We have a president who’s 73 years old. The leading challengers are 78, 76 and 70 years of age. I’m no spring chicken, but damn, these people are old. Is that a bad thing?
Older people today hold disproportionate power because they have the numbers and the means to do so. People 65 and older, for example, are more than three times as likely to make political donations as those under 30. As a result, their voices, amplified by money, carry farther politically than those of the young and impecunious.
There are, of course, obvious reasons for this, though they’re not the sort of reasons that would interest Astra Taylor, for whom age seems to be a stand-alone hurdle to fixing our democracy.
But our democracy is in a moment of crisis. People are, for good reason, losing faith in institutions, parties and political processes and questioning longstanding assumptions. Everything, it seems, is up for grabs. The lack of intergenerational justice, of equity between the young and old, is an underappreciated facet of the current turmoil: A hoary establishment hoards influence, curtailing young people’s ability to effect change.
It’s certainly true that older people vote rather than just twit their most passionate appeals. Nothing prevents people under 30 from voting, except maybe the knowledge of how stamps work. Old people donate more to political candidates, though not bigger sums than young people spend on their iPhones. So what’s the problem?
In “Too Young to Run?” Professor Seery argues that the Constitution effectively treats young people as second-class citizens by imposing minimum age requirements for elected federal office: 25 for Congress, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for president. The nation’s framers, the youngest of whom was 26, Professor Seery writes, “bequeathed an age bias unto posterity by which they themselves did not fully abide,” devising rules ensuring that the country would be governed by people more senior than themselves. (The founders no doubt knew a Latin root of the word “senator,” senex, means “old man.”)
But a 35-year-old can run for president, so what’s that got to do with these dinosaurs from both parties? There are younger candidates, Mayor Pete is a mere 37. Tulsi Gabbard is 38. So?
That is not to say that the faults in America’s political system are solely the result of its biases against the young; the problems we face are myriad and addressing gerontocracy won’t solve them all. But an antiquated system that produces unrepresentative leadership is ill equipped to respond to the problems of our time. And that should concern anyone committed to democratic ideals.
The problem with simplistic cries like Taylor’s is two-fold. The first is that there is a word missing from her childish complaint: experience. Being old means two things. The first is that you’re old and lack the enthusiasm of youth. The second is that you’ve experienced life and, hopefully, come to the realization that enthusiasm doesn’t trump reality, no matter how passionately you wish it would.
Dreams are wonderful. Dreams without recognition of the potential damage if they’re wrong are disastrous.
The second is that young people lack an appreciation of what they don’t know, what could go wrong, despite their certainty that they’re right, they’re brilliant and they know better. When you’re young, your parents are stupid and wrong. It’s not until you get older when you realize they magically got smarter. When we come to this recognition, we realize the foolishness of our childish certainty. It’s a normal part of life.
One would think that by age 40, you would have had this epiphany already. One would think that the New York Times editorial board would know better. Apparently not, as she looks to children as her spiritual guides.
On Sept. 20, millions of people around the world took to the streets as part of the youth-led Global Climate Strike, a week of protests timed with the United Nations climate summit. The movement began when the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg stopped attending classes to protest government failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the young Americans who took up Ms. Thunberg’s call to action was Haven Coleman, a 13-year-old from Colorado. A co-founder of the national group U.S. Youth Climate Strike, she began skipping school every Friday to head to the steps of the State Capitol in Denver. Older people often stop to tell her they don’t understand why she’s protesting. “Because you didn’t do it,” she replies.
In one sense, it’s wonderful that young people are involved in big issues. But don’t confuse passion with knowledge. No climatologist looks to Greta Thunberg for her scientific prowess. She may be inspirational, but is Taylor unaware of the fact that these are not only kids, but kids who can do no more than parrot the fears instilled in them by others?
Those of us who are older, if not wiser, should take another cue from young activists. We need to support forward-looking policies, and we also need to protest.
In the alternative, people like Taylor who are older, if not wiser, should take their cues from people who are wiser. Age and experience alone are no guarantees of wisdom, which is why we don’t install some random old person as president. But lack of maturity is a problem, ironically demonstrated by the scientific recognition of brain development and the concomitant understanding that young people should not be held accountable for their worst actions in the same way as older people.
Does this mean we’re doomed to geriatrics in office? Hardly. By Taylor’s age, one should have gained the maturity and experience to be an excellent president. So where are the 40 and 50-year-olds to unite this nation in hope for all, in addressing our problems and making our nation and lives better? Us “olds” would throw them our support, votes and our money accumulated from a lifetime of working and thrift if they were running.