Does Age Matter?
I’ve been thinking about longevity lately. I’m wondering why some people manage to thrive well into old age, and why others don’t. I know it’s some mix of luck, privilege, and will, plus the small choices we make every day. But the equation is different for everyone.
I’m thinking about this in part because I just returned from teaching a memoir class. One of my star students is 89, although that was hardly his most interesting attribute. Mostly I’m thinking about it because the political season is heating up. Everyone’s talking about who’s in their prime and what that means and who’s too old to run.
Did we used to think this way, ruling people out because they were too old? I think not. Or at least we didn’t rule out men. Until recently, women were excluded altogether or relegated to a narrow zone of acceptable age for public life, after which they were expected to withdraw into the benign invisibility of grandmotherhood. Thankfully, this is changing. Nancy Pelosi was 82 when she stepped down from her role as Speaker of the House at the top of her game, and is still going strong in Congress. CNN fired Don Lemon earlier this year for saying that presidential contender Nikki Haley, 51, is “past her prime.” (Haley actually threw the first jab in that brawl, calling for “mental capacity tests” for politicians over 75.) Now, possibly because we’re all living longer, the target of prejudice has widened to include age.
Alice Neel, “Self-Portrait,” 1980, oil on canvas, 53 1/4x 39 3/4 x 1”.
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
As of this writing, our two presidential frontrunners are 80 and 77. This fact upsets many. We’ve become an Instagram culture, focused more than ever on youth, appearances, speed, glibness. Soundbites stand in for thoughts. As the incumbent, of course, President Biden is the main target of these complaints, with demands growing that he get out of the race because, at 80, he’s just too old. He stumbles, stutters, falls asleep, falls down. He is known as a gaffe machine, but that reputation goes back to the beginning of his long career. Far younger presidents have fallen down and even up stairs (Ford, famously and repeatedly), and off a couch while choking on a pretzel (W). John F. Kennedy was at times disabled by pain and wore a back brace most of the time. FDR, 51 when first elected, spent his entire, extraordinarily productive presidency in a wheelchair, standing only after he’d been hoisted out of the chair to lean on crutches behind a podium. He had contracted polio at age 39. And died in office at the age of 63, which back then was considered fairly old.
Wayne Thiebaud, with his painting “Swimsuit Figures,” was honored in
2017 at an event held by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Courtesy of Jill Krementz, New York Times
Focusing on age and physical vitality seems shallow when it’s depth, competence, and wisdom that the tasks of governance require. If someone is qualified for the job, if we approve of her principles, if we trust his character and agree more or less with their positions on issues, there’s your best candidate. If someone can no longer do the job, that’s different. Diane Feinstein is very ill; I respect her enormously but it’s time for her to resign.
It’s mental not physical vigor that counts, and not the kind that enables clever comebacks. An earned capacity for compassion is an added boon.
A recent article about aging in Forbes states that speed in processing information peaks at age 19. That’s great for quick repartee and acing tests, but speed isn’t everything. Those who complain that public servants in their 70s and 80s are “slow” should stop to consider the alternative. Imagine the prospect of the nuclear football in the hands of a person who prides himself on snap decisions. Oh right, been there, done that. One need not be age 19 to be impulsive.
Of course, we want to elect the most talented and likeminded (to us!) people to public office, but to base that decision on age is to be blinded by prejudice, to mistake a number for a person. There’s a convention, in journalism, to insert a subject’s age after the first mention of their name. I have mixed feelings about that, but the idea is to give the reader more information, a sense of context. But people often don’t want their ages mentioned, knowing the assumptions that will follow. I once suggested to a student that he include his female subject’s age in an article he wrote, and he refused, retorting that if a man asked his grandmother her age, she would slap him in the face.
Artists wear age differently. It’s not unusual for a painter to reach her creative stride at an age when others retire. Artists’ work can deepen, even accelerate in old age. The meaning we go to art to find is frequently best delivered by the old.
An extremely short and highly random list of visual artists who thrive or have thrived in their 80s and 90s: Frank Lloyd Wright, Yayoi Kusama, Wayne Thiebaud, Betye Saar, Alice Neel, Titian, Michelangelo, Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois. Bellini, Claude Monet, Phyllis Bramson. The list could fill a book.
The term public servant can sound ironic (think Donald Trump) or at least like a euphemism, but that’s what elected officials are literally supposed to do, serve the public. Artists benefit the public, but they only serve a muse. Maybe that’s why they age better. The clarity of their vision is unimpeded by conflicts of interest. The best public servants don’t have conflicts of interest. They are single-mindedly focused on service (think Jimmy Carter, now in hospice at age 98).
Renaissance rivals: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Photograph: Getty
The great American author Cormac McCarthy died on June 13, 2023, at 89. Months earlier, his last two (two!) novels dropped. And they aren’t rehashes. He’d turned in a fresh direction. Having once famously said that he preferred math to writing, he gave himself over to the subject in his last decade. McCarthy is an extreme outlier, in terms of both talent and worldly success, but his career tells us something about possibility.
If there is a fountain of youth, it must be creativity. And not just in art. The most vital politicians/elected officials/public servants of any age are the ones who demonstrate that they are flexible, imaginative, inventive, reflective. Elected officials can (and should) surround themselves with young policy wonks, but everything else being equal, when it comes to wisdom — that ineffable blend of ideas, judgment, experience, and mercy — I’d put my money on an older person every time.
Phyllis Bramson, photograph courtesy of Inside/Within, Chicago