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15 November 2021updated 16 Nov 2021 9:48am

America’s leaders are old. That’s a problem

Is it time for the US’s (literal) old guard to move on?

By Emily Tamkin

Here are some of the people who represented the United States at Cop26 to discuss climate change, an issue that will be felt for generations to come. There was US President Joe Biden, who turns 79 later this month. There was his climate envoy, John Kerry, who is 77. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, stopped by, too; she’s 81. Back in the US, her counterpart in the Senate, the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, is relatively young at just 70 years old.

Across the aisle, there is Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who is 79. McConnell was previously the Senate majority leader under the last Republican president — and potential 2024 candidate — Donald Trump, who is 75.

The average age of a US senator at the start of this year was 64.3 years old, making it the oldest Senate in US history.

The rise of America’s gerontocracy
Age of individual upon their ascendance to the job of US president, leader of the Senate, or speaker of the House of Representatives
Source: New Statesman analysis

Age can bring many wonderful things, such as wisdom and experience. I do not mean to suggest that older people should not be able to hold higher office. Still, for three reasons, perhaps it is time that those in power consider whether they are still the best people for their offices.

The first is the matter of public confidence. Fairly or not, both Trump and Biden have had their health and mental agility questioned while in office. Trump repeatedly boasted about his stellar performance on a test used to detect cognitive ability, in the process raising more questions than he settled. His weekend visit to a hospital in 2019 also raised suspicions. Biden, meanwhile, is dogged by the former president’s nickname for him, Sleepy Joe, and is described as senile by America’s right-wing pundit class.

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Questions and conspiracies about American leaders’ health are not new, exactly. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president when he was 69. In Reagan’s White House, some staff, concerned about the president’s abilities to do his job, considered invoking the 25th amendment to try to have him removed. Rumours as to whether Reagan was senile were rife among the press and public while he was in office. Long before that, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s wife, effectively ran the White House after her husband suffered a stroke in 1919. Still, while acknowledging this US tradition, one can also admit the political risk that comes with fielding leaders who are more advanced in age.

Secondly, by staying in office and in power, particularly in Congress, politicians who have held the same position since they were young are now blocking others from rising through the ranks. As former US president Barack Obama put it in 2017, “I see in the US Congress people who’ve been there 20, 30, 40 years. And because they’re still there, they’re blocking the 25- or 30- or 35-year-old who is more of their time, and could be more innovative and creative solving the problems we face today rather than the problems we faced 35 years ago.”

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But finally, and most importantly, there is the issue of whether this literal old guard can truly represent their constituents. This is particularly important for Democrats, whose voters tend to be younger. This is not only true in terms of demographic representation, though that is an issue (for example, according to one study, 16 per cent of people who can be identified as “Gen Z” also identify as queer or transgender). It’s also true in terms of the urgency with which politicians consider certain issues. Elected officials are in charge of regulating (or not) technology with which they may or may not be familiar or comfortable, to take one case. To take another, Gen Z and millennials are more likely to say that addressing climate change should be the top priority — and are also more likely to favour moving away from reliance on fossil fuels and to wholly eliminate fossil fuels. This isn’t completely limited to Democrats; younger Republicans are also more likely to support moving away from fossil fuels and varying energy sources. To put it bluntly: the people who have more time left on the planet are more likely to want to see politicians take bolder action to deal with climate change. The generation that is actually in power in the United States is less likely to want that.

Given that the consequences of their actions (and their inaction) now will be felt by those far younger than them, perhaps it is worth asking whether older Americans should be overwhelmingly represented in higher office.

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