-earned.
In the “gerontocracy sucks” model, the old should get out of the way. The young know better. This argument was probably birthed when wisdom stopped being about human nature and started being about iPhone apps.
How many grey-haired employees are sneered at when they have trouble downloading a program? But if those same seniors poked fun at twenty-somethings who can’t write a word in cursive, they’d probably be taken to HR for sensitivity training.
Gerontocracy — society governed by old people — has been the norm in Eastern cultures for centuries. The Chinese and Japanese have long revered the aged. Meanwhile, on this continent, Native Americans cherished their elders as sources of wisdom and decision making. The idea of mocking them to their faces would have been unthinkable.
But times have surely changed. Recently, Michigan Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, who has four years of experience in politics, raised eyes when she tweeted: “Watching some of our federal officials deteriorate in front of our eyes is deeply sad. It also sets a bad precedent. Americans should be able to retire with dignity in their 60s. National figures lead by example, and the example being set now is a poor one.”
Now, I understand critics who say clinging to office amalgamates power. But in a nation where life expectancy is closer to 80, “retiring with dignity” in your 60s suggests your last 15 or 20 years don’t have much to offer besides deterioration. There are a lot of very active leaders — Bill Gates, 67; Tim Cook, 62; Oprah Winfrey, 69; Prince Charles, 74 — who’d argue otherwise.
Picasso, Monet, Frank Lloyd Wright, Maya Angelou, Tony Bennett, Sonny Rollins, Harrison Ford. The list of artists who made new and vibrant work late in life is astounding. Scientists and intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall and David Attenborough were making contributions well into their 70s and 80s.
Telling people to stop by a certain age is not only insulting, it’s harmful to society. McMorrow is 37. She was born in 1986. She’s never lived in a world where American kids were drafted or a U.S. president resigned in disgrace. She was a toddler when the Cold War ended. She wasn’t around when nuclear power plants were first created.
People in their 70s and 80s have lived through all of that. Their experience might be precious when history starts repeating itself.
As it always does.
Young would be wise to remember: Wisdom comes with age
In the end, this is about values. If we cherished our elders not for the cookies they bake but for the perspective they offer, we’d learn better. If we valued them not for the money they might leave us down the road but for the advice they can give us today, we’d be smarter.
Most importantly, if we revered the old for what they’ve endured, the sacrifices they’ve made, and the years they’ve spent contributing, we’d be less freaked out about aging ourselves.
Old is news. But while criticizing politicians is a daily pastime now (I get it, I’m guilty of it myself) we should separate ideology from chronology. Biden may or may not be a good president, but I understand when he says the one thing that comes with age is “wisdom.”
Another ought to be respect. Enough with the “old dude” monikers, or the “Q-Tip” jokes. You can’t live in a society where you scream about sensitivity, then ignore it for those who should be your most esteemed citizens.
Paul Simon, who is still releasing music in his 80s, wrote a song once called “Old.” In it he wrote:
The human race has walked the earth for 2.7 million,And we estimate the universe at 13-14 billion,When all these numbers tumble into your imagination,Consider that the Lord was there before creation,God is old,We’re not old,God is old.
So. You want to greet the Almighty as “get off my lawn guy”?
Good luck with that.