Why the Old Elite Spend So Much Time at Work
In practically every field of human endeavor, the average age of achievement and power is rising.
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Everything in America is getting older these days. In practically every field of human endeavor—politics, business, academia, science, sports, pop culture—the average age of achievement and power is rising.
Politics is getting older. Joe Biden is the oldest president in U.S. history. Remarkably, he is still younger than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And they aren’t exceptions to the general rule: The Senate is the oldest in history.
Businesses are getting older. The average age of new CEOs at Fortune 500 companies is very likely at its record high, having gradually increased throughout the 21st century. And it’s not just the boss; the whole workplace is getting older too. Between the 1980s and early 2000s, Americans under 45 accounted for the clear majority of workers. But that's no longer the case, since the large Baby Boomer generation has remained in the labor force longer than previous cohorts.
Science is getting older—not just in this country, but around the world. Discovery used to be a young person’s game. James Watson was 24 when he co-discovered the structure of DNA, and Albert Einstein was 26 when he published his famous papers on the photoelectric effect and special relativity. But in the past few decades, the typical age of scientific achievement has soared. Nobel Prize laureates are getting older in almost every discipline, especially in physics and chemistry. The average age of an investigator at the National Institutes of Health rose from 39 in 1980 to 51 in 2008, and the average age of principal investigators receiving their first major NIH grant increased from about 36 in 1990 to about 45 in 2016. In fact, all of academia is getting older: The average age of college presidents in the U.S. has increased steadily in the past 20 years. From 1995 to 2010, the share of tenured faculty over the age of 60 roughly doubled.
In pop culture, the old isn’t going out of style like it used to. The writer Ted Gioia observed that Americans have for several years shifted their music-listening to older songs. In film, the average age of movie stars has steadily increased since 1999, according to an analysis by The Ringer. So far this year, the seven highest-grossing American films are sequels and reboots. Sports such as tennis and football are dominated by superstars (Nadal, Djokovic, Brady, Rodgers) who are unusually old for the game. Incredibly successful young artists and athletes obviously do exist—but older songs, older stars, and existing franchises are dominating the cultural landscape in a historically unusual way.
So, what’s going on?
1. As rich Americans live longer and healthier lives, American power is aging.
The average American lives longer than they did in 2000, despite life expectancy flatlining in the past decade. Rich Americans have it even better: The wealthiest Americans live at least 10 years longer than the poorest Americans, and that gap is growing.
Since the rising ages of prominent politicians, CEOs, and Nobel Prize winners are what’s at issue, a focus on the elite seems appropriate. For most of this century, the richest quartile of men have been adding about 0.2 years to their life expectancy each year. If we extrapolate that annual increase to the entire century, it would suggest that rich men have added roughly four years to their lifespans since 2000. The average age of U.S. senators did, in fact, rise from 59.8 in 2001 to 64.3 in 2021—a roughly four-year increase.
But many positions and institutions are getting older much faster than that. A few years ago, Inside Higher Ed noted that for college presidents, 70 seems to be the new 50.
The average age of new CEOs at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies increased nine years since 2005—from 46 to 55. The average age of leading actors in films increased about 12 years since 2001—from about 38 to about 50 for male stars.
Maybe we should consider not just life spans, but health spans. In sports, for instance, a superior understanding of diet, exercise, and medicine has allowed stars to extend their careers. The tennis stars Novak Djokovic, 35, and Rafael Nadal, 36, are old for their sport, but they’ve somehow won 15 of the last 17 Grand Slam men’s tournaments. Three of the last five NFL Most Valuable Player Awards went to quarterbacks over the age of 36—Tom Brady in 2017 and Aaron Rodgers in 2020 and 2021. In basketball, LeBron James recently became, at 37, the oldest NBA player to average 30 points per game in a season. The winningest pitcher in Major League Baseball is Justin Verlander, who is 39.
So the longevity factor is twofold. Not only are Americans overall living longer, but richer Americans are living even longer, and rich Americans with access to dietitians, personal exercise, and high-class medical care are extending their primes within the context of longer lives. As a result, we should expect older workers to vigorously contribute to their fields much longer than they used to.
2. As work becomes less physical and more central to modern identity, the old elite are spending more time at work.
Another way to frame the central question here: Why are the Boomer elite working so hard, so late into their lives?
One explanation for the rapid aging of our political leaders, academic faculty, and chief-executive class is that the Boomer generation is choosing to stay in the workforce longer than previous generations did. This has created what the writer Paul Millerd calls a “Boomer blockade” at the top of many organizations, keeping Gen-X and Millennial workers from promotions. As older workers remain in advanced positions in politics and business, younger workers who would have ascended the ranks in previous decades are getting stuck in the purgatory of upper-middle management.
If one wanted to frame things more generously, one could say that declining ageism has allowed older Americans to stay in jobs that they really like and don’t want to leave. These folks could retire, but they love their work and draw an enormous amount of pride from their careers.
But 70- and 80-somethings loving their work so much that they never retire is awfully close to something I’ve called workism—the idea that work has, for many elites, become a kind of personal religion in an era of otherwise declining religiosity. Workism isn’t all bad; it’s nice that the economy has evolved from brawn to brainy labor that gives people a sense of daily enrichment and higher purpose. But workism isn’t all good, either: The corner office was not designed to function as a temple, and a work-centric identity can lead to a kind of spiritual emptiness. What’s more, though this subject is complicated and sensitive, a lot of very elderly people in positions of great power are clinging to their jobs long after their cognitive and verbal capacities have peaked. This is not a good recipe for high-functioning institutions.
