Bob Rae’s response to ‘the age question’: That’s a bunch of bull

On Wednesday, while announcing he would not run for the permanent leadership of the Liberal party, interim leader Bob Rae had sharp words for a reporter who asked him if he was stepping down because he is too old.

“There’s going to be commentary on the age question, but I think that’s bullshit,” said Rae, who turns 64 on Aug. 2.

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In an age when Canadians are working longer than ever before — and facing stiffer pressure from job-seeking youth to step aside — Mr. Rae may have been channelling the frustrations of many 55+ Canadians caught in an increasingly workplace friction between old and young.

“It probably touched a nerve,” said Susan Eng, a spokeswoman with retiree advocacy group CARP. “Regardless of what you think of his politics, for him to be judged not on the basis of his success or lack of success, but solely on chronological age has got to be irritating,” she said.

Across the G8, voters increasingly seem to be turning to younger leaders. U.S. president Barack Obama is the fifth-youngest man to the oath of office. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, when he was elected in 2010, was the youngest prime minister since the Napoleonic Wars. Although Stephen Harper has gone grey during his six years in office, when he moved into 24 Sussex in 2006, he was two years younger than Pierre Trudeau.

Tellingly, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, a 40-year-old prone to youthful pursuits such as boxing and d’Artagnan moustaches, was the top pick for Liberal leader in a recent Ipsos Reid poll, despite having only four years of parliamentary experience.

This week, Mr. Trudeau seemed to echo Mr. Rae’s own annoyance when he told a CTV interviewer he was not ready to take the Liberal party helm. “Is it something I’m actually equipped to do?” he said.

“I think ageism is still widely accepted in this country,” said Lorne Nystrom, 66, a former Saskatchewan MP who, when he was first elected in 1968, was the youngest MP in Canadian history. “I basically agree with Bob; that is a bunch of bullshit,” he said, pointing to 91-year-old Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion or U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

“I’ve seen some pretty tired old men at the age of 30, and I’ve seen some pretty energetic ones at 80 or 90,” he said.

Only three Canadian prime ministers have ever taken office in their 70s, and all three of them did so in the 1890s. The oldest, Charles Tupper, took office just shy of his 75th birthday.

Add to that changing attitudes and circumstances in the workplace.

In the mid-1990s, only one-fifth of Canadians over the age of 55 still worked a full-time job, partly due to a wave of early retirements brought about by public and private downsizing. In recent years, the proportion of working seniors has jumped closer to one-third. According to Statistics Canada projections in 2008, the average 50-year-old could be expected to work for another 16 years.

In the past 10 years, dozens of universities, provinces and agencies have eliminated forced retirement provisions and in 2011 the Tories officially struck down the section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that permitted mandatory retirement.

“If people retire in Canada, they’re looking at 21 years in retirement, that’s a long time,” said Lynn McDonald, director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Life Course and Aging. “A lot of people who have retired are returning back to work; you can only golf so many games.”

With Baby Boomers still making up a large proportion of the workforce, inter — generational conflict is “inevitable,” said Ms. McDonald.

“We’re getting into some really ageist messes in the workplace, because you’re getting 67-year-olds being supervised by 32-year-olds,” she said.

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