Election Brings Victory for The Older Generation

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Actually, the older man won the election.

No, no, no, you protest: President-elect Barack Obama, age 47, won a decisive victory over Sen. John McCain, age 72.

But that is true only if you look at age through the narrow prism of chronological years. Much more important are psychosocial and biological age.

For starters, McCain is biologically younger than his chronological age. That's because longevity has expanded health span and increased vitality among older Americans. Since the World War II generation, researchers say, Americans have gained on average a 10-year bonus of healthy life. By that measure, McCain is really only 62. What's more, biological age is highly individual and variable. Judging from his physical stamina, McCain might be the equivalent of a 52-year-old from a couple of generations ago.

But aging is more than physical. It's temperamental. And here, too, McCain seemed "young."

Older people tend to be better able to control their emotions and to put crises in perspective. They are less impulsive and more attuned to the feelings of others, according to studies at the Stanford Longevity Center and other institutions. They also have better mental health. A 2003 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people 65 and older reported less serious psychological distress than younger people.

Longevity confers another bonus: happiness. Scientists call this the positivity effect. People generally get happier and more hopeful with age. At the same time, those who have an optimistic outlook throughout life tend to live longer and thrive in these later decades.

Aging and life experience are also supposed to confer wisdom. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, two scientists developed the so-called Berlin Model of Wisdom as "expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life." Wisdom is defined as "good judgment and advice about important but uncertain matters of life." Wisdom "considers relativism of values and life goals" and recognizes "societal change."

In young-old stereotypes, it is the unseasoned youngster who is impulsive and erratic; who sees issues in black and white; who trades analysis for slogans such as "Don't trust anyone over 30!" And the elder is portrayed as a person with a flowing white beard and half-lidded eyes; who drops pearls of wisdom; who is stolid, at times obtuse, dense, even boring and always cautious, cool and a little slow.

Who campaigned as the wise old man?

To me, McCain was more like the teenager, his identity in flux as he swung between maverick and Bush man, from centrist conservatism to the rightist base of the GOP. His provocative choice of a young dazzler, Sarah Palin, as his running mate was high-risk behavior, a hallmark of youth.

Meanwhile, Obama came across like the old guy: so cool, steady, thoughtful; confident in his identity, nuanced in his speeches. And full of hope, he exudes the positivity effect of aging. "He thinks things through; he is prescient; he has what I consider wisdom and judgment," says Robert N. Butler, author of "The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life" and founding director of the National Institute on Aging. "Contrary to expectations, the younger person can be the wise one."

And in the sweep of history, Obama is not that young. In 1900, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 47 years. That we think people in their 40s are young is a measure of how far we've come since then.

Comments: mytime@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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