Anti-ageism activists think the call for generational change is getting old.
A pointed exchange in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, when Julián Castro appeared to mock the age and memory of front-runner Joe Biden, has prompted howls of protest — and raised the issue of whether and how it’s appropriate for political up-and-comers to suggest that it’s time to pass the torch to a younger generation.
“ ‘Generational change’ can be code words for ‘you’re too old,’ ” said Margaret Gullette, a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s women’s studies research center in Waltham and author of the book “Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People.”
Castro, the 44-year-old candidate who was secretary of housing and urban development in the Obama administration, touched off the kerfuffle when he accused Biden of contradicting himself while discussing health care policy. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” Castro demanded of the 76-year-old former vice president.
He contended that Biden first said people would have to buy into his proposed Medicare plan and later said they wouldn’t have to. (In fact, Biden said laid-off workers could potentially buy in when they lost their jobs.) Advocates for older Americans, saying Castro’s point was off base, bristled at what they saw as his attempt to call attention to Biden’s age.
“This was clearly ageist,” said Chicago marketing executive Patti Temple Rocks, author of the book “I’m Not Done: It’s Time To Talk About Ageism in the Workplace.” Temple Rocks said she found the reference to Biden’s supposed forgetfulness similar to common workplace stereotypes about older workers lacking energy or failing to keep up with technology.
“It felt like he was waiting for an opportunity to pounce on Biden because of his age,” she said.
“Enough already,” said Jack Kupferman, president of Gray Panthers NYC. “This is 2019. We should not be looking at people by their chronological characteristics. Memory lapses happen to younger people as well as older people. Don’t attribute it only to age. That’s demeaning.”
Kupferman said linking forgetfulness to age is “a common trope, and an easy one.”
The “are you forgetting” mantra, which Castro repeated in different forms half a dozen times, was particularly galling to Gullette, who said Castro was trying to question — through implication — the mental competence of the septuagenarian Biden. President Trump, who is 73, raised the same question about Biden, only more explicitly, in public comments earlier this year.
“For most people, the specter of dementia is just horrifying,” Gullette said, dismissing the notion that the verbal gaffes Biden has made could be interpreted as evidence of dementia. “When you trigger the dementia scare, you are weaponizing a very widespread fear of cognitive impairment. I think it’s quite wrong to do so in any context.”
Castro denied after the debate that he was trying to take a “shot at [Biden’s] age.”
“I wouldn’t do it differently,” he told CNN Friday. “That was not a personal attack; this was about a disagreement over what the vice president said regarding health care policy.“
Of course, Biden may have made himself an easy target for being typecast as an out-of-touch oldster when he talked Thursday, in a discussion about segregation and education inequality, about using a “record player” to help kids learn more words.
There’s long been a tension between candidates of different generations, sometimes framed as the need for experience versus the need for change. “We could remind baby boomers that this is the same change argument that they made in the ’60s and early ’70s,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, 33, a Longmeadow Democrat who runs a millennial caucus in the Legislature. “Elections are about the future. So arguments about how to get change are totally fair game.”
Lesser said, “It’s appropriate to ask whether someone’s in tune with the times,” but “comments about personal characteristics are, I believe, below the belt and uncalled for.”
Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin, Texas, research firm that specializes in millennials and Gen Z topics, said the prominence of social media today is putting a sharper edge on generational conflict that has always lurked below the surface.
“The fact that politicians are playing in the mud and using generational differences as a wedge is something we haven’t seen before,” Dorsey said. He called Castro’s attack on Biden “a not-so-tactful attempt to say I’m young and you’re too old for the job you seeking.”
At the same time, Dorsey said, “It’s normal and natural to have generational change moving through politics. Politics is about representing people, and if the people change they have to determine if the politicians who represent them are still the right fit.”
The dust-up between Castro and Biden comes as younger Democratic candidates are challenging older incumbents more frequently. Insurgents like Ayanna Pressley, 45, in Boston and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, in New York gained mass followings by unseating establishment congressmen in the 2018 midterm elections. Many in Massachusetts are focused on the expected challenge by Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, 38, to 73-year-old Senator Ed Markey.
Generational change is the backdrop to many of these races. And while the words are seldom uttered publicly, the dueling subtexts are “step aside” versus “wait your turn.”
Democrats hoping to present a contrast next year to an unpopular incumbent president in his 70s currently find themselves with a trio of top-polling candidates — Biden, 70-year-old Elizabeth Warren, and 78-year-old Bernie Sanders — who are part of Trump’s generation.
Whether it’s too late for a younger challenger to emerge from the Democratic pack remains to be seen. But candidates such as former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, 46, or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg, 37, who’ve tried to cloak themselves in the mantle of generational change — subtly or overtly — have found their attempts can be a two-edged sword.
“Change and new ideas have always been part of the political narrative,” Temple Rocks said. “But it’s unacceptable to say change means you have to be flat-out young, not flat-out old.”