The cry is heard that America has become a “gerontocracy.” That’s supposed to be bad, it’s argued, because our superannuated political leadership is out of touch with the electorate and blocking younger and (theoretically) more vigorous and intellectually vibrant leaders from taking their hour upon the stage.
Earlier this year, CNN called President Biden’s age a “hot topic.” Leaving aside that news organizations such as CNN have helped make it a hot topic, the real question is whether it’s anything more than that. The answer is no.
For decades and decades we’ve lived in a society that has devalued what it means to be older….The main message should be ‘don’t get distracted by age, when age doesn’t tell you something meaningful about someone.’
— Tracey Gendron, gerontologist
“Leaning into this language about a ‘gerontocracy’ is a distraction technique,” says Tracey Gendron, chair of the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the 2022 book “Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It.”
“It’s just the latest thing that’s keeping us from looking at things that are more important, like race, gender, education,” Gendron told me. “All these things don’t accurately reflect the demographic makeup of the country. So why are we singling out age among all these things?”
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The gerontocracy critique also threatens to deprive us of our most experienced leaders. Rather than remove poor performers from their sinecures, the current fixation on age could remove from our political and economic structures men and women who have spent decades learning about the world and offering the wisdom born of long professional experience.
The U.S. State Department, for example, requires its professional foreign service staff to retire at 65, “when they are at the height of their wisdom and knowledge,” publishing executive and author Michael Clinton observed recently, a rule he attributed to “toxic ageism.” Some corporations require their top officers to retire at 60 or 65, while most are still willing to make a professional contribution.
In her book, Gendron makes a distinction between ageism and “ableism.” The first is stereotyping that can be applied to people of any age, young or old — the grousing by employers about “lazy” millennials and Gen Z’s being unwilling to work is ageism just as much as intimations that the chief characteristic of seniors is senility.
The second stereotype is focused on the notion that as we grow older, we lose physical and mental capacity to the point where we may not be able to function in society without assistance. Putting ageism and ableism together yields the hand-wringing about gerontocracy among our political omphaloskeptics.
Claims that a political gerontocracy is somehow undermining American democracy — the theme of so much political navel-gazing — simply don’t hold water. They depend on the notion that as we grow older, our political outlooks coalesce into something at odds with the public interest. Where’s the evidence for that?
It’s widely noted that Biden and his likeliest presidential challenger, Donald Trump, would be the oldest president if either wins election in 2024. Biden would be 82 on inauguration day 2025 and Trump nearly 80. Does that tell us anything about how their administration would unfold? Obviously not.
Biden would almost certainly run on his record of creating remarkably inclusive and progressive White House policies and overseeing an economy of job growth and economic expansion in the wake of the pandemic; Trump, judging from his most recent speeches, would continue to flog personal grievances based on his groundless claims of fraud in his 2020 loss.
As for the notion that advanced age robs us of physical capacity and mental acuity, that may be arguable as a demographic average, but ignores what Gendron observes is the increasing individuation as we age.
“Early in life, you have markers that tell you approximately at what age someone’s going to start to talk or someone’s going to walk,” she says. “We don’t have that in later life. There really isn’t a guidepost to say, ‘At this age, something’s going to happen.’ At older ages, we become more individual and less like other people.”
Certainly both Biden and Trump have lost a few steps since they were in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Doesn’t everybody? (Disclosure: I’m a member of the baby boom generation. If you feel the need to know more than that, my actual age is in the public record.)
Some of our political leaders have notched their most outstanding achievement at an age decades later than when conventional wisdom holds that they should have retired.
The questions raised about the physical and mental capacity of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 89, didn’t apply to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who compiled what might be the most successful record in House history by shepherding the Affordable Care Act through Congress in 2010 at 70 and Biden’s progressive policies to enactment after the age of 80.
As for whether older politicians are out of step with the younger members of the American electorate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) didn’t seem to have much trouble connecting with youthful voters when he ran for president in the run-up to the 2016 election, at age 75.
Nor are there signs that the liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has lost the youth vote because of her age, 73. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) seemed to have little trouble getting reelected in the last election, when they were, respectively, 80 and 89.
Nor is it necessarily true that older political leaders invariably hang on to their seats as if with what Orwell called prehensile behinds. Earlier this year, the top three Democratic Party leaders in the House — Pelosi; Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, 83; and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, 82 — announced their retirements at the end of their current terms, opening the path for new leaders such as current House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, 52.
Quite plainly, the best guides to politicians’ adequacy are their words and actual performance in office. Few reach the highest echelons of American politics without leaving a record to be examined.
Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, recently took a swipe at Biden’s age, remarking that he would be unlikely to live to the end of his next term.
Does that tell you anything about what she has to offer as an alternative? No; for that you’d have to delve into her positions on gun control (after a deadly school shooting in Nashville, she called for more metal detectors at schoolhouse doors but not more gun legislation) or abortion rights (she’s against them).
Who shows more mental acuity? Joe Biden, who occasionally stumbles over his words (apparently an artifact of his youthful stuttering)? Or Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who recently called for a “national divorce,” i.e., secession by red states, at the age of 48?
Does the age of Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott explain his boasting about signing a 2021 law allowing almost any Texan to carry a gun in public — “No license or training is needed,” he bragged in a tweet. Abbott was 63 at the time, a relative spring chicken. How has that worked out for his Texas constituents?
Concern-trolling about the advanced age of government leaders hasn’t always been a path to political success. Franklin D. Roosevelt cited a “hardening of the judicial arteries” in announcing his 1937 scheme to pack the Supreme Court, which involved shifting the politics of the court to the left by trying to force justices to retire when they reached the age of 70, or adding a justice to the court for every sitting justice who refused.
By June that year, he told listeners of a fireside chat promoting the plan, five of the nine justices would be older than 75 — a standard that irked the oldest justice, the liberal eagle Louis D. Brandeis, who was 80. FDR’s plan collapsed after it provoked widespread opposition, the most significant political failure of the New Deal.
Whether making an issue of politicians’ age will have weight with the voting public is open to question. For one thing, the nation as a whole is moving up in years. By 2060, the population 65 or older will number 94.7 million, according to the Census Bureau; that would be a nearly 70% increase over the number in 2020. That segment will have grown from 17% of the population to 23%.
It’s widely remarked that older cohorts vote at much higher rates than their younger compatriots, though that doesn’t mean that their individual political leanings necessarily skew in any particular direction.
Why are they more committed to participating in the franchise? It may be that their life experience has shown them how much is stake in every election; it’s certainly easier to convince them of the importance of programs such as Social Security than to deliver the same message to people for whom collecting benefits may be many decades in the future.
The only conclusion one can draw about age is that it’s a very unreliable indicator of an individual’s intellect, energy or ability. The proper reaction to anyone who tries to tell you that our gerontocracy is a political problem is to ask what more relevant truth they’re trying to conceal.
“For decades and decades we’ve lived in a society that has devalued what it means to be older,” Gendron says. “For me, the main message is, ‘Don’t get distracted by age, when age doesn’t tell you something meaningful about someone.’”