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What’s Age Got to Do With It?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jorene Jameson
September 27, 2016

Late night pundit Stephen Colbert made a recent prediction: “It doesn’t matter who wins the presidential race—state dinners will begin promptly at 4:30.” Of course he was poking fun at the age of the two presidential candidates: Trump age 70 and Clinton, who turns 70 next year. Does age really matter when we’re considering a presidential candidate? What about a candidate for a job in our organization?

A little history is instructive here, especially for the millennials. In 1983, we re-elected President Ronald Reagan at age 73. He won by a landslide so age didn’t seem to be an obstacle then. However, when John McCain ran for office, age was an issue especially since his opponent was 20 years younger than him. Of course, McCain went on to lose the race but I don’t suspect that the primary reason for that loss was his age.

What may be more important is public perception about the vitality and energy of the candidate, regardless of age. After all, millennials got behind 75-year-old Bernie Sanders because of his message and his energy, passion and “come from behind” stamina. I cringed as the media kept replaying Hillary Clinton’s virtual collapse after the 9/11 memorial event. Unfortunately, those images may form an imprint that she isn’t vital or hasn’t the stamina, whatever her age.

The public is tough on its candidates. Another presidential candidate who suffered from perception problems was Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. Rumors spread that Dukakis may have been treated for mental illness and he refused to release his medical records. It seemed to cast a black cloud over his campaign that couldn’t be overcome.

Our expectations of leaders are that of a “super hero” who is immune to the ravages of age and illness. In reality, our leaders are human and they suffer from all kinds of afflictions. John F. Kennedy, our youngest president ever, suffered from Addison’s disease and a damaged back; he was in severe pain for most of his adult life. Yet he exuded youth and vitality, a perception that masked the reality of his physical condition. Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from polio, a disease that left him wheelchair bound. But watch those old news reels and witness what a magnificent job he and his staff did to make him seem “able.” He was seldom photo’d in a wheelchair and was often standing.

So, as public employers, how do we view the age question in the hiring process? Of course, by law, we can’t discriminate based on age. But “age discrimination is the last form of discrimination that we are willing to accept. It’s not viewed as wrong or serious as other forms of discrimination,” says Laurie McCann senior attorney with AARP. So, if we have a 65-year-old candidate in a selection pool with younger candidates, we have to weigh a variety of factors like experience, education, skills and personal traits.

Older candidates, it seems, have an advantage in the experience column but what’s the perception of an older worker? They are at a disadvantage when employers are thinking about the future. Will this candidate tend to have more illness?  Will she or he stay around to really make a contribution? How will an older hire “fit in” with what may be a younger workforce?

All these questions could apply to younger workers too. Just because a worker is younger doesn’t mean they are going to stay around longer or won’t succumb to some illness or disability. Personality fit is an issue at any age.

But society is still adjusting to a new reality: older workers are not retiring like they used to and many continue to work beyond the typical retirement age of 62 or 65. What’s fueling the desire of older Americans to stay in the workforce?  A report from Boston College’s Center on Aging and Work cites financial security, a desire to keep healthy and active, enjoyment of work and to help with family responsibilities.

The new reality is that people are living longer and are more youthful. Advances in medicine and lifestyle have resulted in a longer life span for more Americans. Whatever the lessons from our former leaders, young and old, who were successful and not so successful, in spite of age or physical limitations, they persevered and pursued leadership roles to the best of their abilities. Nothing is certain in life. In the meantime, let’s give people the opportunity to contribute for as long as they want and as long as they can.

Whoever wins this election, we will have a 70-year-old leader at the helm. Here’s my prediction: those state dinners won’t be starting at 4:30. Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will put their own “youthful” imprint on the rituals of the White House in ways that will surprise us all. And it will have nothing to do with age


Author: Jorene Jameson, MPA, is a doctoral candidate in public administration at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. She previously held leadership positions in the nonprofit and government sectors and is a certified fundraising executive (CFRE). Email: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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