Where age is a state of mind

Coverage of Nancy Pelosi’s election as House speaker was remarkable in not focusing on her age. Is this a sign of a shift against stereotypes on aging?

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) arrives as the House of Representatives for the start of the 116th Congress Jan. 3.

 As self-designated watchdogs on government, the news media were remarkably quiet Thursday about one aspect of Rep. Nancy Pelosi as she was elected House speaker for the second time. Yes, she is again the most powerful woman in American politics, the chief adversary of President Trump, and the nation’s third most senior official. But the dog-that-didn’t-bark: a major focus on her age.

Even though she is the oldest person to hold the speaker’s gavel, the general silence may be a sign of a shift toward a less ageist society. In fact, journalists were almost as little focused on the age of one new House member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Ms. Pelosi herself has contributed to this new quietness about age. Last year, she said age has “nothing to do” with choosing people for Congress. “If you have a problem with somebody who is older, run for office,” she told CNN.

Such thinking defies the gloom of demographers about the fast-growing cohort of older people around the globe and the alleged burden they might bring. Last year, for example, the World Bank warned of economic “headwinds from aging populations in both advanced and developing economies.”

To Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, such predictions are simply not accurate. They are “a byproduct of stubborn and pervasive ageism.” While some older adults cannot maintain an active lifestyle, he writes in a recent Harvard Business Review, “far more are able and inclined to stay in the game longer, disproving assumptions about their prospects for work and productivity.”

Any news stories that did focus on the ages of Pelosi or other top leaders tend to reflect what writer Carl Honoré calls the “still syndrome.” In a new book, “Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives,” he says we persist in using phrases such as “he’s still working” or “she’s still sharp as a tack.”

The underlying message: Anyone engaging with the world after a certain age is a minor miracle. Such a perspective only boxes people into narrow paths when, if anything, we are in a “golden age” for older people, he writes, based on three years of research.

“Everywhere, people are embracing aging as a privilege rather than a punishment. They are aging better and more boldly than ever before,” he states. “As a result, chronological age is losing its power to define and constrain us.”

The chief obstacle for “seniors,” he says, is not their bodies or minds but stereotypes. Perhaps in largely ignoring Pelosi’s age (or the youth of new members of Congress), the media may be shedding such tropes and their self-fulfilling tendencies. They are learning to drop the “still.”

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