Ageism is alive and well. It’s one of those isms that isn’t often talked about unless you are currently within its grasp. Like disease, it plagues those most venerable among us – the young and the old. When we speak of ageism, we are usually referring to the latter end of the scale. Senior citizens find themselves thought of as incapable and replaceable. Their assets are ignored while their perceived issues are often trumped up. Add in a little sexism and you’re probably having a conversation about how Hollywood treats aging actresses versus their male counterparts.
Those topics are important, but they get much more face time than the opposite end of the spectrum. The traditional adage that children should be seen and not heard is still considered valid in many circles. Those of small stature with uncorrupted thoughts are robbed of their humanity and told that their feelings don’t matter, that they aren’t important. I heartily disagree with this notion. Childhood may be a practice run for the more practical areas of life, but that doesn’t make children any less human – any less worthy of consideration.
Our society prizes youth, but discounts those living it. We put youth on a pedestal and then sneer at its inexperience. We put experience on a pedestal and sneer at its wrinkles. It isn’t hard to see why this mindset is harmful for all involved. Hollywood isn’t the only arena where ageism reigns. In America, we allow people to get shot before we let them take a shot.
We draw the line in the sand at 18. You graduate high school and you’re suddenly a legal adult, with all the privileges and responsibilities. Certainly we have to have a clear demarcation for legalities. But the truth is, while the graduates may get all the responsibility, they do not get all the privileges. Beyond the arguments of drinking age is a much more important issue: age of candidacy.
In the U.S., a person must be 35 to hold the presidency, 30 to be a senator, and 25 to be a representative. These age limits were instituted by the Constitution. Most states have followed suit by imposing age requirements on state and local offices. We must ask: if you can vote, why can’t you run? Elected offices are overwhelming held by rich old white men. We’re making progress where race and gender are concerned, but very little with the financial disparity. Today, though, I focus on the age gap.
A first impulse may argue that mid-twenties to mid-thirties isn’t all that old and not worth worrying about, but when we examine the actual age of those going into office, the limits almost seem unnecessary. The median age of incoming senators is just under 51, while currently serving senators are closer to 63. Of the 434 members of the House, more than half of them are in their 50’s and 60’s while only 33 are in their thirties. The median age of incoming presidents is just under 55.
Societal norms and the usual trajectory of politicians are in large part responsible for the age of politicians when they reach the pinnacle of their careers. Still, the assertion that young people are somehow unable to serve is textbook ageism. Young voters are not disinterested, they are uninspired. They have been told their whole life that their voice doesn’t matter, that they can’t understand. With one magical birthday, they are suddenly given the keys to the kingdom only to find out that all the thrones are filled and no one is willing to give up their seat. In short, they are still irrelevant. Is it any wonder that young voter turnout is low?
Democracy is based on the idea that everyone gets a vote, everyone has a voice. But when we impose limits to that voice, we discredit it. People vote when they feel empowered, when they feel like they can make a difference. The youth of America are chasing their voice, but they’re on a treadmill. Their equality is being dangled in front of them and just when they think they’ve grasped it, it’s yanked away. Worse yet, they’re blamed for staying on the treadmill – as if they had a choice. The ones that keep running in spite of it all find that they’re patted on the head for another decade.
When the youth of the nation are inspired, they come out in droves and fundraise with the best of them – Obama proved that. This is the age of Kickstarter and a dozen other sites like it. Imagine a crowdfunded campaign started on the internet, there you’d see the drive and passion of this generation. Today’s youth have proven that they can and will give their time and money to causes they care about – and they care about politics. They just don’t see how they can make a difference yet.
Young voters shouldn’t be forced to bide their time. Youth is the catalyst for change. Social innovation starts with adolescence. Politicians are infamous for inaction. Political experience breeds disenfranchisement and an unwillingness to compromise. If anything, inexperience is an asset. Instead of recognizing the opportunity for real political change, politicians make it harder for young adults to vote. They often argue it is to protect against voter fraud, but the ageism is alive and well as proven by New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien in 2011, “The kids coming out of the schools and basically doing what I did when I was a kid, which is voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do — they don’t have life experience, and they just vote their feelings.” There it is again, discounting the feelings and thoughts of youth – nevermind the fact that there are older voters that share their views as well.
Policy changes often don’t take effect for years and many issues that matter to today’s youth are ignored or postponed, as beautifully illustrated by The West Wing:
Younger politicians would pay more attention to the needs of the future because it belongs to them. Change always comes eventually – the only way to ensure that the revolution isn’t bloody is to make sure that everyone is heard.