As the 2024 Presidential Election picks up steam, voters—particularly those from the Democratic party—seem to be overly concerned about age, and the cognitive and physical decline that come with it. Perhaps it is inevitable given how rampant ageism is in America. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 1 in 4 American workers aged 45 and above have experienced negative comments related to their age, and 76% of older workers have been forced to leave their jobs.
The issue is by no means new—and history is telling of our continuous battle with age. Plato observed that Sparta was ruled by elders above the age of 60, the equivalent of roughly 80 nowadays. A gerontocracy ruled the Soviet Union during its long decline from the early 1970s to the mid 80s. Some of the worst Latin American dictators perpetuated themselves in power, as magically told by Gabriel García Márquez in the Autumn of the Patriarch. Mandela was 75 when he became the first nonwhite president of South Africa. Five years later, he decided not to run for re-election. He thus avoided having his running mate become president for the final year of his second term, given that he died four years later. These are just a few historical examples that illustrate the risks of appointing or electing “old” people to positions of political leadership.
Still, the debate over age in this electoral cycle is too simplistic. While asking questions about a presidential candidate’s age, health, and cognitive readiness is perfectly legitimate and rational, the current debate seems to forget some fundamental aspects of demography, life expectancy, and intergenerational collaboration.
Joe Biden broke the record of the oldest U.S. President when assuming office at age 78, shattering Donald Trump’s own record at age 70. The two likely contenders for the presidency in 2024 are merely three years apart, and both are far from being among the oldest world leaders. (The record holder is 90-year-old President Paul Blya of Cameroon.)
At the end of the day, however, the current debate over the impact of age on the presidential race has descended into ageism, which is a serious conscious and unconscious bias we all fall for ever so frequently. The American Psychological Association has determined that it is one of the “last socially acceptable prejudices.” My research on demographics and the economy indicates that we are wasting the talents of many people above the age of 60, 70, or 80 because we unjustifiably deem them not capable of performing a job or any job. It is simply not true that younger workers are always preferable. As human beings, we start to decline from a cognitive point of view when we are in our late twenties. But, typically, experience more than compensates for cognitive decline. It is fair to argue that Biden’s legislative and presidential records speak to the importance of experience in American politics.
According to the Social Security Administration, the average American male born in 1942, Biden’s birth year, is expected to live 71.4 years. President Biden would be 82 when and if he were to take the oath of office for a second time. The very fact that he has lived so long indicates that there is something about his genetics, his lifestyle, his access to quality healthcare, and his luck, that sets him apart from many other American males of his same age cohort who have already passed away.
Statistically, the average American male age 80 nowadays is expected to live another seven years, which would be enough to complete a second presidential term and then some. For the probability buffs, the chances of an 80 year-old dying within one year are 8%. But taking life expectancy into account is not enough for most voters. They rightly want to know if whoever is President will be physically and cognitively able to do the job.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote that in our “sixth age” we have “spectacles on nose and pouch on side,” and then we transition into the “second childishness… sans teeth sans eyes sans taste sans everything.” The World Health Organization estimates that the average American male will spend the last five years of his life in poor health, give or take a couple of months. Thus, to the extent that Biden resembles the average American male, he would live another seven years, of which two would be in good health, and the rest with some potentially crippling health issues. That would mean being in poor health during half of a second term. To put things in perspective, there is a long list of former presidents who suffered from serious health impairments during part or all of their time in office, including Jackson, Cleveland, Taft, Wilson, Harding, F. D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and G. H. W. Bush.
Which takes us back to luck. Will the American voter believe that Biden is the average American male of his generation from a physical and cognitive health point of view? He is probably comfortably above the average given that he has been healthy throughout most of his life, practiced an active lifestyle (yes, he bikes), and enjoyed excellent access to high-quality healthcare throughout his long career as an elected official. If anything, the above estimates could be interpreted as the minimum years someone like Biden might live in good health. He could get unlucky, of course, especially given his strenuous work habits, frequent travel, and exposure to stress. One might argue that one or two big domestic or foreign crises could well make all of those rosy estimates seem overly optimistic.
Beyond the cold numbers, the reality is that America is a rapidly ageing society in which people live longer and stay healthy longer. Thus, we have more generations involved in the workplace and in politics than ever before. Instead of endlessly debating whether Biden is fit for a second term on age grounds, we should be celebrating the fact that a second term would reflect the increasing diversity of American society in terms of age.
Moreover, one of Biden’s strongest qualities is his ability to put together a competent team of policymakers and advisers in key positions. While he would be an octogenarian during a second term, Biden can compensate by having a younger cabinet and White House staff. Remember that Kennedy sought to compensate for his young age by surrounding himself with people older than him. After being elected to the presidency, Biden promised a cabinet that would “look like America.”
There is no shortage of policy topics that involve intergenerational dynamics, including taxes, pensions, healthcare, firearms and crime, access to housing, climate change, and so on. In fact, they are among the most pressing problems facing the country. It would be a sign of national maturity if we could frame the issue of Biden’s age in the broader context of America’s demographic and political problems, turning it into an opportunity to open an honest dialogue about our contentious, age-diverse society. The fact that Republicans also face questions about the advanced age and deteriorating health of some of their leaders, could perhaps bring the two parties together. Instead, one side has already weaponized the issue for electoral purposes.
At the end of the day, some voters will believe the statistics and the arguments in favor of experience, while others will fall prey to the rampant societal prejudices regarding age or believe the narrative propounded by those intent on attacking Biden. Yet another group of voters might think that what really matters is having a capable Vice President on the ticket—or hope that the Speaker of the House can do the job if we get really unlucky. Other voters will feel that the age-related risks of a Biden second term are more than compensated by his steady hand and expertise, especially when compared with the likely alternative. Like in so many other respects, the political debate over aging politicians has become polarized and is not contributing to making the nation stronger.
It’s time for a national conversation of understanding among generations. In fact, the time has come to adopt a post-generational mindset in which age is not the determining factor in the workplace or in politics, but one among many others, especially experience and good judgment.
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