Since the fall of 2019, I have read a series of articles in mid-brow American news magazines lamenting that a crop of aging politicians born in the 1940s, these Soixante-Huitards and the tailend of the Silent Generation, maintain their deathgrip on American politics. These include Derek Thompon’s “Why Do Such Elderly People Run America?” in The Atlantic, Ian Prasad Philbrick’s “Why Does America Have Old Leaders?” in The New York Times, and, most recently, Eve Peyser’s “Gerontocracy Is Hurting Democracy” in New York Magazine.
I stumbled upon the first of these articles lamenting America’s gerontocracy in 2019 around the same time when I was researching for my post “This Election Has Not Been About Serious Issues: The Very Unserious Issue of Dual Citizenship”, in which I noted that only three prime ministers since Confederation (Kim Campbell, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau) were, in fact, born as Canadian citizens instead of as British subjects. At the time another thought occurred to me: aside from Kim Campbell’s irrelevantly short tenure as prime minister for a few months in 1993, Canada has never had a proper Soixante-Huitard Boomer, born between 1946 and 1953 or so, as prime minster; mercifully, we now never will. For whatever reason, federal Canadian politics largely skipped over this cohort who established themselves as activist generation in the United States in favour of a plethora of long-serving politicians of the Silent Generation born in the 1930s, with Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, and Paul Martin in 24 Sussex for all but five years between 1979 and 2006.
In contrast, those born in the 1940s (a mix of the very end of the Silent Generation and the Soixante-Huitards) have firmly entrenched their power and turned Washington into a gerontocracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, born in 1940, crossed the octogenarian threshold in 2020. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was born in 1942, and the self-styled socialist and Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders, born in 1941, splits the difference. Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush are all born in the second half of 1946 – the very start of the Soixante-Huitard Boomers – and Hillary Clinton followed in 1947. Joe Biden, born in 1942, became the oldest person ever inaugurated to the Office of President in January 2021. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, born in 1950, remains a comparatively youthful 70. In contrast to the most recent primary and general presidential elections in the United States at its aging cohort of septuagenarian and octogenarian doutards, the last Canadian federal election of 2019 saw all major parties led by Gen Xers: Justin Trudeau, then 47, and with Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh both being 40. What a stark contrast indeed! Canada’s Senators also face a constitutionally entrenched and mandatory retirement at age 75, which would preclude Sanders and McConnell.
What causes this difference? Chelsea Follett of the CATO Institute attributes the trend to “rising U.S. life expectancy.” But this presents two problems. First, life expectancy rose across the Western World in the second half of the 20th century, including in Canada, so this common factor could not explain why the United States has become a gerontocracy while other OECD countries have not. Second, life expectancy started to decline in the US in the 2010s.
Philbrick’s column best explores the possible reasons which account for the trend, but Thompson’s and Peyser’s column most substantively explores the consequences of gerontocracy: namely, that it corrodes democracy. Over-representation of the old skews government policies and explains why, for instance, Republicans support socialism for the elderly in Medicare but deplore extending those benefits universally to the population as a whole.
I’m amused that Thompson and Peyser both agonise over criticising this massive disproportionate preponderance of political clout in the elderly as “ageism” – which, incidentally, didn’t become a thing until the Soixante-Huitards entered their sixties – as if statistically validated generalisations now constitute a grave offence, yet another ‘-ism’ about which we must worry, and another reality that we must deny. They dance around the subject, but the fact remains that the risk of cognitive impairment and decline increases in direct proportion to age, accelerating after we Homo sapiens enter our seventies. For example, The New Yorker reported recently that the 87-year-old Senator Diane Feinstein, Democrat from California, suffers from extensive short-term memory loss and can no longer remember her staffs’ briefings. She has pledged not to seek re-election in 2024, but she still intends to limp on for the next three years despite an undeniable and readily apparent cognitive decline. In one strange exchange with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in December 2020, Feinstein obliviously asked the same question twice, in the span of two minutes, and delivered it each time in uncannily identical cadence and wording. C-SPAN records this exchange between 1:01.31 and 1:03.33.
