No question — we’re living in a golden age of aging. Sports Illustrated put Martha Stewart on the cover of its swimsuit edition — at age 81, décolletage and all. Toddlers are being instructed to call their grandparents names like “Tootsie” and “Ace.” In polite society, ageism has become so unacceptable that you can’t say the word “old.”
And yet. Thanks to a pride of politicians who are very visibly aging in place, age-shaming has turned into a national sport.
On social media, clips featuring Senator Mitch McConnell’s face in mid-freeze and President Biden falling have gotten millions of gleeful views — their frailty is a full-employment program for the snarky. “When you flush the toilet at someone else’s house and the water won’t stop rising,” reads a not atypical caption underneath a picture of McConnell staring into the void.
The mainstream media headline writers are in on it, too.
“One thing Americans agree on?” CNN asked. “Our politicians are too old.”
At The New York Times, the topic is clickbait. “Here are the 20 oldest members of Congress” read a recent headline over a roll call of politicians who are 80 or older.
It’s one thing for Biden, 80, McConnell, 81, or Senator Diane Feinstein, 90, to face blunt and constant critiques of their age-related issues. They want our votes and that means their business is our business.
But what about the innocent bystanders — the civilians who are in the same maligned age group or staring it down? Why do they have to be collateral damage?
“All this talk of age — Biden is only eight years older than I am — has put more pressure on senior citizens to look and act youthful,” said Annie Blatz, 72, a sales manager with Kinlin Grover Compass and a past president of the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors.“But I’m not sitting at home waiting for my library books to be delivered — I’m still working.”
“I am certainly all for younger people stepping up and taking charge in politics, business, the arts, etc.,” she added. “But I don’t like being disrespected when I bring experience and legacy to the table.”
The negative attention on politicians’ age “makes me feel discriminated against, judged,” said Susan Goldfein, 82, author of “Laughing My Way through the 3rd Stage: Selected Essays that Skewer the Golden Years.”
A baby boomer can be proudly going about their youthful day — texting slangy abbreviations with Gen Z colleagues, say, or parading around with a rolled yoga mat — and then, zap!
A clip drops of Biden at a press conference saying he wants to go to bed, or a poll is released showing that 77 percent of voters think Biden is too old to be effective, or Mitt Romney, himself 76, urges Biden and Trump to step aside as he says he will to allow room for the new generation. And then it’s a free-for-all with the old-people jokes.
“Old age is the last thing you can make fun of,” said comedian Tony Viveiros, who is 70. “I have young comedians coming up behind me all the time who just wish I would die.”
How old is old? Once you pass 55, he said, your specific age doesn’t even matter. He pointed to surveys that ask respondents to list their age range — 18 to 29, 30 to 40, 40-55 — “then it’s 55 plus. You could be 56. You could be 106. They don’t care.”
The brutal hahahaha old people conversation is coinciding with a growing recognition of ageism, and a move to stop using offensive, “othering” words such as “elderly” and “the aged.”
“We live in an interesting time,” said Shiv Goswami, a cohost of the “Does this make me look old?” podcast. “A lot of people are starting to appreciate the older generation. It’s part of diversity training — and there’s this push for more diversity in our advertising and day to day discourse. But at the same time, there’s this backlash.”
As painful as the age insults are, said Lisa Scottoline, 68, the bestselling author and humorous memoirist, the fact that they’re happening in public counts as progress. “This is raising a conversation we really need to have,” she said. “A lot of biases are implicit and silent, and that’s even more pernicious.”
Well, “silent” no longer seems to be the challenge. The video clips of faltering politicians on social media platforms and in the news that show the unvarnished effects of aging have become so ubiquitous they’re scaring people.
Many, like Carolyn Spicer, 52, president of McDermott Ventures in Boston, say they can barely stand to watch clips of older politicians faltering — no matter which political party they belong to. It feels too close to prophecy.
“Is someone going to tell me when I start to lose it?” she asked.