A recent poll spells bad news for Joe Biden (76), Bernie Sanders (77), and even Donald Trump (72), and very bad news for those hoping to stamp out age bigotry. Fewer voters want someone over 75 compared to candidates with other characteristics, such as being black, or gay, or a woman, or a Muslim. Being a "socialist" is the most undesirable characteristic listed.
The NBC/WSJ poll tested 11 different presidential characteristics and their acceptability in a presidential candidate. The most popular: an African American (a combined 87 percent of all voters said they were “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with that characteristic), a white man (86%), a woman (84%), and someone who is gay or lesbian (68% compared to 43% in 2006). The least popular: a Muslim (49%, though up from 32% in 2015), someone over the age of 75 (37%) and a socialist (25%). Those polled may be overstating their tolerance for African Americans and women; they don’t want to look bad to the pollster. But it's notable that, for many Americans, saying 75 is too old is not viewed as bigotry or an act of discriminatory prejudgment.
As I wrote in March, many Americans view prejudgment based on age legitimate. We don’t see widespread public arguments that Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are too black to run. Nor are Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand too female to run. Every hire (and an election is a hiring decision) is a judgement about the potential productivity of a candidate. The relevant question in every hire is whether the candidate will be engaged and competent for the job at hand. Does the candidate have the knowledge and talent to do the work?
Age Discrimination is Harmful
The harm of Though illegal, age discrimination in employment, pay, training, and promotion persists. Ageism makes it a struggle for older workers to get raises and jobs. A recent study illustrated widespread employer bias against older workers. A majority of employers surveyed by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies answered that age 64 was too old to be considered for employment (this was the median age given by employers, though most refused to give an age—wisely, since it's against the law to consider age in hiring and promotion and pay). On the other hand, the median age that workers gave as being too old to work was 75. The workers’ answer still makes it complicated for the candidates over age 75.
Who is too old to be President?
I am an expert in labor economics and the economics of aging. The range of opinions from my colleagues who are professionals in the field fascinates me. Duke history professor James Chappel and English professor Sari Edelstein of University of Massachusetts, Boston, wrote last week in the Washington Post that no one is too old to be president. They argued firmly that while older people are much more healthy than in the past, they are falsely viewed as having cognitive decline that affects their capacity to do a job in the real world. Modern cognitive tests of capacity continually show that older people do not significantly differ in overall scores; some older people perform as well as, or better than, most younger people.
Chappel and Edelstein report disapprovingly on comedic poop jokes directed at Bernie Sanders, age 77; the insulting bigotry masquerading as a “joke” is that Senator Sanders is sponsored by Metamucil and was present for the signing of the American Constitution.
My colleagues are divided. One writes (and I will report their comments anonymously because they were privately made on a listserv): “At some point something is a risk and a greater risk for some demographic categories than for others. As any insurance company could tell you. So it's reasonable to worry about Biden, without making that a determining factor.”
Another wrote: “Age can also be associated with experience and wisdom and perspective.” Another wrote that so-called signs of aging could be just an ageless characteristic of someone. It is just “Biden Being Biden.”
The experts seem to be about split between those fighting back against the ageism and defending it. Here is a defense: “Suggesting that someone who would be well into his ninth decade if he served two terms is too old to run for president is not ageism.” This comment was met by a practical response: “The obvious solution, as it always is with candidates of any age, is to make sure there's a good succession in place (i.e., a proper VP pick). It certainly isn't to avoid elevating an otherwise good or preferable candidate because of what might happen in the future—'cause, well, it's the future.”
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, author of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, sums up the ageism debate with common sense. Gullette argues the rigors of campaigning are a good screen for the bottom-line qualifications necessary to be president: “Weathering a presidential campaign proves the contestant has far better health and stamina than anyone of any age who hasn't done it. A presidential candidate should be judged on verbal agility, reasoning power, historical knowledge, and vision of the common good.”