Americans, as a rule do not approve of people being judged by the color of their skin and the god they worship. So why do we allow prejudgment based on age? Day after day we allow age bigotry to infiltrate the presidential campaigns. Just five days ago the Washington Post ran an op-ed entitled “Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are too old to be President." Are Kamala Harris and Cory Booker too black to run? Are Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand too female to run?
In her 2016 book Disrupt Aging, Jo Ann Jenkins, dynamic president of the AARP, aimed to challenge what she called outdated beliefs, and others called bigotry, calling out negative stories we tell ourselves and each other about growing older. There was hope the aging of the boomer cohort and the fierce demand for equality among younger people would see shifts in attitudes, behaviors, and culture calling out ageist attitudes that limit people of all ages. Instead, the presidential campaign is becoming fertile ground for the worse kind of ageism , the casual, accepted, unthinking kind.
Researchers at Boston College (Jacquelyn James, Marci Pitt-Catsouphes and Elyssa Besen) using data from the Sloan Foundation anticipated the age bigotry now on the national stage. They found that around the world, older adults being exposed to negative stereotypes and outright discrimination prevents the best from working. Even worse, negative stereotypes can erode health. Though negative stereotypes of older workers have in some cases been refuted by empirical data (more later), younger workers (and to my horror, older people themselves) still accept and spread age-based bigotry. Age bigotry happens when people make claims about the capabilities of older workers because of their age the same way that bigots make claims that women or members of racial minorities are inferior because of their ethnicity and gender.
“Old man,” “gramps,” “geezer”-- degrading terms laid on day after day--have a negative impact on the well-being and the work-related outcomes of older workers. The Boston College researchers found in 2013, using data from the Sloan Center’s Age & Generations study, that negative attitudes toward older workers affected older workers’ engagement with their jobs and ultimately their mental health. This is a narrow study -- as all good studies are -- but the results are a direct link between age-bigotry and productivity. And as an economist, I keep my eye on productivity.
Decades of research confirms that negative stereotypes about older people are entrenched. And now, in 2019, the Presidential campaign is bringing the harmful bigotry to the forefront.
We may blithely think age-bigotry only harms Trump, Biden, and Bernie and helps Beto. But that would be wrong. These celebrities are proxies and the language of the campaign perpetuates false assumptions about older workers’ limitations. How to stop age-bigotry?
Every hire (and an election is a hiring decision) is a judgement about the potential productivity of a candidate. Do we think a candidate will be engaged and enjoy the job? Does the candidate want the job? Will the job give them meaning? Does the candidate have the knowledge and talent to do the work? Those are the relevant questions in every hire and election.
Sanders is 77 and Biden is 76. Actor Glenda Jackson is 82 now playing King Lear on Broadway, a role that Ian McKellen calls “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” On the stage Jackson tells us in body and voice that the old can do any work, and a stage actor does it night after night (and twice a day on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with matinees!)-- 3.5 hours each time. And, cleverly, Glenda Jackson’s age becomes part of the play. Lear is a tragedy based on presumptions about age. At the end youth have risen up against Lear – and (spoiler alert!) in doing so youth annihilate themselves in the process. The last line of the play goes to young Edgar "we that are young / shall never see so much nor live so long."
Just drop the ageist bigotry and judge each candidate on their ability to be President of the United States.