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Far from an aberration, this image reflects an inarguable trend in American politics – one underscored in this year’s race for the White House. When he enters the Oval Office in January as the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, at the age of 78, will be the oldest person ever to do so. The previous record-holder? His predecessor, Donald Trump.
It was the same story when the one-time Delaware senator sought his party’s nomination for the presidency. Then his only rivals of substance were Bernie Sanders, 78, and Elizabeth Warren, 70. When things looked tough for the now president-elect, rumours emerged that former secretary of state John Kerry, 76, was considering a last-minute bid.
While certainly not limited to the Democrats, the party’s age problem is particularly conspicuous. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have no term limits for committee chairs. The party’s House leadership is notable here: the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is 80, as is the House majority whip, Jim Clyburn. Meanwhile the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, is 81. The baby among top Democrats, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, is 69. Meanwhile Republican Mitch McConnell is 78, and almost half the Senate is over 65.
There may soon even be a number of elected representatives in their nineties. Senate president pro tempore, Charles Grassley, runs the Senate Finance Committee at 87. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is 85. Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Richard Shelby, is 86. Dianne Feinstein, ranking member on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, is 87.
Such observations aren’t borne of ageism – there are many talented older politicians with a great deal to offer. What’s more, legislators being older than those they govern is hardly new – after all, the Latin word senate derives from ‘senex’ meaning ‘old man’, something happily alluded to by Cicero. This theme, of good government being effected by the elderly, is replete throughout antiquity, from Plato’s Republic to Aristotle’s Politics to the Book of Job. For ancient Sparta, rule by older citizens was obligatory, the term ‘gerontocracy’ stemming from the city’s ‘Gerousia’ – a council of elders who had to be at least 60 to serve.
Yet in all these societies old age was rare, and governing elites turned over relatively quickly. Furthermore, the scale and intensity of the shift towards gerontocracy appears peculiarly American among today’s democracies. Understanding why is of far-reaching importance as demographic ageing gradually unfolds – as it will – across every society on Earth. Far from a marginal concern limited to a single nation, however powerful it may be, the consequences of rule by the elderly matter to us all.
One response to the greying of America’s political class is to say it merely reflects the fact that people are living longer. Another is to note that on both sides of the Atlantic, older voters are more likely to go to the polls than even those in middle age. What’s more, it’s true that people generally prefer politicians whose age resembles their own, with comparatively older countries – like Japan and Italy – therefore more likely to select older politicians.
While these are all important points, they are inadequate when it comes to explaining American gerontocracy. After all, the US is a relatively young country by the OECD’s standards, and while its politicians are getting older, Europe’s are getting younger. In Finland, where the median age is 42, prime minister Sanni Marin is 34; in Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir is 44, while Emmanuel Macron and Pedro Sanchez are in their 40s. Even Angela Merkel, who has been at the pinnacle of European politics for 15 years, is younger than the entire Democratic House leadership. These are all politicians from economically advanced countries which, importantly, all have a median age higher than the US.
Even in Britain, where the percentage of older people outvoting the young is amongst the highest in the world, Boris Johnson is only 55 while Rishi Sunak is 40. Remarkably, Joe Biden is the same age as John Major – a former prime minister who left Downing Street 23 years ago.
America’s shift towards older politicians is doubly strange given the age of the Founding Fathers – so venerated in the country’s political consciousness. In 1776, Alexander Hamilton and James Maddison were in their 20s, Thomas Jefferson was in his 30s and George Washington was 44. America is a young country both demographically and in terms of its national myth. So why does it, almost uniquely, have a political class that is so much older than its electorate?
Ageing leadership in America is not the preserve of politics. An S&P 500 CEO is on average 14 years older today than they were in 2006 – and only two are under 40. The explanation for ageing leadership in the country’s private sector would appear straightforward, with the number of over 75s in work increasing by 85% over the past two decades. Inevitably, then, more people will stay at the top for longer, particularly in white collar jobs where cognitive rather than physical vitality is required.
Driving this is improvements in life expectancy. But while life expectancy has generally stalled in recent years – with the US now on a par with neighbouring Cuba – the overall figure fails to account for health inequality. A 2016 study by MIT concluded that the richest 1% of American men can expect to live 14.6 years longer than the poorest 1%, a figure that falls to 10.1 years for women. What’s more, this gap is growing rapidly, meaning that while the average African-American male will today reach 72, a figure comparable to Palestine, the country’s elite are among the longest living people in the world. The age of former presidents is a testament to this: George Bush Senior passed away at 94, Ronald Reagan at 93. Meanwhile Jimmy Carter, who along with his wife Rosalynn remains very much alive, is 96.
