The recent New York Times opinion piece titled, Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old? accomplished this–it perpetuated ageism against older Americans and agist stereotypes across all ages. Accompanied by an image of an abandoned walker, the article confused and compounded the double “ism” of ageism and ableism.
The article is another Example of how major media continues feeding readers age bias, myths and stereotypes that lead to exclusion and discrimination of people (especially olders) across all faces of life.
Although the crux of Yuval Levin’s article focuses on older politicians, he doesn’t think younger folks have what it takes to lead effectively either. He concludes that middle-aged politics is the answer–specifically, those born in the 60s and 70s.
His argument rests squarely on age and fails to consider any real issues with the current political framework.
Since we live in a permissibly ageist society, the easy clickbait of an ageist headline and generational finger-pointing is not surprising. And Levin apparently doesn’t understand the pseudo-science of generational labeling that arbitrarily assigns the first four years of the 60s to the boomer era.
But Levin is a political analyst, academic, author of several books and the founding editor of National Affairs. How could he really believe the problem pleading US politics is age? What about a two-party system that inherently creates polarity so powerful that partisan politics stifles most legislation. What about extremist politics and the storming of the Capital in an effort to overthrow democracy? What about the lack of term limits? Surely that is one of the most obvious problems with all three branches of government.
Boomers and Remarkably Old
Hands-down, generational labels are one of the most offensive forms of propagating ageism. Levin writes that “generational analyses are unavoidably sweeping and crude, and no one is simply a product of a birth cohort.” Yet, that doesn’t stop him from committing the ageist sin, as if his disclaimer exempted him from his sweeping and crude suggestions.
It does not.
Moreover, successful aging is something we should be celebrating. Around the world, people are living healthier, longer lives. Yes, this is remarkable. But the people defining this new demographic should not be labeled remarkably old. That’s ageist.
For the record, chronological age (like any other dimension of diversity) is not an indicator of political prowess. Nor does it imply disability of any kind, which the abandoned walker in front of the podium suggests. That’s ageist and ableist.
“We’re being ageist anytime we judge someone based on how old we think they are and ableist when we judge them based on how we assume their minds or bodies function,” says age activist Ashton Applewhite. “We’re being ageist and ableist when we attribute capacity—or incapacity—to someone based on their age.”
How Age is Represented in Congress
In the Senate, 26 of the 100 members are in their 70s and 80s. In the House, 76 of the 435 are septua- or octogenarians. But don’t let an ageist default make you think they don’t belong there.
“Crystallized intelligence is the ability to see patterns and apply experiences and knowledge to new situations,” explains Dr. Michael North, assistant professor of Management and Organizations at New York University Stern School of Business. “Crystalized intelligence stays constant and can even increase over the lifespan.”
Despite Levin’s reference to “the vacuum of middle-age leadership,” the average age for the 117th Congress is 59.
In the House, representatives aged 40 – 60 make up a clear majority. In the Senate, over 60s have the majority.
“Our politics has the same problem—simultaneously overflowing with the vices of the young and the old, and so often falling into debates between people who behave as though the world will end tomorrow and those who think it started yesterday.”
No, our political system is in acute failure. If anything, more younger people are needed to create true age diversity and to better represent the wants and needs of Americans today. That and a nation-sized defibrillator to end the chaos and reset the country on a healthier way forward.
A Broken Political System
It’s almost laughable that political analyst Levin points to age as the reason for America’s political disrepair. Congress is processing testimonies and new information from the selection committee’s January 6th investigation into the storming of the Capitol.
“The question of election legitimacy has become a firebrand issue and rallying call for many on the right, staking out new ground in the culture war,” writes Ipsos, a multinational market research and consulting firm with headquarters in Paris, France. “That day, and all that preceded it, showed the depths of the country’s broken politics.”
As if Levin doesn’t understand what is at stake, he avoids addressing any of the real political issues that have bubbled up since Donald Trump was elected.
“Part of the crisis in which we find ourselves today is that many people don’t understand what is at stake in the hearings, in part because commentators have turned the attempt of Trump and his supporters to overturn our democracy into a mud-wrestling fight between Democrats and Republicans rather than showing it as an existential fight for rule of law,” writes Heather Cox Richardson in her Letters from an American.
Defining Moments Are Lifelong
Most Americans report feeling the country lacks unity; many think it is broken beyond repair. Instead of addressing the issues, Levin points to the older leaders in Congress. He claims America does have an unifying theme.
“Almost every story we now tell ourselves about our country fits into some portion of the early-boomer life arc. And our politics is implicitly directed toward recapturing some part of the magic of the mid-20th-century America of boomer youth.”
Levin then takes readers through a timeline of world events for leaders born in the 40s and 50s. Five paragraphs are dedicated to generalizing the worldview of everyone born during that timeframe. Again he admits the shallowness of his argument but forges ahead to draw outlandish conclusions and distract readers.
“This portrait of changing attitudes is, of course, stylized for effect,” he writes. “But it offers the broad contours of how people often look at their world in different stages of life, yet also of how many Americans (and, crucially, not just the boomers) tend to understand our country’s postwar evolution. We see our history, and so ourselves, through the eyes of Americans now reaching their 80s.”
Experiences continue to shape perception and action throughout life. Just in the last two years, the nation has experienced overwhelming trauma.
A global pandemic.
Increasing rates of child suicide and drug overdose.
Threats against democracy.
Potential civil war.
Defining moments are lifelong and shared experiences occur across all the ages. People see history primarily through their respective and collective familial experiences, not through the eyes of Congress members who came before them. They listen to their communities and those who care enough to teach and mentor them.
Age has nothing to do with the nation’s woes. Levin’s ageist slant—and the New York Times printing it—is just another disappointment.