Thompson and Peyser further attribute the trend of gerontocratic politicians to a gerontocratic electorate: older Americans are more likely to vote, so politicians cater to their interests. But even that in and of itself does not necessarily mean that the politicians themselves would likewise need to be old in order to cater to the aged. Canada has gone through the same demographic shift, but our politicians remain middle-aged and thus now Gen Xers. But Thompson also noted that the Silent Generation and Soixante-Huitards still entrap entire swathes of American society in their geriatric clutches, in not only politics but also business, finance, and science. The average age of CEOs has increased as well, for instance, over the last 15 years. Gerontocracy breeds plutocracy; the concentration of both political power and personal wealth skews heavily toward those in their sixties and above in the United States. Gerontocracy can also lead to a general stagnation and bad government.
Philbrick presented the most interesting case and explored most substantively some possible reasons why American politicians have become so old. His column also included some graphs comparing the United States to other OECD member-states. Philbrick also posited three factors that might account for this phenomenon: sheer demographics of an aging population coupled with the fact that older Americans vote in greater proportion than those under 50, the prevalence of money in politics, and the structure of the presidential-congressional system of government itself. The first factor also interplays with the horrendous gerrymandering that state legislatures impose on the federal districts for the House of Representatives and the fact that Americans must register to vote, while in other countries like Canada and Australia, independent electoral commissions establish the boundaries of electoral districts and independent electoral agencies affirmatively register eligible voters automatically. (Australia, of course, goes one step further than Canada in making voting itself mandatory on pain of fines).
One chart shows the average age of presidents and prime ministers in OECD member-states from 1950 to 2020. The line of best fit shows a steady decline in the average age of a president or prime minister upon assuming office throughout these 70 years, from around 63 in the mid-20th century to 54 or so in the late 2010s. In the United States, all Democratic presidents except Truman were younger than the OECD average at the time of their inaugurations, but all Republicans except Nixon were older than the OECD average. The average age of Congressional representatives and Senators has also increased since the mid-20th century.
In Congress, the new gerontocracy has to do the absurdly high rate of incumbency, which allows certain congressional representatives and senators to amass decades of experience in Washington, coupled with the omni-importance of raising vast sums of money to run campaigns. Elderly politicians have saved up more personal wealth and have spent decades cultivating professional fundraising networks. While the average tenure of members of the House and Senate hovers around 10 years, the incumbent re-election rate in both houses hovers around 90%, depending on the year. This means that most representatives choose to retire and that those who choose to stay are rarely defeated. A committed political operator like Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell can keep winning and climb through the ranks.
In contrast to the US House of Representatives and US Senate, the House of Commons of Canada demonstrates one of the highest average turnover rates in the liberal-democratic world; between 1979 and 1993, the incumbent re-election rate stood at only around 53%. The proportion might have increased between the elections of 1997 and 2019, but not to anywhere near 90%. This high turnover rate reflects transitions of power between parties in government.
In the United States, the confluence of incumbency, money, and the system of presidential-congressional government itself form a toxic mixture which enables gerontocracy.
The main difference probably comes down to the forms of government, and The New York Times touched upon this factor in its analysis, too. It offers another graph which shows that the average age of presidents tends higher than the average age of prime ministers in OECD member-states, though it should be noted that some parliamentary republics, such as Ireland and Germany, use non-executive presidencies which mimic constitutional monarchs and which are therefore not equivalent to the president in the American system.
In a parliamentary system, the prime minister also serves as an elected MP and leader of a party and must and face a howling zoo of criticism in the House of Commons and questions from the opposition parties. Parties therefore have an incentive to elect leaders who balance experience in parliamentary debate and in cabinet with comparatively youtful energetic dynamism or at least some capability of thinking quickly on their feet. The latter usually precludes septuagenarians and octogenarians. Canadian Ministers of the Crown tend to occupy their offices between the ages of 40 and 65, a healthy middle age that balances experience with energy.
