It has been a dispiriting year for us oldies, but it has ended on a positive note with one of our own in the White House. Joe Biden, who is 78 on Friday, is by some distance the oldest ever US president, and his age and mental capacity have been repeatedly commented on and criticised. He frequently has “senior moments”, as the Americans like to call those little lapses in recall, and was not seen as a particularly good thing. His rival Donald Trump, who at 74 is no spring chicken and is the second-oldest man to leave the presidency, even compared “Sleepy Joe” to a care home resident.
But why not put a more positive slant on the President-Elect’s nearly four score years? Joe Biden’s great advantage, says Sir Peter Westmacott, former British Ambassador to the United States, is his experience. He has been in politics a long time, learned a lot, and knows a great deal about how things work. This is a notion that certainly appeals to those of my demographic — born, like Mr Biden, in the 1940s.
We have the experience. We don’t always have the zing, the techie skills, the daring and innovation of all those clever young folk, but by heck, we have the experience. There are real advantages to being able to approach any problem and remembering how it presented — and was resolved — previously. Many of life’s problems are cyclical, after all.
Mr Biden will be the first American president to be older than I am since the first George Bush, who left the White House in 1993, and although I have no particular stake in American politics, his age seems symbolically cheering to many of my generation. Hey! Your dreams are not yet dead! Look at Joe!
It is claimed that Chinese culture venerates the old, and indeed that is part of Confucian tradition. But America, and maybe American optimism, often allows the oldsters to claim their place in the sun (sometimes literally, in Florida) and their chance to show they can still make a contribution to society.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September was a pivotal event, not just for the personal loss of a remarkable woman, at 87, but because it created a vacancy in the American Supreme Court. As well as the succession’s political impact, it also revealed what a cult following this frankly elderly lady of the law enjoyed. There were RBG dolls, RBG posters, RBG tattoos and RBG badges, among a host of other celebrity merchandising. She was old, but she was cool. Until the recent election, Nancy Pelosi, at 80, was a feisty speaker of House of Representatives. And there’ve been plenty more active oldies on display.
Even in the world of film and screen, which — quite naturally, to my mind, must highlight the aesthetic of youthful beauty — older performers have held their place in the galaxy. Despite feminist complaints that “ageism” more usually discriminates against women, there seems no shortage of outstanding female thespians. Dames Judi Dench (85), Maggie Smith (86), Eileen Atkins (86) and Helen Mirren (75) are still going strong. Sophia Loren, at 86, has just appeared in a new film, The Life Ahead, in which, critics say, she gives an unforgettable and compelling performance.
It’s encouraging for this demographic that there’s visibility of older faces, and Joe Biden’s crinkley-handsome, well-worn visage is a pleasing exemplar. For the Covid pandemic has not only hit older people disproportionately: it has also psychologically enfeebled the self-image of the elderly. We have been repeatedly described as “vulnerable”, which may be clinically accurate, but is still, somehow, depressing. We have been messaged to stay at home, reduce social contacts, quit those stimulating encounters at art galleries, cultural soirées, church services, coffee mornings. Travel trips abroad, or cruises — much favoured by the older demographic — have been halted. And, of course, there is the ongoing sadness of older people being separated from their adult offspring, and their grandchildren.
Everyone understands that sensible measures have to be taken during the spread of the virus, and older people usually behave responsibly. But it’s dismaying that the typical picture of the 70-somethings has been degraded from proactive granny to frail little old dear who has to be “shielded”. In Ireland, the elderly were ordered to “cocoon”.
The announcement that an effective vaccine is now on its way will, hopefully, change much of that, and the over-75s will be among the first in line to avail of it, we’re told. That’s a prospect to revive a feeling that there’s a dance in the old folk yet.
Piquantly, one of Mr Biden’s Covid advisors, Dr Ezechiel J. Emanuel, has said that “creativity, originality and productivity are pretty much gone by 75”. High creativity is indeed more usually associated with youth or early middle age: mathematicians and poets have often done their most important work by their 30s. But nothing is invariable — Yeats’ late work was magnificent, and Michaelangelo and Picasso went on into old age.
It’s true that experience has a negative side. It can make people more cautious: they know the dangers that lurk behind any decision. Not all experience is relevant, because times and circumstances change — when I was a youngster, a job in a bank was considered a safe, steady and reliably remunerative career. Paradoxically, age may give you the insight for a situation which you are now too old to command. It’s said that by the time an actress is mature enough for Shakespeare’s Juliet, she’s too old to play it.
Youth does have energy and creativity — often an excess of it, as Carrie Symonds seems to be demonstrating as she exerts a prevailing influence at No 10. But Boris will always need a few greybeards on board, too. Because experience really is valuable, and it can bestow judgement and perspective.
People sometimes suggest that the Queen must be appalled by events occurring within her own family — and in the wider world. There must be moments of distress but I also imagine she takes a longer view, informed by her years. Marital breakdown? Look at history. Difficult princesses? There’ve been a few. Tantrums among politicians? It happens. Tragedies and calamities? They are part of our lot. But all of it passes, and Elizabeth’s immense experience — why, her first encounter with an American President was when Eisenhower had a gushing, almost schoolboy crush on her — is what steadies the ship of state.