Jabs at Joe Biden mask our growing ageism issue

When 10 presidential candidates finished three hours of debating Thursday — covering weighty topics like gun control and health care — the biggest social media topics were Joe Biden’s teeth.

And an insult he may have suffered.

The insult came courtesy of Julian Castro, once the youngest member of Barrack Obama’s cabinet, who, in a heated exchange, yelled at Biden, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?”

The crowd gasped. Pundits tweeted. The question was perceived as a whack at Biden’s age, which, at 76, exceeds Castro’s by 32 years.

As for the teeth? Well, as Biden started to answer a question about the NRA, he appeared to have an issue with his mouth, which led the internet to speculate on whether his teeth were about to “fall out.”

Now, whether that gaffe was denture related, or whether Castro meant to poke at Biden’s memory (Castro insists he didn’t), there’s a larger issue here. It’s about age, perceived age, and judging someone by age.

Which is a much bigger problem in America than a couple of political debate moments.

‘Young people are just smarter’

When Castro, whose resume mainly consists of three years as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and five years as the mayor of San Antonio, seemed to mock the mental capacity of Biden, a longtime senator and two-term vice president, it no doubt resonated with older viewers.

Young people assuming their older counterparts can’t keep up. Young candidates presuming they are better suited, despite less experience. Young workers being promoted as older workers are dismissed. This type of thing happens every day in American society, where, by next year, it is projected that 17% of our population will be over 65.

Seventeen percent. That’s a good deal larger than our African-American or Asian populations, and nearly the same size as the entire Hispanic population.

Yet the issue of age discrimination is only whispered about, as if part of that stupid assumption that older people can’t hear. It’s wrong. It’s insulting. If you deride, don’t hire, or dismiss people based on their age, it’s a prejudice. Yet it doesn’t seem to invoke the anger that other biases do.

Why? Well, let’s face it. We live in a society that worships youth. Our entertainment chases teenage viewers (just count the comic-book movies). Advertisers have little interest in people over 50. Products to remove wrinkles or grey hair fly off the shelves. “The youngest to ever” is a coveted title in work, politics, and law, while “the oldest to ever” is usually reserved for human-interest stories, like an 80-year-old marathoner, or the 74-year-old Indian woman who recently gave birth to twins.

Meanwhile, there’s the increasing trend to lay off workers in their 50s — which is not exactly old in a world where life expectancies have increased to well beyond 80 — and not absorb those fired workers back into the workplace.

This should be a big issue for any presidential candidate. But do you ever hear it brought up? Virtually every form of discrimination is hashed and rehashed on the campaign trail. Yet with more than a third of our population over 50 — a third! — nobody seems to make this a topic.

A recent AARP study showed that nearly two out of three workers 45 and older have experienced age discrimination on the job. Another study of 2,000 workers over 50 showed that more than half were forced to leave their jobs at some point due to “layoffs, businesses closing, job dissatisfaction or unexpected retirement.” Of these, only 10% found another job of equal pay or rank.

It seems like everyone can tell you of a former executive or high-level salesman who is now scrambling to find any kind of career, or driving for Uber to pay the bills.

America used to be a country where the longer you worked the more respected you were. We are becoming the opposite.

Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, once said.

And now Facebook is considered, by many, to be kind of old.

Aging in an ageist world

So when a Julian Castro, used to being celebrated as “the youngest to,” takes an apparent jab at an older man’s memory, or the internet pokes fun at the old guy losing his dentures — or Biden’s reference to “a record player” — it’s more than just a tweet. It’s all a subtle form of ageism that has crept into our culture, despite the very aging of that culture.

It’s the reason older people today go to such great efforts to hide their years. Age once meant venerability. Gravitas. These days it’s more about Botox, hair plugs and face lifts (all things, coincidentally, that Joe Biden has been rumored to have done).

People say they need to worry about the age of a president. What if he loses his capacities on the job? What if he dies in office? But it’s worth noting the infrequency of such things. Since the 20th century, only two presidents died in office who were not assassinated. Warren Harding died of a heart attack when he was 57. Franklin Roosevelt died of a massive stroke when he was 63.

Old age wasn’t the culprit. Today we have a cheeseburger-loving 73-year-old president, Donald Trump, who calls Biden, only three years older, “Sleepy Joe” and 78-year-old Bernie Sanders, “Crazy Bernie.”

So ageism can come from senior citizens as well. It’s built into our culture. For the life of me, I don’t know why this isn’t a bigger issue — among candidates and society in general — considering the enormous attention we give to other forms of discrimination.

After all, we will never be a single race or gender.

But all of us, if we’re lucky, will one day be old.

Even Julian Castro.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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