3. The “burden of knowledge”: Science is getting older, because we’re all getting smarter.
Longer lives and increasing workism could explain why our political and business leaders are quickly getting older. But they don’t explain the biggest mysteries I’ve highlighted in the field of science—such as why the average age of Nobel Prize laureates has increased or why young star researchers are rarer than they once were.
The best explanation for both of these trends is the “burden of knowledge” theory. We are learning more about the world every year, but the more we learn about any subject, the harder it is to master all the facts out there and push the frontier of knowledge outward.
This theory is pretty obvious when you think about it for a few seconds. Let’s imagine, for example, that you want to revolutionize the field of genetics. Three hundred years ago, before any such domain existed, you could have made a splash just by shouting, “I’ve got a strong feeling that genes are a thing!” Two hundred years ago, you could have done it by watching some peas grow in your backyard and using your powers of observation to form a theory of inheritance. But now that we know that genes are a thing and have figured out dominant and recessive genes and have mapped the genome, the most groundbreaking research in the field is really, really complicated. To understand the genetic underpinnings of a complex disease such as schizophrenia, hundreds of people around the planet have to synthesize data on the infinitely complex interplay of genes and environment.
The burden of knowledge affects the average age of scientists in several ways. First, attaining mastery at a young age of an existing domain becomes harder. Since scientists have to learn so much in fields such as physics or chemistry, they take longer to become established, and the average age for achieving breakthrough work (or fancy prizes) goes up and up. Second, the knowledge burden necessitates large teams of researchers to make new breakthroughs, and these teams tend to be led by older principal investigators. Third, scientific-funding institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, may be awarding a disproportionate amount of funding to older researchers precisely because they’re biased against younger researchers who they assume haven’t overcome the knowledge burdens of their field. Or perhaps, as academia and funding institutions get older, they develop an implicit ageism against younger researchers, who they assume are too naive to do paradigm-shifting work in established domains.
The burden of knowledge theory represents a double-edged sword of progress. It is precisely because we know so much about the world that it is getting harder to learn more about the world. And one side effect of this phenomenon is that science is rapidly aging.
4. “Data dulling” has made institutions risk-averse (and consumers obsessed with familiarity).
Pop culture in 2022 has been a warm bath of nostalgia. The song of the summer is quite possibly Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” which was originally released 37 years ago. Its success was launched by the show of the summer, the ’80s pastiche Stranger Things. The year’s biggest blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick, is a sequel-homage to the 1986 original.
Okay, well, that’s just one summer, you might be inclined to say. But it’s not. So many recent albums have fallen short of expectations that The Wall Street Journal has called it a “new music curse.” Every year in the last decade, at least half of the top-10 films in America have been sequels, adaptations, and reboots. (Even the exceptions are their own sort of franchise: The two biggest opening-weekend box offices for original films since 2019 were for movies directed by Jordan Peele.)
Is this about median longevity, or workism, or the burden of knowledge in physics and genomics? Uh, no. These are cultural stories, and they deserve a cultural explanation. The best I’ve got is this: As the entertainment industry has become more statistically intelligent, entertainment products have gotten more familiar and repetitive.
In music, I’ve previously called this the Shazam effect. As the music industry got better at anticipating audience tastes, it realized that a huge portion of the population likes to hear the same thing over and over again. That’s one reason why hit radio stations have become more repetitive and why the most popular music spends more time on the Billboard charts.
For the past few decades, the same statistical revolution that reshaped sports—a.k.a. moneyball—has come for entertainment. You could call it data dulling: In entertainment, greater algorithmic intelligence tends to ruin investment in originality. When cultural domains become more statistically sophisticated, old and proven intellectual property takes money and attention from new and unproven acts.
What does data dulling look like in art? It looks like music companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars buying the catalogs of old hitmakers when, in previous generations, that money would have gone toward developing new artists. It looks like movie studios spending significantly more on the production budgets of sequels than on originals. It looks like risk-averse producers investing more in familiar content, which amplifies consumers’ natural preference for familiarity—thus creating a feedback loop that clusters new cultural products around preexisting hits. It looks a lot like what we’ve got.
America’s multidisciplinary gerontocracy is complex. It comes from a mix of obviously good things (we’re living longer, healthier lives), dubiously good things (an obsession with the music and tastes of the 1980s), and straightforwardly bad things (a stunning dearth of young political power and an apparent funding bias against young scientists).
Solving this problem is similarly complex. I would be very uncomfortable with laws that ban ambitious 74-year-olds from working. I’m not very interested in forcing Bruce Springsteen fans to stop listening to him. But I’m enthusiastic about new research organizations that specialize in funding young scientists.
Another matter worth investigating is that other countries don’t share the gerontocracy problem across disciplines. In the U.K., for example, the public is getting older, but its leaders aren’t. I think we should be more open to asking hard questions, such as “If the Democratic Party is the preference of America’s young people, why are so few young people represented in its leadership?” and “How do we balance a respect for the elderly with a scientific approach to evaluating the cognitive state of our oldest political and corporate leaders?” In the end, this is about nothing less than how an aging country learns to grow up wisely.
Want to discuss more? Join me for Office Hours August 16 at 1 p.m. ET. This month, I’ll discuss whether we’ve missed our chance to tackle climate change with my colleague Robinson Meyer. I’ll continue to hold office hours on the second Tuesday of each month. Register here and reply to this email with your questions about progress or the abundance agenda. If you can’t attend you can watch a recording any time on The Atlantic’s YouTube channel.