By Jim Towey
Whether you measure misery by fatality rates or social isolation, America’s elderly got the worst of the Covid pandemic. As if that wasn’t bad enough, inflation has roared to life and now hammers those of advanced years who live on fixed incomes and find their pool of savings evaporating because of the stocks and bonds quasi-meltdown this year.
And now, to top that off, a shift in popular opinion may be underway to blame seniors for the mess the country now faces.
Perhaps you have seen the word “gerontocracy” emerge in the public domain – the New York Times has used it multiple times this month. I read a thoughtful piece by Yuval Levin, and recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial discussing the taboo subject of the age of America’s political leaders.
Gerontocracy is defined as “a state, society or group governed by old people.” Advocates of this point of view cite the ages of President Joe Biden (79), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (82), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (80), not to mention influential former president Donald Trump (who would be 78 if he returns to the Oval Office).
Non-elected officials with super-sized portfolios are similarly of advanced age. John Kerry (78) is in charge of the nation’s climate change agenda. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, soon to be 76, is tasked with lowering inflation while avoiding a recession. And then there’s public health czar Dr. Anthony Fauci, age 81, who continues to exercise enormous influence.
True, there are plenty of more youthful leaders in high office, beginning at the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices range in age from the youngest, age 50 (Amy Coney Barrett) to the oldest who turns 73-years-old tomorrow (Justice Clarence Thomas). The high court used to be the branch of government largely ruled by septuagenarians and older. Not anymore.
The Vatican can be led by an 85-year-old pope (and a pope emeritus, age 95), and Great Britain’s monarchy just celebrated the 70th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, age 96. Mother Teresa of Calcutta remained as head of her worldwide missionary order well into her mid-80’s before she passed the mantle to her successor six months before she died.
But when the question of whether America today can fairly be described as a gerontocracy, the spotlight turns to President Biden and his performance. He is the oldest commander-in-chief in our history. He also is the de facto face of aging in America. He is influencing the attitudes of Gen X, millennials and Gen Z Americans toward the elderly. Can he command their confidence and respect?
To to be clear, old age does not disqualify you from center stage (Mick Jagger turns 79 next month and is currently gyrating away on a European tour at packed venues!). But when it comes to public servants, those of advanced years must be vigilant and when in doubt, err on the side of relinquishing authority to others who might be better able to serve the public.
My fear is that a failure to do so by high-profile leaders whose judgment and focus begin to fail will feed a societal resentment toward the elderly population in general, as if all are selfish, incapable of letting go, and a burden.
A fair question to ask
When public officials cling to power and refuse to step down when their cognitive and physical capabilities decline significantly, the nation suffers, and it is not bad manners or unpatriotic to say this. The common good demands nothing less, and I think most elders would agree. They have sacrificed greatly and don’t want to leave this earth with our country in decline.
This very issue is playing out in California. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein turns 89 today. A visit to her Wikipedia page discloses: “Because of her age and reports of mental decline, Feinstein has been a frequent subject of discussion regarding her mental acuity and fitness to serve.” Recent interviews with Senate colleagues and staffers informed a San Francisco Chronicle article in April along those very lines. Speaker Pelosi raced to Feinstein’s defense and brandished the “ridiculous attacks” as “unconscionable” (Feinstein’s husband had just passed away). While condolences are in order, so, too, are questions about an elected official’s capacity to serve. When a reporter asked the White House spokesperson about Biden’s age, she dismissed the question as irrelevant. “That’s not a question we should be asking.” Wrong. It is fair game to ask this of any public servant. No one has asked this of Henry Kissinger because, at age 99, he remains remarkably astute. Not all men and women age evenly.
Aging with dignity means accepting the seasons in life and embracing the wisdom that there is a time to lead and a time to be led. The elderly in America have been through a great deal these last few years. Their golden years should not be spent in fear of a backlash by younger Americans resentful of a ruling class they see as a gerontocracy.
Merit is ageless. The wisdom and gifts of our elders can be harnessed in ways complementary to the creativity and energies of younger generations. We rise or fall together regardless of age.