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Opinion: It’s ok to mock Biden and Trump for their age? Why that’s dangerous

Opinion by Arick Wierson

(CNN) — In parallel with the national conversation around age as an indicator of fitness for office, I have been struggling with my own journey as a 50-something only child who has been helping my 88-year-old mother and 90-year-old father transition from their home of over half a century into an assisted living facility.

While my father is struggling with dementia and has lost a step or two in his gait, my mother, only slightly younger, is still sharp as a tack.

The juxtaposition of what I am following as a political columnist with what I am dealing with in my own family has forced me to reflect on how ageism continues to thrive without much resistance in our society; in fact, jokes about the age of President Joe Biden, who is 81, and former President Donald Trump, 77, are frequently featured in late-night comedy without so much as a hint of pushback from mainstream media.

Many outlets have failed to call out the overt ageism that is running rampant in the way popular culture is talking about this campaign. In fact, many have piled on. The Guardian, for example, ran a headline, “Trump is too old and incited a coup. Biden is too old and mixes up names. America, how to choose?” while The Atlantic published a piece entitled “Has Anyone Noticed That Trump Is Really Old?”

From The Economist to the Los Angeles Times and many others, mainstream media has been complicit in fueling a sense that, whatever anyone thinks about these two particular candidates and their policies, their advanced age alone should be enough to disqualify them from seeking a second term as president.

Voters in one state have already fallen prey to ageism. North Dakota voted Tuesday to approve a ballot measure that would preclude congressional candidates who would turn 81 by the end of the year before their term ends from being eligible to run for office — a measure that is sure to be challenged in courts.

Even more curious is the fact that, unlike other forms of discrimination which prey on a sense of “otherness,” aging is a shared aspect of our human existence. It’s something that all of us — regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or disability —  experience and with luck, most of us will go through it for many years.

Much like skin color or gender, age is a characteristic of human life that has been used to stereotype and marginalize millions of capable individuals. Yet any meaningful conversation about how we, as Americans, need to revisit our prejudices around age have been notably absent in this election.

In contrast to the 2008 presidential cycle, which culminated in the historic election of Barack Obama as America’s first Black president and compelled the nation to confront many of its preconceived notions about what a president should look like, the current election cycle has largely avoided addressing age as a prejudicial factor in society. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred.

The American Psychological Association calls out ageism as one of the “last socially acceptable prejudices,” and all the talk about how Trump and Biden are too old for the job is only serving to reinforce negative stereotypes about people who reach a certain biological milestone, regardless of their individual mental acuity and physical health.

And that’s bad for all of us.

It’s true that one in two Americans say that the “ideal age” for a president is somewhere in the 50s — the so-called “Goldilocks zone” where it’s assessed that adults have amassed enough decades of personal and professional experience to prove to be steely yet compassionate leaders and still have the strength and stamina required for the rigors of the job of leading the free world.

But the framing of the argument about what people think about a president’s age is not that dissimilar to what Americans thought, decades ago, about gay people in the military or women leading Fortune 500 companies or a Black man becoming president.

The constant weaponization of age that has come to a crescendo in this election will leave an indelible mark on the American psyche — making it more difficult for older Americans to continue to contribute and thrive despite the fact that the world is getting older.

While the benefits are still unevenly distributed, new technologies continue to improve the quality of health care and Americans are once again living longer (after a slight dip during the pandemic.)

Although everyone ages differently, proposals that there should be “age limits” for public officials play into the misconceived notion that there is some magical expiration date after which humans can no longer offer a meaningful contribution to society, like milk that has been left in the fridge too long.

Take my parents. While my father’s decline over the past few years has been undeniable, my mother has the same wit and mental acumen that she did at 40. She may not be going on the long hikes or bike rides like she did 40 years ago, but she gets around just fine.

This election should be bringing into focus the idea that America is a rapidly aging society in which one in six of us is over age 65 and we are living longer and staying healthier for extended periods.

Americans are not only living longer but better than ever before. According to the Social Security Administration, the average American male who was age 80 in 2021 was expected to live, on average, about another seven years, more than enough to complete a second presidential term.

Rather than endlessly debating whether Trump’s or Biden’s age make them fit for a second term, we should celebrate the fact that the potential re-election of either man could carve out new ground for age diversity in American society, showing that there is a place for the older crowd in our constantly changing society.

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