Having mostly disappeared off the radar due to the other amendment’s greater resonance, the alteration of the lower limit for candidacy age in Irish presidential elections is no less an equality issue than same-sex marriage is.
The obvious arguments against the lowering of the age hold a lot of water, albeit if they are a little over reliant on stereotyped ideas of what it means to be a 21 to 35 year old. The attention, however, seems to have gravitated towards the proposed lowest age, namely, 21, conveniently forgetting the ages between it and the current limit: 35. This is misleading in the extreme, and the sound bites coming out of all corners of living room conversations and media debates is that people wouldn’t put their 21-year-old selves in the Aras for love nor money. On a personal level, I’d have to agree. I don’t think I could successfully have juggled building beer walls out of empty cans and getting pushed home in shopping trolleys from nights out, with the plethora of presidential duties no doubt faced by the winning candidate. But this is merely my experience, and, living, breathing stereotype though I was, I was, like all stereotypes and generalisations, not representative of a significant cohort of the student demographic.
Still, it must be said that the fictional average creature, discussed by Danziger as well as countless others and emerging from sociological and psychological studies, might have been backed up well by student populations, but what about those falling outside these imaginary boundary lines? What of the reserved teetotaller who sipped on tea or soft drinks while their peers lined up shots and salt? What of the high achiever who combined average grades of 90% with three gym sessions a week and a place on the basketball team. What of the middle of road academic with a penchant for debating and a flair for getting their fellow students involved in constructive protests and pressing social issues? And the assistant manager who rose up through the ranks in their supermarket chain and now looks after the HR department as well as signing off on orders for millions of euro of goods each month.
A large proportion – perhaps not a majority, but still enough to sit up and take notice – of 21 to 35-year-olds take the form of the latter descriptions, while the rest might well conform to the stereotyped image out there. Stereotypes are necessary evils in this confusing world of ours, gently informing us of what we can expect when veering into unfamiliar territory, but these same stereotypes are responsible for many of the injustices that take place day after day in a society that values predictability and order over meritocracy and uncertainty. Prejudicial behaviours have their genesis in these stereotypes, with society neatly slotting into the appropriate pigeon holes the following people: single mothers, eastern Europeans, people of African descent, non heterosexuals, efficient Germans, proud Brits, patriotic Americans, and so on. And these stereotypes, while being reproduced and disseminated on a continuous basis, and some of which are harmless – although they’d be the exception – are on about as solid a footing as a penguin in a pair of stilettos. They persist, however, and are a long way off being eradicated; as long as we fear that which is different, we will oppress it.
Ageism is but another of these prejudices, these stereotypes we cling to in our vain attempt to resist change. And so we see that opposing lowering the age of candidacy is nothing more than a case of common-or-garden variety ageism. We need an adult in office, yes, but just how old this adult must be is a different matter altogether. We have doctors saving lives in their early twenties; CEOs setting global policy; parent as young as it can get raising families; project managers overseeing the building of skyscrapers; researchers developing vaccines; the list is endless. Public office requires diplomacy, character, and maturity, and we can all name long lists of people over the age of 35 who lack all of those qualities and more.
Crucial to this debate is the fact that everyone, like I did at the beginning of this piece, focuses on the proposed lower limit: 21. In doing so, we hopped, skipped, and leaped clean over a mini generation, those between the ages of 21 and 35. As explained, the tired arguments might well apply to the some 21-year-olds, but in tarring all between 21 and 35 with a brush so biased it might as well belong to a propagandistic news outlet, we silence a demographic that can draw on the wisdom of their forerunners and fuse it with the prevailing attitudes of the time. But this is reverse ageism, I hear you say, although I counter that by saying that people older than 35 can combine inter-generational knowledge in a similar manner, putting themselves at the cutting edge of social reform and contemporary mores.
Writing in the Irish Times this week, Dan Hayden and David Kenny discussed the Justin Bieber scenario, an eventuality in which a demigod of Bieber’s status manages to get enough votes and finds themselves taking Michael D.’s place. A nightmarish outcome, to say the least, but Hayden and Kenny went on to say that it was in fact the elder statesmen of our country who left us down when we needed them the most. With years come wisdom, but cunning of the nefarious variety often accompanies experience.
The person deemed best for the job will be get the most votes. This is unlikely to be my 21-year-old self, and I’d like to think that our nation would never vote for a pop demigod purely because they were a pop demigod. But who knows what some well-rounded and learned 24-year-old, or an early thirties diplomatic expert just after selling their second startup company, could bring to the table? Let them try. Let them fail gloriously, or succeed wildly and surpass all expectations.
And don’t any one dare mention putting an upper age limit on candidacy. We wouldn’t want to appear ageist, now would we?