Should age matter in politics? VCU professor discusses ageism in the 2024 presidential election and society

With Joe Biden and Donald Trump preparing for another presidential election, age-old questions about age are center-stage in a fraught political environment. Biden (81) and Trump (77) are the two oldest presidential candidates in U.S. history, raising concerns from political pundits, elected officials and voters over whether there should be age limits for leading the country.

Tracey Gendron holding her new book, Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End itHowever, some experts argue that these concerns are rooted in ageism rather than fact.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., has dedicated her career to raising awareness of the pervasive, invisible nature of ageism within society, and she is working to dismantle misconceptions about aging. She serves as chair of the Department of Gerontology at the VCU College of Health Professions, executive director of the Virginia Center on Aging and author of the book “Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It.”

VCU News spoke with Gendron on how ageism has influenced voter sentiment in this presidential election and the broader political narrative.

What is ageism exactly? Does it intersect with other forms of discrimination?

In its broadest definition, ageism is stereotyping or discriminating based on age, whether directed at those younger than us or older than us. Age is a part of our identity that intersects with many others to form our unique selves. Similarly, ageism intersects with other forms of discrimination to create a compounding effect of marginalization, or “cumulative disadvantage.”

When people express concern about the age of these two candidates, they often refer to instances where the candidates get the names of political leaders wrong or have physical stumbles. Are these concerns valid or just rooted in ageism?

Many people are likely familiar with the term “senior moment.” It’s a commonly used colloquialism used by people of all ages, which means “I forgot.” The implication is that “old people forget things, now I forgot a thing –  haha, I’m acting like an old person.”

What a strange leap in logic to forget something at any age yet immediately dismiss it – and then go on to stereotype an older person. “Ah,” you might say, “but everyone knows old people are more forgetful!”

Here’s the reality: Age alone is a poor predictor of health status because aging is not a homogenous, linear experience. People age and develop differently, and there are no milestones or expectations to make comparisons. If we automatically assume someone of a given age is not capable or in poor health, that is ageism.

People of all ages get names wrong and have stumbles. In fact, when we are under stressful circumstances, we are all more likely to make a gaffe. All candidates for political office should be evaluated on their accomplishments and qualifications rather than by their age.

A CBS News/YouGov survey found that three-fourths of Americans favor maximum age limits for elected officials. Is there something that is often overlooked in conversations about age limits? Should older age matter, whether in politics or other fields?

As I said, age is a poor predictor of health (and everything else, for that matter), which makes age alone an inappropriate guideline for eligibility. Given the individual nature of aging, it is impossible to set a specific age limit with any rationale other than creating an arbitrary norm. Creating age ceilings is essentially political disenfranchisement.

There are a few fields that are exempt from the ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act), where mandatory age-based screening is allowed. For example, commercial airline pilots must pass a medical test every six months after the age of 40, and air traffic controllers must retire at age 56. The reasoning is that these specific fields require reflex-based physical and attentional-related skills.

This vastly differs from the skillset needed for an effective political leader, whose job is to make thoughtful, weighted decisions and who routinely relies on experts and trusted advisors.

Age is simply not a good defining factor for cognitive ability. I’ve seen it proposed that there should be a cognitive test for political candidates over a certain age. Given that people of any age can experience a decline in cognitive ability for any number of reasons (brain injury, exposure to toxins, depression, lack of sleep, medication interactions, etc.), such a test would have to be given to all candidates rather than singling out someone based on their age.

The conversation around candidate age focuses primarily on the negative aspects of aging. In what ways does aging positively impact a person's capabilities?

Generally speaking, people tend to hyper-focus on the more negative aspects of aging rather than acknowledging that aging is a process of change that includes both decline and growth.

Crystallized intelligence, or abilities, represent the cumulative skills and memories that result from acquired knowledge. Multiple studies have shown that crystallized abilities continue to improve well into later life. Research has even found that as we age, we use both hemispheres of the brain during tasks. We know that fluid intelligence, which is the ability to process new information, declines as we age. However, we also know that older adults can use their fluid intelligence just as well as younger people if given more time to do a task.

As we age, we continue to grow and improve in many ways. Older age can benefit decision-making, critical thinking, resilience and coping skills. The knowledge and experience we gain as we age help us make more thoughtful and balanced decisions and weigh options and opinions.

How has the focus on candidate age and competency helped or hurt our broader awareness and understanding of ageism?

The discussion around age and politics has helped raise awareness of ageism and started a critical dialogue about how ageism impacts society. I see this as an opportunity to engage in conversation about age and debunk myths and stereotypes about aging and older age.

Embrace it, fight it: We seem to receive and give ourselves conflicting messages about age. How might we, as individuals and/or as a society, better navigate this dichotomy?

As a gerontologist, I’m fascinated by the wide chasm between the reality of aging and aging myths and misconceptions. The first and most important thing you can do is educate yourself. Aging is the one universal thing every human being on the planet has in common. And yet, it is a subject very few people ever take the time to learn about properly.

Recognizing that aging is the process of living and changing helps contextualize the experience. As individuals we can all embrace that ALL stages of life come with both challenges and opportunities.

By Olivia Trani, crossposted from VCU News

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