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A bolder vision for Biden’s America

In the wake of Biden’s faltering performance at the debate on June 27, many people wanted him to step down. I was one of them. Since then, the chorus has swelled, with progressive pundits, major media outlets, and big donors telling Joe it’s time to go. It’s easy to come up with reasons why he should.

One is hubris.  Biden’s intransigence fuels the stereotype of the selfish older who refuses to yield to his successors. Jill Biden’s quote on the cover of Vogue—“We will decide our future”—is entitled and authoritarian.

Another reason is competence. Age slows. Biden’s lapses have become more frequent. During the debate, he was occasionally incoherent. I felt that ought to disqualify him.

An exchange with my friend Peter Torres Fremlin, who writes the Disability Debrief newsletter, helped me see things differently. For one thing, different camps prioritize different competencies. Trump is incoherent too. His supporters don’t care. Peter also pointed out that “if someone struggles to articulate key political positions, they could rely on preparations or accommodations as support. Or get someone else to do it: why is it necessary for a President to do it themselves? But,” he went on, “either a different approach is needed, or a different person.”

I’m calling for a different approach.

I reject the reasoning that Biden should step down. It’s ableist because it ties the value of a human being to a single model of cognitive function, and anti-communitarian because it’s every man for himself. I also reject its counterpoint, that Biden should double down. I’m not comfortable in either camp.

I don’t want a better candidate. I want a better world. One that offers more options than “step up” or “step down.” One that doesn’t impose false binaries — employed or useless, competent or incapacitated, “independent” or burden —  onto the messiness and ambiguities of being human.

Seem unimaginable? Last night, along with hundreds of locals and tourists, I watched a movie in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore. It was part of the city’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival. The opening short explained that the festival celebrates older “rediscovered” movies, and showed buckets of olders in attendance. “Never forget,” the narrator said, “that frailty is beauty.” Imagine that.

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It’s about competence, not age. And voters have a right to know more.

Last week a gratuitous swipe ramped up the ongoing discussion about Biden’s age to a fevered pitch. When the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the President for his handling of classified documents, the special counsel went on to call Biden a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who had “diminished faculties in advancing age.” Ouch! Biden didn’t like it. Neither did the progressive commentariat, which cried foul. 

Let’s get a couple of things straight:  

  • It’s not ageist to call Trump and Biden old. They’re old!
  • It is ageist to call someone “too old” for a job. Plenty of younger people aren’t up to a given task. Plenty of olders are. Age-based assumptions are as harmful and ignorant as racial or gender stereotypes.
  • It’s ableist to shame people for memory lapses, as special counsel Robert Hur did.
  • The conversation shouldn’t center age. It should center capacity.

If a candidate loses an election because they’re perceived as “too old,” don’t blame age.  Blame ageism. Blame ableism too. Blame a culture that stigmatizes and discriminates against people who are no longer young and people with disabilities.

Age and ability are different. That distinction is fundamental. The current discourse conflates the two, making it far harder to get to the heart of the matter: is the person mentally and physically up to the job? That’s why questions about candidates’ competence are completely legitimate. That’s why geriatrician Louise Aronson (and countless other experts on aging) recommend focusing on cognitive and physical health instead of age when evaluating leadership ability.

Voters are entitled to be informed about the health of the people who represent them.

Testing is not the answer. Even doctors have a hard time assessing cognition. No test is neutral.  Biden is a terrible campaigner and a skilled legislator. Trump is the reverse. How to evaluate those skills and deficits? How to compare the results? Team Biden vehemently maintains that the President’s strengths as a diplomat more than compensate for his shortcomings as a debater. Let us see those strengths in action. More interviews. More events. A world leader needs to be able to communicate. Voters can forgive a stutter. Silence, not so much.

Brushing these concerns under the rug, or dismissing them as ageist or as partisan, does no one any favors. It makes it harder to challenge ageism and ableism on legitimate grounds. It’s not good for democracy. And enough with the headlines about age! They’re a distraction from things that actually matter: stopping a genocide, mitigating climate change, and preventing World War III.

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What a waste.

The luxury skincare firm Estée Lauder just announced a partnership with the Stanford Center on Longevity. According to the press release, the goal of this new “longevity expert collective” is to “reframe the conversation from anti-aging to visible age reversal.”

Let’s be clear: “anti-aging” and “age reversal” are the same. “Age reversal” is just the latest beauty-industry buzzword for the latest anti-aging trend. Take Kim Kardashian’s announcement of her new luxury skincare line, for example: in the same article she renounced the term “anti-aging” and offered to “eat poop every single day” if it made her look younger. I call bullshit.

Nothing in the universe is getting any younger. But the promise of “agelessness” moves a lot of product, especially in the beauty industry. Companies target ever-younger demographics with the same message: aging is to be feared and fought. And what a market! “Anti-aging is the ultimate capitalist goal, because it’s physically impossible,” observes beauty culture critic Jessica DeFino. “To try to anti-age is to be a consumer for life.”

