This week's column: How old is too old?

Mia Freedman


When you have a skirmish with someone on social media, the world is watching. OK, not the world. Nelson Mandela and Lady Gaga are usually pretty busy but there are always plenty of strangers keen to jump in and pelt you with tomatoes.

And that’s how it went down earlier this week when I became the public target of some pretty choice insults from iconic Australian feminist Anne Summers. It started innocently enough – it always does. I was having a chat on Twitter with my friend, journalist Julia Baird, about Hillary Clinton.

I’ve always loved Hillary and never more than now. She’s at the top of her game, in the prime of her career. She’s no longer defined as someone’s wife or mother. She’s kicking goals, kicking arse and winning international acclaim as secretary of state (which is the equivalent of our foreign minister but with actual power and immeasurable influence).

As Julia and I tweeted cheerily about how magnificent Hillary is, the subject of whether she’d run for president in 2016 popped up. Could this be her time? Her window?

The image that sparked the tribute tumblr Txts from HIllary

A US president can only serve two concurrent terms so assuming Obama is reelected this year, he cannot run again in 2016. He’ll be done. This leaves the way open for Hillary to contest the Democratic ticket for the presidency, something she missed out on when her party picked Obama over her in 2008.

Except. Hillary will be 69 in 2016. Is that too old to put your hand up for the most important and demanding job in the world? I mildly observed on Twitter that perhaps it was. That perhaps 2016 would be too late for Hillary. Not because she’s a woman but because I think being the President Of The United States (POTUS) is a younger person’s game. Not a 30 year old but not a 70 year old either.

That’s when famed Australian feminist and author Anne Summers unexpectedly parachuted into our conversation:

When someone suggested that was a bit harsh, she replied:

I was a bit reeling after that very publicly back-hand and replied:

but she wasn’t finished:

Except I never said anything about a ‘scrap heap’.

Her words, certainly not mine.

Others quickly chimed in crossly, citing Ronald Reagan who was President from age 69 until he was almost 78 and republican candidate John McCain who was 72 when he ran against Obama in 2008.

They brandished these examples triumphantly as evidence that 69 isn’t too old to run for POTUS except I don’t think either man sells the idea of older political leaders very well. Reagan was plagued by health problems during his Presidency including recurring skin cancers, hearing and prostate problems.

There was also wide speculation that the Alzheimer’s with which he was formally diagnosed after he left office had begun while he was still at The White House. Some journalists later admitted they were conflicted about whether to report some worrying behaviour they witnessed towards the end of Reagan’s presidency that suggested dementia.


Meanwhile, McCain had a heart condition, leading to speculation that if he was elected, his running mate  Sarah Palin would be  ‘one heartbeat away from being President’. Many say that cost him votes.

Still, when a tweeter called @olderworkers began accusing me of being ‘ageist’ and others began piling on, I took a breath and walked away from a barney I never meant to have. I also wanted to consider the criticism and gather some thoughts that were longer than 140 characters.

Is it really ageist to question the physical stamina of a 69 year old who could be 77 by the time her hypothetical presidency is finished?

Looking at the POTUS’ job description from the bleachers, it’s hard to imagine a more demanding gig. Mentally, emotionally, physically. The stress is relentless. And people do slow down as they get older. We all do. That’s just biology. And the more stressful your life, the bigger toll it takes. How exhausted does Obama look? And he’s only 50.

It’s a sad fact that wisdom and life experience are woefully undervalued in our society. Perhaps that’s why Anne Summers lashed out. There are many skills you can’t download via Google, many aspects of emotional intelligence that can’t be fast-tracked.

But US election campaigns are extraordinarily hardcore – they last up to a year and there are 52 50 states to visit, multiple times each.

And that’s before you win and have to start actually running the country. If Hillary runs for President in 2016, she will have just come off the back of eight years as secretary of state with all the travel and stress that entails.

Is it so offensive to suggest she – or any 69 year old – may lack the stamina to be the leader of the Western World?

For a job like POTUS, I think it requires a balance of wisdom experience and enormous stamina. I’m not sure what the magic age is. Somewhere between 45 and 65 perhaps? I’m you have your own view.

I cannot state strongly enough how much I value the contribution of older people in our society. There should be more of it.

In fact last week Mamamia published a post about older people by 20 year old Sean Power. It was a call to other Gen Y’ers to look at the older generation and see wisdom, not someone who doesn’t use lol in the right way (you can read it here).

Being a political leader is not a beauty contest or a triathlon. Age and experience are a necessity. But at what point does your age become a liability? I don’t know the answer but it’s one that American voters may have to consider well before 2016.

How old do you think is too old to be a political leader? Or does age not matter at all?