American leadership is old folks, all the way down.
The U.S. government is a creaky machine whose most crucial cogs could be generously described as “vintage.” The average age in Congress is near an all-time high. The House speaker, House majority leader, House majority whip, and Senate majority leader are all over 75.
To be clear, this phenomenon is bigger than politics. Across business, science, and finance, power is concentrated among the elderly. In the past 40 years, the average age of Nobel Prize laureates has increased in almost every discipline, including physics, chemistry, medicine, and literature. Among S&P 500 companies, the average age of incoming CEOs has increased by 14 years in the past 14 years. Americans 55 and older account for less than one-third of the population, but they own two-thirds of the nation’s wealth—the highest level of wealth concentration on record.
The prevalence of old power is undoubtedly related to the prevalence of old age. Higher-income Americans are living longer than ever and working longer, too. Leading the country is tiring work (at least in theory) but it’s not taxing in the way that factory work or construction is. As the economy shifts to white-collar labor, septuagenarians are staying at work. The share of Americans over 75 who are attached to the labor force has increased by 85 percent in the past 20 years.
The expense of presidential politics also disproportionately benefits the old.
Older politicians have had longer to build up donor networks, and older rich people may be more likely to take the risk of self-funding. If Jeff Bezos had quit Amazon to run for president this year, he would have given up years of peak earning and peak productivity in the private sector. Trump and Bloomberg, meanwhile, are wealthy grandfathers whose most significant private-sector achievements are behind them. They can afford to run for president on a lark, both in a literal sense (they can obviously afford to) and in an existential sense: What else is Bloomberg going to do in his 80s, other than spend his money on political causes, including the cause of himself?
To quarrel with a thousand Hallmark copywriters: Age is not just a number. And rule by the old is not harmless.
First, gerontocracy is a cousin to plutocracy. Power concentrated in the hands of old people who are also rich will predictably lead to policies that benefit the old and the rich, at the expense of the less privileged. The federal government already guarantees universal health insurance and a universal basic income to seniors, even as Republicans cry socialism when young people request versions of the same policies. It’s unlikely that young people will notch many policy wins in a government whose median age is over 70.
Second, old governance can be bad governance. At the end of the Cold War, a common criticism of the U.S.S.R. was that the country was crumbling in part because the Soviet politburo was too old and out of touch to keep up with a changing world. Research indicates that cognitive deterioration typically accelerates in one’s 70s. Without encouraging voters or employers to be ageist, it seems risky to leave the most important issues of life, death, and welfare in the hands of a group of septuagenarians who are in the crosshairs of biologically predictable cognitive decline.