It is demoralizing to see the Stanford Longevity Center sign on to help a multinational cosmetics company acquire customers for life. Stanford’s stated goal is different: to support discoveries and practices that enable healthy aging. That’s the mission of their new Aesthetics & Culture program, where the cosmetics giant will be funding research activities and post-doctoral fellowships. It must be lot of money. Because the notion that these goals genuinely align—that  “age-reversing” skincare will encourage healthy aging—is, to put it mildly, a stretch.

Little of the Sanford Center Director Laura Carstensen’s statement [italicized] about the new partnership holds up under scrutiny:

“We know that aging well involves feeling good about ourselves.”

 True. But no one makes money off satisfaction. People who feel good about themselves have made peace with how they look. They don’t invest in expensive “remedies” for a “problem” invented by an ageist, sexist capitalist society: looking your age. The beauty industry feeds and profits from age shame and age denial. Those are polar opposites of what actually make us feel good about ourselves: confidence and authenticity.

Yet, little research has explored links between appearance and well-being.

On the contrary, If we’ve learned anything from the body acceptance movement or the proliferation of social media, it’s that a focus on appearance is detrimental to mental and physical health—especially to self-esteem, and especially for women.

Extended life expectancy offers us the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding about how people subjectively experience vitality and communicate this experience to others.

            Um, okay.

We believe that skin, as the largest organ, plays a sizeable role in conveying this vitality.”

I don’t envy Carstensen for having to come up with this formulation. I can’t say it out loud with a straight face.

No doubt this new “skin longevity platform” will yield luxury regimens that enable wealthy people to stay slightly less wrinkly for slightly longer. They are no recipe for enhancing vitality and well-being over the long lives we all hope to enjoy. We age well by adapting to change, not by struggling to stop the clock. Imagine the enormous, evidence-backed health benefits of spending those millions on ageism awareness education instead.

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More research showing ageism shortens lives

“Ageism, and an older person’s perception of aging, may hold the keys to a longer life.”  That’s the first sentence of Why age bias has real world health effects, just published  by the Association of Health Care Journalists, which supports excellence in their field.

The catalyst was a new study published in The Gerontologist. The two-year study monitored 5,483 New Jersey residents ages 50-74 and assessed their risk of dying over a 9-year period. The researchers used a metric called “subjective successful aging”:  subjective criteria used by older people to assess how well they are aging. (The lower the score, the less satisfying the person’s experience of aging.) Researchers found a significant association: “People with low scores (0-5), had a 45% chance of dying within nine years, while those with high scores (25-30) had less than a 10% chance of dying.” In other words, the olders who were least satisfied with their aging experience were more than four times more likely to die over the next nine years than those who felt the most satisfied.

These findings add to the growing body of evidence that ageist attitudes harm our health and actually shorten lives. Much of the research has been conducted by Yale’s Becca Levy, author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. It was her oft-cited finding, published over two decades ago, that people with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who equated aging with loss and decline.

It’s not just about living longer. It’s about enjoying better physical and mental health. People with more positive attitudes towards aging—fact- rather than fear-based, that is—are less likely to develop dementia, even if they carry the gene that predisposes them to the disease. (Levy again.) A study led by Julie Ober Allen, published in JAMA Open Network last summer, studied levels of exposure to “everyday ageism” (minor but pervasive forms of age discrimination, or microaggressions). Participants were asked to assess their health in four ways: overall physical health, overall mental health, number of chronic conditions, and whether they were depressed. The investigators found those who reported more exposure to demeaning messages about aging faced higher health risks on all four measures. Also out last summer, another study led by Levy and published in Social Science & Medicine examined “whether negative age stereotypes contribute to the chronic pain of older persons.” Yes, they do.

Encountering bias is stressful, and stress contributes to many health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. Age stereotypes become more relevant as we get older—and thus more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies. People with negative self-perceptions around aging are less likely to engage in healthy practices like having regular checkups, controlling weight and diet, and exercising. The reverse is also the case.  

Want to stay healthy as you age? Check your age bias.

Want everyone else to age as well as possible? Join the emerging movement to end ageism. It’s gaining ground around the world.

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Think “too many old people” will swamp social welfare programs? Think again.

Since the 1970s, population aging—the proverbial “gray tsunami”—has been used to justify “pension reform,” austerity, and privatization across the wealthy nations. Alarmist projections have long fueled neoliberal, small-government policy reforms. In the Fall 2023 issue of Jacobin editor-at-large Seth Ackerman argues that it’s time to quit the hand-wringing and look at the data. (See The Welfare State Can Survive the Great Aging; paywall, alas.) The “staggering” increases in pension costs that have people so worried “are only staggering because of how shockingly small they are,” he writes. Every G7 nation except Germany is projected to see pension spending rise by less than 1 percent of GDP. In France and in Japan, the “oldest” country in the world, spending as a share of GDP is set to fall. How can this be?

The answer is simple: around the world, the four-decade-long wave of pension cutbacks has already programmed so many increases in retirement ages and reductions in earnings replacement levels that the impact of rising life expectancy has been almost completely neutralized. The long-advertised crisis of the welfare state supposedly rendered inevitable by the pressures of population aging has now been almost entirely averted.”