America’s gerontocracy, therefore, is less about improvements in life expectancy across the board than its distribution by income, with older politicians and spiralling inequality running in parallel. While this is already unwelcome, all the evidence suggests things will only get worse as health inequalities map further onto those of income and asset ownership.
What’s worse is that these dynamics appear to mutually reinforce one another. Politicians, as with other professionals, accumulate social capital, knowledge, networks and financial backers over the course of their careers. In the world of legislative democracy, this feeds into reelection efforts and the ability to exert influence. While this has always been the case, it was until recently countervailed by what Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott term “vitality assets” such as health and wellbeing. President Lyndon Johnson passed away at 65, Franklin Roosevelt at 63, Teddy Roosevelt at 61. In today’s America, not only would all three men likely still be alive, but they may well have at least another decade of public service ahead of them. If this were the case, how might they have exerted their influence, ensuring their views remained dominant and safeguarding their respective legacies?
In contemporary politics, this is a very new phenomenon. Britain’s Conservatives struggled in the long shadow of Margaret Thatcher for 15 years after she left office (she passed away aged 87), as has today’s Labour party since Tony Blair (who is an energetic 67). Indeed, Biden’s ultimately successful nomination would have been unlikely were it not for Barack Obama calling in some favours as Sanders became the favourite for Democratic nominee. This will become increasingly common in democratic societies, meaning that for political newcomers – and particularly younger political constituencies – it will be progressively more difficult to dislodge institutional and ideological orthodoxies.
The consequences of this are profound, altering the very temporality of how we conduct politics, with party and media elites ever-more immersed in a cycle of permanent nostalgia. In Britain, the retinue which surrounded Blair remains ever-present on TV screens in a way that would have been unthinkable for Edward Heath in the 1990s, or Harold Wilson a decade earlier. Blair left Downing Street 13 years ago, but there will be so-called ‘rare interventions’ for decades to come, his own success two decades ago a perpetual point of reference even if he has little to offer on climate change, automation, or the crisis of elderly care in the 21st century. This is a politics of ‘hauntology’, where the only conceivable alternatives are ghosts from the past. Importantly, one of the material pillars of this cultural phenomenon, now so obvious as to be mundane, is demographic ageing.
This phenomenon is particularly prominent in the US because this is where the two-party system, based on patronage and internal promotion, is most prominent. New ideas and potential leaders must work through extant networks of patronage (although the primary system provides openings not available in Britain). Meanwhile, the electoral systems of Finland, Iceland and New Zealand – all of which have young, female political leaderships – allow more innovation through a greater range of parties. The sense of democratic possibility would appear to be significantly expanded where personal ascent does not rest to such an overwhelming extent on party loyalty and deference.
Biden, America’s Brezhnev?
Earlier this year, writer Ben Judah asked if Biden was America’s Leonid Brezhnev. Rather than an amusing provocation, this was an important question: would the now president-elect prove a stop-gap figure, incapable of addressing major challenges which confront a superpower in decline? Brezhnev’s leadership, after all, would ultimately herald the era when the USSR could no longer renew itself – its political class became stale, its living standards stagnated, its foundational myth found increasingly wanting.
In terms of the age of their respective political classes, the resemblance between Biden’s America and the Soviet Union under Brezhnev is striking. By 1980, the average Politburo member was 70, while Brezhnev’s successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, were 68 and 72 on coming to power. In fact, older politicians were ubiquitous across East and Central Europe: Josip Broz Tito was Yugoslavia’s head of state until he died in 1980 aged 87, while Janos Kadar, Gustav Husak, Nicolae Ceaușescu and Eric Honeker remained at the helm of their respective countries into their 70s. The default of one-party states ultimately ended in rule by the old. In the US, where entry to a political career is remarkably circumscribed for a democracy of 300 million people, history may be repeating itself.
