It’s popular to say that age is just a number. I never understood that statement. Aside from being self-evident, the implication that age is irrelevant makes absolutely no sense. When we say “age is just a number,” it’s as if we’re trying to minimize the negative perception of being “older.”
I put that word in quotation marks, because its connotation has evolved over recent decades. Where a 50-year-old woman was once considered mature, we now have to make sure that we talk about her in terms of sexuality and vitality in order to soothe and service bruised egos.
Men are quickly catching up to women in their preoccupation with age (GQ Magazine is now indistinguishable from Vogue with the abundance of skin-cream ads in its pages), but there are still vestiges of a double standard when it comes to physical attractiveness.
Despite the slight advantage men retain when it comes to the aesthetics of getting older, grayer and thicker, both genders are equally affected by the politics of aging. We can talk about race, we can talk about sex, we can talk about orientation and we can talk about ethnicity, but the elephant in the room is the number on your ID card. If you are too old, and no one is willing to define what that magic number is because we all hope to reach it one day, you begin to fade away.
The lines of your personality and character, once so clearly defined, start to blur because people stop seeing you as an individual and start seeing you as a function of your aging organs. And that becomes particularly deadly in politics.
As we saw with our current president, a master of the conjured and perfected image, what counts with voters is not what you say but how you say it, not what you do but what you look like while doing it, not what you give but how it’s packaged. And while age and experience are not yet completely devalued in this post-millennial climate, they are swiftly losing their rightful significance.
Take, for example, Philadelphia mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham.
I admire her, but even if I didn’t, I would have been put off by the reaction to her recent fainting spell at a mayoral debate. When Abraham fell at the podium and was unconscious for a few moments, some pundits wrote her political eulogy before she had the chance to say “the tough cookie has not yet crumbled.” The swiftness with which this became received wisdom, as in “she’s cooked” was an example of how cynical the pundits have become about what truly matters in the makeup of a candidate.
It is entirely legitimate to inquire about the health of someone who wants to assume an executive position, or any position of authority. But this obsession we seem to have with age is so distasteful and so counterproductive that it highlights an ugly aspect of the American psyche: We really are evolving into a Logan’s Run society where those who have crossed over a certain chronological line are simply tolerated (which is much kinder than the cinematic alternative of extermination.)
As someone who takes public transportation on a daily basis, I’ve had occasion to watch how the elderly are treated when they are riding. At best, they’re ignored. At worst, they’re the object of frustration when the bus has to slow down to accommodate their hobbled gait as they climb the steps or move down the aisle.
In other parts of the world, and I’m thinking of Europe and Asia, age is generally looked upon as an advantage. The politics reflect that sort of thinking.
Israel elected Golda Meir as its prime minister in 1969 when she was a spry 71. Indira Ghandi was twice elected as India’s prime minister, the second term beginning at the age of 63. Margaret Thatcher was 54 when she was elected as Great Britain’s prime minister but she served uninterruptedly until the age of 65. Corazon Aquino was elected president of the Philippines at the age of 53, toppling the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and serving until just before her 60th birthday.
Somehow, age didn’t seem to be an issue when they were running for office. Neither, apparently, was gender.
But in America, it’s all about the “face,” so to speak. Men are not immune from the obsession with youth either, as anyone who remembers the cruel jokes lobbed at Ronald Reagan and John McCain will confirm.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
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