Argument

70 Is the New 50 for World Leaders

It’s neither a coincidence, nor a problem, that both candidates for America’s highest office are so old.

Joe Biden waves as he arrives at New Castle County Airport for his trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sept. 3, 2020 in New Castle, Delaware.
Joe Biden waves as he arrives at New Castle County Airport for his trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sept. 3, 2020 in New Castle, Delaware. Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the next U.S. president is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, he will be the oldest person ever to take the oath of office. Donald Trump, if reelected, will be 74 years old; if it’s Joe Biden, he will be 78. (The previous record was set in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for his second term three weeks before turning 74.)

Both candidates have been raising concerns about the other’s fitness, relying on common tropes about age and disability; Trump’s campaign has even depicted Biden in a wheelchair as an elderly and disabled potential resident in a senior home, while Trump himself has taken heat for problems with walking up and down ramps.

To be sure, we have had older presidents for whom health was an issue. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt both suffered debilitating strokes in office in their 60s. Reagan was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years after leaving office, and opponents raised concerns that he might have suffered early signs before then. A generation ago, 70 was an age well past retirement and into old age.

Today, however, that’s simply no longer true. On a variety of dimensions, Americans—especially college-educated white men—are living longer, healthier, and more active lives than before.

In Washington, D.C., and New York (among the recent homes of Trump and Biden), men’s life expectancy grew by 13.7 years just in the period from 1990 to 2015. Across the country, gains were even a couple of years greater for those who had earned a college degree. Older folks are much healthier as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among all Americans aged 75 and older, almost three-quarters rated their health (or had their health rated by a family member) as good to excellent in 2017, compared to two-thirds who did so in 1991.

Fears are sometimes expressed regarding both candidates that they might be at risk of dementia. And it’s true that the onset of dementia among those who are 75 or older is a moderate risk. But the latest studies show those risks are declining as well. A Harvard University-led study, published this year, shows that the risk of a 75-year-old man developing dementia during his remaining years has dropped from about a 25 percent chance in 1995 to an 18 percent chance today—a decline in the risk of dementia of almost one-third.

Other frailties of old age are also being remedied today. Loss of mobility, sight, and hearing were once seen as inevitable consequences of aging that robbed seniors of their ability to lead vigorous, energetic lives. But 80-year-olds today are playing tennis on replacement hips and knees, seeing clearly thanks to routine cataract replacement, and gaining access to powerful digital hearing aids that filter random noise and allow clear understanding and conversation. We now know that routine exercise and fitness extends youth: As of 2019, the average time for those ages 60-65 to run a 10K race is less than 10 minutes more than for those ages 25-29!

The result of these positive trends is that 70-year-olds are playing a more active role than ever in major leadership positions. According to the 2020 Crist Kolder Volatility Report, the age of new CEOs is around 20 percent higher today than in 2005, and about 40 percent of working CEOs are over 60. That includes such famed decision-makers as Warren Buffett (age 90), Rupert Murdoch (89), and Roger Penske (83).

In the U.S. Congress, 36 members of the House of Representatives and 14 members of the Senate were over 75 years old; seven of the latter were 80 or older. These include the leaders of both Houses: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (age 78 this year) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (age 80).

Many other countries around the world, including both democracies and dictatorships, have national leaders of distinguished age; these include Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel (71), Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia (who stepped down in March ahead of his 95th birthday, to be succeeded by Muhyiddin Yassin, age 73), Sebastián Piñera of Chile (70), Hassan Rouhani of Iran (71), Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh (73), Yoshihide Suga of Japan (71), Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus (74), Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (75), Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (75), Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam (76), Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana (76), and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria (77), among many others. Looking back, Winston Churchill, one of Trump’s heroes, started his last term as U.K. prime minister at age 76; and since 1975 Japan has had no less than seven prime ministers who served into their 70s.

So having a President who is 70-something should not be a cause for concern. In fact, it may be an advantage in the United States’ current political situation.

Older leaders are distinct from younger ones in their skill set. Obviously, their strong suit is experience. A leader with decades of experience is likely to have encountered various crises before and to know how to respond effectively (and what mistakes to avoid). They know what it’s like to make the tough calls and to take a longer view. They are less strong at innovation, but for that reason they are also likely to be less polarizing.

Of course, that was not true of 70-year-old Donald Trump when he took office in 2017. But Trump came to the presidency with zero political experience. He burnished his skills in the areas of real estate development and reality TV, so it should have been no surprise that he drew on his own long experience as he ran his White House much like a development firm with a reality-TV model for media exposure.

Joe Biden is more likely to govern as an experienced senior political leader. That means he is more likely to be able to make compromises, be less ideological, and offer a more reassuring presence. With the United States in the midst of two colliding crises—an ongoing pandemic and severe economic contraction—while also facing the need to manage U.S. relationships with estranged democratic allies and the growing threats from authoritarian regimes, that may be just what the country needs. After the nonstop noise and chaos of the Trump years, the experienced Biden may provide a reassuring contrast.

Does this mean the United States faces a future of geriatric leaders? I think not. We are probably seeing, in both Congress and the presidency, the last peak of leadership from the baby-boom generation. Indeed, the 2020 election will likely be the last in which boomers are the largest generation of voters. Moreover, if U.S. voters have shown a pattern in their political preferences, it is a desire for change. After George W. Bush continued the Bush dynasty, voters were drawn to the promise of a young, inexperienced, but passionate candidate in Barack Obama. After Obama, when voters had a choice between another potential dynastic leader (Hillary Clinton) and a complete outsider (Donald Trump), enough voters went for something completely different to give Trump the presidency. This year, polls suggest the pendulum may swing back to a candidate who exemplifies political experience, in Biden.

But in 2024, voters may again be impatient for change. In coming elections, the new generations of millennials and post-millennials—a larger, far more ethnically diverse and more college-educated group than the baby boomers—will be a much bigger fraction of the voting population. Where 75 percent of Americans ages 55 and up were non-Hispanic Whites as of 2015, for millennials it was only about 56 percent. The shift is especially marked in such election battleground states as Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. As that trend continues, the electorate is likely to favor a candidate who represents youth, change, and diversity. In the next quarter century, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Marco Rubio more likely fit the profile for future presidents than aging baby boomers. But for now, an experienced 70-something should do just fine.

Jack A. Goldstone is the Hazel professor of public policy at George Mason University and the co-editor of Political Demography and the Handbook of Population Policies.

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