August 12, 2022

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Assaults on the ‘gerontocracy’ reek of ageism — creativity and inventiveness don’t fade with birthdays

Have you noticed how many national political commentators are using the dismissive term “gerontocracy” these days? Gerontocracy is shorthand for stereotyping mostly Democratic Party leaders in their 70s and 80s as out of touch (they’re old) and in decline (they’re so old).

Take a handful of recent column headlines drawn from a variety of publications. “The Gerontocracy of the Democratic Party Doesn’t Understand That We’re at the Brink,” by Jamelle Bouie (New York Times); “The Institutionalist: Dianne Feinstein fought for gun control, civil rights, and abortion access for half a century. Where did it all go wrong?” by Rebecca Traister (New York Magazine); and “It’s time for the Democratic Party’s geriatric leaders to relinquish power,” by Glenn Altschuler (The Hill).

The assumption is that because of their long political careers and advanced ages President Joe Biden and the Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C., are stuck in the remote past, wary of innovation, and fearful of change. Needed reforms aren’t possible so long as a sclerotic gerontocracy rules and Joe Biden tries to stay in the Oval Office for another term. 

“We are ruled by a gerontocracy,” writes New York Times columnist Michele Goldberg in “Joe Biden Is Too Old to Be President Again. “

“Biden is 79. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, is 83. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 71. Often, it’s not clear if they grasp how broken this country is,” Goldberg writes.

Yet chronological aging doesn’t say much about an individual and their abilities.

Read: Why life in your 70s may be the happiest ever

Take Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chair of the House select committee investigating President Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. The 74-year-old Democrat from Mississippi has done a masterful job running the committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82 years old and, among an impressive list of recent accomplishments, she has been a forceful presence directing the Democratic Party’s response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin (age 75) and Chuck Schumer (age 71) recently negotiated the Inflation Reduction Act which, if it reaches President Biden’s desk, would cut the cost of prescription drugs and health insurance for millions, and finance a historic package of tax incentives targeted at boosting green energy investments.

Across the political aisle, 80-year-old Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is a wily and effective advocate for his members.

The poster child of the gerontocracy is President Biden. What’s troubling is how little complaint there is about his performance. Many of his critics admire how his administration has managed the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Legislative achievements on his watch include the mammoth infrastructure bill; the Chips and Science Act passed by Congress that will boost U.S. semiconductor development and workforce training; the Inflation Reduction Act; and successful judicial appointments bringing greater diversity to the bench. His political approach, drawing on decades of experience in Washington, paid off by buying time for Manchin and Schumer to strike their unexpected deal.

Read: How love and sex change—or don’t — as we age

The main criticism seems less about policy and more about appearance. President Biden looks his age. So what? “President Biden deserves scrutiny and criticism but based on his merit—not because of his age, much less all the speculation about his ability years from now, if he gets re-elected,” says Paul Kleyman, age 77, editor of the Generations Beat Online at GBOnews.org.

Sadly, the gerontocracy theme draws and reinforces a long tradition that sees aging as synonymous with decline, frailty, and retreat. Yet older people today on average are not only living longer than their grandparents, but they’re better educated and healthier than their grandparents were at comparable ages. Contrary to widespread prejudice, scholarly evidence and accumulated anecdotes are convincing that creativity and inventiveness doesn’t fade with the accumulation of birthdays.

For example, many artists are at their creative heights in their 60s, 70s and older. Think artists such as Faith Ringgold, age 91; David Hockney, age 85; Mick Jagger, age 79; and Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt, both age 72. While these are outstanding artists, their experience illuminates the promise for many experienced workers and professionals with the rise of the longevity economy. 

“The fact that so many people are getting to experience old age, and doing so in better health, is one of society’s greatest achievements,” writes Yale University social psychologist Becca Levy in her book, Breaking the Age Code. “It’s also an extraordinary opportunity to rethink what it means to grow old.”

Neuroscientists have come to appreciate how the brain develops and adapts over time. For instance, cognitive processing speed declines with age, but some mental functions improve with the passage of time, such as language and judgment. Thanks to their experience, older adults are good at drawing connections from various memories and shards of knowledge. The ability to connect the dots is also called wisdom.

“This wisdom includes good judgment in difficult situations, understanding of the way in which the events of life go together to form a consistent context, the ability to place events into perspective, a grasp of the fact that life is full of uncertainty and imponderability and that all planning must take this into account, and similar knowledge and skills,” writes Arthur Cropley, a prolific scholar of creativity, in Creative Performance inOlder Adults. 

Experienced workers are increasingly tapping into their accumulated skills and knowledge to earn an income well into the traditional retirement years. For example, nearly one in three of the 65- to 69-year-old cohort are in the labor force. The 55- to 64-year-old age group has accounted for about a quarter of all new entrepreneurs in recent years. The share of self-employed as the main job rises dramatically with age with 46% of workers ages 65 to 69 and 68% of workers ages 75 to 79, calculate Katharine Abraham, Brad Hershbein, and Susan Houseman in Contract Work at Older Ages. 

“You don’t retire at sixty-five if you have 35 percent of your life left,” writes Susan Wilner Golden, director of dciX at Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute at Stanford University and author of Stage (Not Age). “A greater number of people in this age range means there will be much more diversity—literal diversity, yes, but also diversity in what people do in this time, what they need, what they want, and how they age.”

In other words, judge political leaders by what they do rather than framing the discussion with ageist references to their chronological age. Think Biden’s policy priorities are misplaced or not bold enough? Then call for different leaders with a policy reform agenda more to your liking—whatever their age. The same holds with Pelosi, Thompson, and other experienced politicians.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith late in life wrote an essay skewering the kinds of pernicious stereotypes that diminish the abilities and contributions of older Americans. He called it the Still Syndrome. “The Still Syndrome is the design by which the young or the less old daily assail the old. ‘Are you still well?’ ‘Are you still working?’” he wrote. “As a compulsive literatus I am subject to my own special assault, ‘I see you are still writing.’ ‘Your writing still seems pretty good to me.’”

Galbraith wrote the essay when he was 90 years old. He stayed active and engaged as an economist and social critic until he died seven years later. Don’t you think it’s time to abandon the gerontocracy fallacy?