Old, A Concept


The New York Times recently funded a poll that appears to show Donald Trump leading Joe Biden 48 to 43 percent. And, while both candidates were branded in the poll as being “old,” Biden is somehow more scorned for his age than Trump, who is a mere four years younger.

“Old” is fast becoming a pejorative, not unlike an accusation of criminal behavior. Seeking the rationale for such demonization, I turned to the two-volume edition of the Oxford British Dictionary and discovered that the word “old” merited a lengthy entry.

Given three full columns, “old” is defined as an adjective drawn from Old English, Old Saxon, Old Norse, and High German. The first Oxford Dictionary definition is concise enough: “having lived or existed for a relatively long time; advanced in age; not young; long in existence or use, worn with age; decayed, shabby, stale, and outdated.” However, “old” is also described as “great, plentiful, abundant” and “existing from an earlier period; long established, associated with a classical time.” Shakespeare used “old” to mean “rare.”

The word is followed by related terms like “olde,” an old English word defined as “quaint” and “oldie,” which is “an old person.” Then the thread sinks into sexism, defining “old womanish” as “a timid, a fussy character trait.”  That’s a contrast with “old man,” which links to picturesque phrases like “old man of the mountains” or “old man of the seas” and is defined as “a person who has authority over others.”

The New York Times, which often features Biden on its front page, concluded from the poll that 2020 Biden voters are concerned about his age and might not vote for him again, perhaps even switching to his rival. What a skewed rationale that is, when we can see from Trump’s speeches that he’s the one who is slipping.

Trump can be heard slurring words and mouthing non sequiturs. He confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi and, at times, babbles about competing with Barack Obama. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, Trump continues to insist on the lie that he won in 2020. In other words: he has delusions of grandeur and has lost touch with reality. His mental state is beginning to replicate that of his dad, the late Fred Trump who suffered from dementia.

Hard to know what questions the Times/Siena College poll asked prospective voters. We can only hope it wasn’t something of a push-poll that inquired, “Do you think Biden’s age matters?” (Well of course.) At the same time, the poll purports to show that 53 percent of Trump voters believe he has committed serious crimes; yet many of those same voters (48 percent) said that they still intend to vote for him. Alarming to think they’d support a candidate who has been found guilty of rape and deceptive business practices and stands accused of 91 other charges.

The results of polls — especially when taken seven months ahead of the election — may not mean a lot. But any downside indicator is likely to cause campaigns to refocus their message. It would be surprising if the Biden camp doesn’t work on getting the president out selling his administration’s accomplishments — such as repairing infrastructure, championing home-grown companies, working to achieve full employment, lowering drug prices, backing unions, and supporting women’s reproductive rights. “Old” in this instance can mean experienced and wise, rather than over-the-hill.

For the record, it isn’t just the American presidency that has gone gray. The average age of Congress has trended up for decades. The 118th Congress’ House has grown ever so slightly younger at 58, but the average age in the Senate is 64, with 54 Senators older than 65. And while the Supreme Court has added three younger members, others on the court are aging. Justice Sotomayor is now 69 as is Chief Justice Roberts while Justice Alito is 73 and Justice Thomas 75.

One explanation for the aging demographic is that so many belong to the large Baby Boom generation. Boomers, born between 1946-64, have dwarfed succeeding generations. Unlike parliamentary systems that elevate younger leaders, our system tends to reward those with more seniority and name familiarity.

There’s no disputing that Americans are aging. Yet many older workers (and politicians) continue to be productive. Think Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dan Evans, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, and actress/activist Jane Fonda. Today there are thousands who work productively into their 80s and beyond.

We can all cite examples of individuals known for tremendous accomplishment, fueled by brain power and the wisdom of older years. This has been true throughout history: Ben Franklin signing the Declaration of Independence at 70, Pablo Picasso creating 347 engravings at 87, and Peter Mark Roget giving us the log-log slide rule and publishing Roget’s Thesaurus at 73, editing every subsequent edition into his 90s.

When examining the question of “old” as an impediment, I am reminded that I, too, am old. There. I said it and it’s true. When I was younger, I never dreamed I’d be old – – what young person does?  In my case, I didn’t have much to aim for: My own parents succumbed in their 40s.

If I had to answer for my older demographic, I would have to admit that there is an occasional search for a name (which I usually retrieve after a momentary delay), but I also can remember to avoid the stupid mistakes one makes when, er, younger.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. At age 87, Verdi wrote “Falstaff.” At 84, Strauss wrote “Four Last Songs.” At 81, I expect to reach my creative peak in three to six years.

  2. Despite the examples of achieving elders — surprised Godden left out Grandma Moses — the record in public life is of officeholders who hold on one term too long.
    Dianne Feinstein wasn’t entirely functional her last two years in the Senate. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remained sharp of mind, but illness ravaged her body. The republic bore the consequences when she ignored gentle urging of Barack Obama to retire.
    The Senate became a retirement home in which South Carolina Sen. J. Strom “Sperm” Thurmond lived to be 100. Yet, Thurmond tried to grope Patty Murray in a Senate elevator not recognizing her as his colleague.
    Joe Biden still has it together, at 81, although we could wish for fresh faces and voices around him.
    In Seattle, curiously, ageism has often been a province of the left. The Stranger has gone after people for getting old & hanging on, even as its masthead has matured into middle age. The chief writer at Publicola takes catty, vindictive swipes at fellow scribes getting up in years.
    I just hope for an infusion of new blood in the body politic from millennials and Gen.Z, that they will make gentle the life of an earth they’re about to inherit.

  3. I much prefer being described as “older”, meaning that there is still movement and progress. “Old” has the connotation of being stagnant and at the end of the road.

  4. At age 74, my ‘work’ with civic organizations is the best, most fulfilling work I’ve ever done.
    Three categories of citizens make the world function – the janitors and cleaning people, the clerks and secretaries, and the retired, who volunteer.

    My favorite quote about age is from Bette Davis: “If you want something done right, get a couple of old broads to do it”.

  5. I would love it if people would list in these comments other people who are still contributing, or did contribute, well into their 80s and 90s and beyond. 93-year-old Warren Buffett, anyone? There is a meme floating around on Facebook with a whole lot of rock, country, and folk musicians still performing, and going on national tours this year, from the Rolling Stones (formed 62 years ago) to Willie Nelson (90). Iris Apfel, fashion icon and cover model (!!), just passed at 102. Martha Stewart graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last year at the age of 81. Actors Clint Eastwood (93), James Earl Jones (93), William Shatner (92), Rita Moreno (92), Mel Brooks (97), Robert Duvall (93) are still going strong. Norman Lear only recently passed at the age of 101. Beloved Betty White lived fully for 99 years, leaving us crying at her passing. There are hundreds more, almost all admired not just for what they did when they were younger, but for what they are still doing, or doing better than ever.

    Getting to Jean’s outstanding point about polling, how many presidential polls in past years even asked the age question in the first place? JFK was 43 when elected, a year older than Teddy Roosevelt when he succeeded William McKinley. Bill Clinton was only 46 and Barack Obama was only 47. Did poll writers ask voters about concerns about their ages? It seems to me that the media’s fixation with Biden’s age has become the issue, driven first by Fox News, but parroted by most others now. We need to push back in the way that Ronald Reagan did: “I won’t hold my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him”, reframing it to the reporters in much the manner that Joe Biden did in last week’s SOTU speech.

  6. Rubenstein recorded the Grieg piano concerto with the LSO at 88. It’s on youtube. Be amazed if you actually listen.

  7. Creativity, experimentation, and new ideas are not excluded by physical age. Wish I could say the same about stamina. Now, get off my lawn.


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