For the Austrian physicist Max Planck, the inability of a gerontocratic political class to solve problems would have been easy to understand. In 1950, he stated what has since become known as ‘Planck’s Principle’: “new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” For Planck, the act of persuasion remained useful, but primarily for its ability to communicate with future generations: “an important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul.” Such thinking has since become commonplace in the philosophy of science, particularly since Thomas Kuhn popularised the hypothesis of paradigm shift. The most simple, and macabre, formulation of Planck’s reasoning can be found in the memorable phrase: “science progresses one funeral at a time”.
Such a perspective certainly explains how unthinkable change eventually becomes inevitable. Empires are overwhelmed, slavery abolished and suffrage is won not because of a mass, simultaneous shift but because the contingency of history is met with an accumulated inheritance of ideas and values whose time had come. The rise of modern gerontocracy could mean this hitherto inevitable cycle significantly slows down – and all at the very moment humanity faces the epochal challenge of climate change.
While congressman Pascrell’s photo captured the geopolitical dimension of America’s ageing legislators, a video from 2018 featuring senator Dianne Feinstein – now aged 87 – and a group of children campaigning with the Sunrise Movement offers an analogue for the challenge of climate change. After walking into the senator’s office in protest, one child remarked: “The government is supposed to be for the people, by the people”. Feinstein was incensed: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’ve been doing. You come in here and say it has to be my way or the highway. I’ve gotten elected. I just ran. I was elected by almost a million vote plurality and I know what I’m doing.”
Given the issue of climate change has been defined by inaction for three decades – and all while CO2 emissions have skyrocketed – Feinstein’s august presence in the Senate is less an exoneration than a tacit admission of failure. And yet even here she failed to take the issue seriously, suggesting to children infused with democratic zeal that a Green New Deal is unaffordable. If this is the case, then what are the costs of a world two degrees warmer than today?
While the senator’s hostility is somewhat bizarre, it is also explicable. While the young citizens in that video will have to navigate a planet warmer than now – along with rising sea levels, water scarcity and declining crop yields – Feinstein will not. For the senator, priorities are defined entirely by short-term calculus and maximising her vote without swaying from the perceived political consensus. For the Sunrise Movement, making the electorate uncomfortable is necessary – because the truth itself is deeply disturbing – but for most politicians such sentiments are viewed as political kryptonite.
This is not to demonise Feinstein, but to simply say that any politics able to address the great challenges of our century must acknowledge incrementalism isn’t just inadequate but dangerous – and its own form of dogma. Younger people, quite understandably, are more eager to address such issues, even if it means short term political risk, because it is they who will experience the disastrous consequences of continued passivity.
Another example of this came in 2018, when Orrin Hatch, then an 84-year-old senator, asked Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg how the company made its money – to which the world’s youngest billionaire replied “senator, we run ads”. Hatch was born before the mass adoption of television, so it’s no surprise he struggles when it comes to the best way to regulate social media. The same will increasingly apply to legislating for AI, synthetic biology and automation, all of which could see record levels of inequality rise higher still. Listening to Hatch and Feinstein, it’s easy to see how gerontocracy and plutocracy, and inaction in the face of a coming storm, go hand in hand.
Solving the crisis.
So what is to be done? Voter turnout among the young undoubtedly needs addressing, and it’s no surprise that higher turnout among young Americans – which increased 8% among 18-29 year olds – proved key in removing Trump. But although party elites claim to want more young people to become engaged in the political process, when they do – and make heterodox political choices, be it Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn – they are castigated and even demonised. Given these generations are confronted with the challenges of climate change, high levels of debt and unaffordable housing, this is absurd. All they are doing is choosing politicians who offer what they view as common sense solutions.
In the US, it’s also clear that action is needed to deal with the mutually-reinforcing dynamic between gerontocracy, party patronage and insulated elites. One step would be electoral reform, starting with the abolition of the electoral college. This could be accompanied by the adoption of a single transferable vote system, energising democracy for an American context. Another simple reform could be a maximum age for elected representatives, or term limits for those in public office. While such measures might appear outlandish, all the evidence suggests that without them, or something similar, the problem of gerontocracy will only get worse.
Fundamentally, though, such measures will have little effect if widening health inequality is not addressed – itself a result of asymmetries of wealth and power. This must be accompanied by a change in culture, with respect for younger people rather than trivialising their concerns. Until this happens, political representation will face major problems in America and elsewhere. Of perhaps greatest concern, democratic systems won’t just remain unable to deal with the great issues of our era – they may even struggle to recognise them.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.
- The Demographics Focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).