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Madonna King: Don’t hold it against Joe Biden for being 80

Why should being 80 years old so quickly disqualify someone from a job they might be fit to fulfil in every other way?

It’s a question raised by Joe Biden’s decision to seek another four years in the Oval Office – but it’s one we should all consider, before we offer an answer.

We can’t have it both ways – claim we value the wisdom and experience that comes with advanced years, and then sack someone because of a birthday.

Or raise the retirement age and encourage older workers to re-enter the workforce when it suits us economically, and dispense with them when it doesn’t.

All the talk about Joe Biden’s election bid is about his age. That’s a number, it’s not his energy levels or cognitive status. And that surely makes this discussion mightily discriminatory.

Biden is the oldest US president in history. If re-elected, he would be inaugurated at 82 years, and finish his second four-year term at 86. That’s the facts.

But why do we think it’s good to make strong headway in every other area of our lives – from record-breaking physical feats to artificial intelligence to what we can personally achieve – and then not consider that someone in their 80s might be able to do the job of president?

Many couldn’t. But neither could many 35-year-olds, or 62-year-olds. But some could.

Why focus on a number?

So why do we focus on a number, and not those factors that might determine whether an 80-year-old can do the job well?

Is being aged 80 worse than being on trial for rape?

Is being 80 relevant to whether someone is open and accountable, a good person able to lead a good team, with strong foreign policy credentials and solid domestic support?

It’s a number. That’s all. And until we begin to see it like that, those in our community with advanced years will always be shoved to the back of the line.

It’s an arbitrary number too, perhaps because Biden’s age starts with an eight.

Donald Trump, who at this stage remains the Republicans’ most likely presidential candidate, is almost 77. What a difference three years must make!

Ronald Reagan governed well into his 70s. Photo: Getty

Age has always presented as a barrier in Australia, and perceptions around being too old were behind John Howard’s early morning and fast-paced stroll, often while dressed in the green and gold. He wanted to look fit – and young.

But America has always appeared less ageist. CEOs and academics and politicians have been beyond retirement age often, and still influencing the views of millions.

Ronald Reagan and Trump were both well into their 70s when their term ended. Dwight Eisenhower celebrated his 70th birthday in office. George Bush wasn’t much younger, turning 68 in his last year in the White House.

But Biden’s re-election bid has turned things, and even Americans are out in force, arguing about the importance of age when it comes to their president.

Sole focus on years

A recent NBC News poll showed that seven in 10 Americans – and more than half of Democrats – believe Biden should not see another term. And his age was a dominant reason for their stance.

That means it will continue to be the focus during the presidential campaign. The Republicans will be looking to capitalise on the slightest gaffe Joe Biden makes, in a bid to blame it on age. And their challenge will be to do that without alienating older voters.

The Democrats – given that many supporters also believe age is an overwhelming factor – are already addressing it in a roundabout way. While not mentioning the word ‘age’, videos show the US President jogging.

And his itinerary for the first four months of this year, released by the White House, shows a busier travel schedule than the 2012 campaign involving Barack Obama. President Biden’s schedule also included a visit to the Ukrainian war zone.

The over-emphasis on age, so far, just reinforces the old and simplistic stereotype that we have a use-by date; and that use-by date is determined by the number of birthdays, not experience or agility in thinking or physical condition.

That might be the case for an Olympian, running the 100 metres, but it shouldn’t matter in a race to the White House.

But perhaps a bigger travesty is that one candidate’s advanced years seems to be seen as a bigger hurdle than the belligerence and lack of accountability of another, who is the accused in a rape trial.

And that should strike us as odd, at any age.

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