Ackerman reaches this conclusion despite relying without interrogation on  the “old-age dependency ratio” as his key metric. This loaded term compares the number of people ages 15 to 64 (workers) with people 65 and older (dependents). The “old age” modifier starkly separates older Americans from the general population, labeling them economic dead weight the day they hit 65. In fact Americans draw heavily on their own resources in retirement. Many people require benefits well before they turn 65, and a growing proportion remain employed long after it, both by choice and by necessity. (The World Bank has developed a long-overdue alternative formula, called the adult dependency ratio, which takes these trends into account.) This metric also overlooks the “longevity economy,” which contributed $45 trillion to the global GDP and generated $23 trillion in labor income in 2020 alone, according to AARP’s Global Longevity Economy Outlook.

Another problem with this model it that it frames older people as economic burdens: “greedy geezers” who profit at the expense of the young. This feeds the false and corrosive narrative of “generational conflict.” Families and communities are made up of all ages. We’re in the middle of the biggest wealth transfer in history, as the baby boom dies off and passes its assets on to their successors, who have outnumbered them since 2019. Only some have assets to pass on; destitution awaits many retirees. Treating “the old” or “the young” as homogenous groups obscures the far larger role that class plays in shaping life trajectories. Humans are born into vastly unequal circumstances, and inequalities tend to increase as cohorts age—especially in the absence of social welfare programs designed to mitigate those circumstances. (This is the theme of Dutch gerontologist Jan Baars new book, Long Lives Are for the Rich.)

The so-called tsunami is upon us: worldwide, people over age 60 already outnumber children under age 5. It’s no tsunami; it’s a demographic wave that scientists have been tracking for 70 years. It’s increasingly clear that the socioeconomic threat posed by population aging has been overstated to justify shrinking the welfare state and public assistance programs. Nor have other demographic horror stories predicted by conservatives in the 1990s come to pass, as Dean Baker observed on 11/2/23 in Counterpunch. Healthcare costs have not exploded. (The notion that older people are an inevitable sink for healthcare dollars is incorrect.) Most of the baby boom has already reached “retirement age” and the sky has not fallen. Adjustments to Social Security have already accounted for increased longevity.

That longevity is not evenly distributed: almost all the gains in the last half-century have gone to the well-off. That’s why Baker’s article is titled “The Return of the Aging Crisis: A Diversion from Inequality.” Shamefully, although life expectancy since 2020 has rebounded in other wealthy nations, in the US it has dropped dramatically. Americans who live less long are disproportionately black, brown, and indigenous, because they experience the highest levels of poverty, face the most food insecurity, and have less or no access to healthcare.

Blame COVID19. Blame drug overdoses. Blame the shrinking of public assistance programs, although the opposite is called for if the country is to meet the needs of its poorest and oldest citizens in the years to come. Blame the systemic racism, ageism, and ableism that underlie these policy choices. Don’t blame “too many old people.”

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“Rejected.” The human cost of ageism in the workplace

On Saturday I received this note via LinkedIn from a woman named Amy Claire Massingale. Massingale has a background in business development and marketing, and is also a published poet. She had applied for a position as a business development director for a medical manufacturing company. Her story bears eloquent, maddening testimony to the job discrimination that older people, and women of all ages, continue to confront.

“I was rejected yesterday. After an interview with the decision-maker and then a second interview with his younger male counterpart, I was told that they were looking for someone with “less experience.” A candidate better aligned with their salary range. He wished me all the best in my search.

“I beat myself up for a little while after reading the email. I found myself wishing I had dumbed down the interview so I that I could have made it to the next round. And then crying because that thought had actually crossed my mind. I also feel like crying every time I revise my CV or my LinkedIn profile. Every time I list jobs only within the past decade, like the woman at the unemployment office told me to do. Or when I delete the word “Caregiver” from my bio and type in “Tech” instead.

“We had not actually discussed the salary but the truth is, I would have made it work somehow, because I have a 17-year old daughter at home and I want her to go to college if she chooses to go. She won’t see this, so she won’t know that the real reason I want her to attend college is not necessarily for the job it might land her. Because that could or could not happen and it may or may not make her happy. Who knows what to expect in the gig economy and beyond.

“It is because I want her to see that the world is bigger than the high school “friends” that bullied her and the system that tried, but failed, to accommodate her learning challenges. That it is both more tender and terrible than her toxic social media will ever reveal. That it is more courageous than the men who walked out when teenage feelings and behavior got too big and scary. And that it is more hopeful than the year of childhood the pandemic stole from her. What I want her to see is the resiliency of women. Of any woman, who cares for, and then buries, her family with her dreams. Working full time and writing poetry at night. And then is told that she looks too tired. Or too this, or too that.

“I want her to understand that though many people in life may try to dim her light, or silence her, or make her feel not good enough, inside her is a voice that is her very own unique and beautiful truth. Her job – my job – and the only job that really matters for any of us – is to listen to that voice and tell its story…its “experience” if you will. It’s the only way we’re going to find any meaning in this mayhem, the only way we’re going to find our way back to each other, and the only way this very sick and precious planet is ever going to heal.”