I have often wondered over the years how the various American presidents of my lifetime would fare as prime ministers and having to face a barrage of questions in the House of Commons each week, and it is difficult to imagine. Ronald Reagan, elderly upon his inauguration and probably entering senility by the end of his second term, seemed too regal and diffident for undignified parliamentary brawls. In fact, Reagan reacted angrily and haughtily when NDP MP Svend Robinson heckled him about the Strategic Defence Initiative and American policy in Latin America during his address to our House of Commons in 1987. “Is there an echo in here?!” George H.W. Bush held press conferences frequently and probably would have done well in the House of Commons with factual, non-flashy performances, but he would not have enjoyed the experience. Jimmy Carter (not president during my lifetime, but he is still alive) would probably have done much the same. George W. Bush would have deferred most of his questions to Dick Cheney, least he commit a grotesque verbal gaffe or choke on a pretzel. Even Barack Obama, for all his rhetorical prowess, relied too much on teleprompters and would take up most of his time in an extemporaneous exchange in long pauses, though he would have deployed the occasional mic drop moment, like “I have no more campaigns left to run — I know, because I won both of them.” Donald Trump would not have been able to finish a sentence without telling petty falsehoods and veering off onto pointless tangents – and a lot of people are saying that, by the way – and he would have continually talked over other MPs and refused to recognise the Speaker’s authority over controlling debate and decorum in the House of Commons. He would probably have stormed out of the chamber for good measures on numerous occasions, or, better still, forced the Speaker to order the Sergeant-at-Arms to escort him out of the chamber. Joe Biden would barely be able to fumble through a sentence at all – “Hey, c’mon, man!” – and would likewise need to cede the debate to Kamala Harris. He’d also have trouble with the constant shifts between sitting and standing and might trip over the step onto the front benches. Bill Clinton provides a rare exception of an American president who would probably have thrived in the cut and thrust of Question Period and relished skewering the opposition; he is the only president whom the opposition would truly have feared to confront. Elderly party leaders simply cannot perform under these conditions. Even the wily political operator and one of the most experienced, best-prepared prime ministers in history, Jean Chretien, decided to retire in 2003, at age 69.
But some elusive generational trends also apply here, and these remain difficult to explain. Philbrick noted in his column that under American inter-generational dynamics, “Boomers were more engaged than the Silent Generation before them and Generation X that followed […]” but that this “‘dominant-recessive’ generational pattern isn’t found in other O.E.C.D. countries.” Canada offers a counter-example of which generations fall under the “dominant-recessive” rubric, but we still seem to have at least a weak dominant-recessive pattern. In Canada, for whatever reason, the Silent Generation became dominant in federal politics by the late 1960s, largely shut out the Soixante-Huitards altogether, and then retired gracefully by the early 2000s, which allowed Canadian federal politics to skip directly to Phase II Boomers (born between 1954 and 1964) and Gen Xers (1965-1980). In contrast, the Silent Generation and Soixante-Huitards in federal American politics never went away and have made abundantly clear in their stubborn grip that Gen Xers and, soon, Millennials, will need to wrest political power from their cold, dead hands and brittle fingers, only to find that they will inherit the ashes of a declining empire on the edge of collapse.
Janan Ganesh, “A Millennial’s Hymn to Generation X: Wedged Between Two Utopian Generations, Generation X Offers a Precious Interval of Hardheadedness,” Financial Times, 25 October 2019; Derek Thompson, “Why Do Such Elderly People Run America?” The Atlantic, 5 March 2020; Ian Prasad Philbrick, “Why Does American Have Old Leaders?” The New York Times, 16 July 2020;
Eve Peyser, “Gerontocracy Is Hurting Democracy,” New York Magazine, 15 March 2021.
Chelsea Follett, “Rising U.S. Life Expectancy Reflected in 2020 Candidates,” CATO Institute, 4 March 2020.
Jane Mayer, “Diane Feinstein’s Missteps Raise a Painful Age Question Among Senate Democrats,” The New Yorker, 9 December 2020.
Jennifer E. Manning, Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile(Washington, DC: The Congressional Research Service, 20 December 2018), 1.
Jennifer E. Manning, Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile(Washington, DC: The Congressional Research Service, 20 December 2018), 5.
John W. Schoen, “Incumbents in Congress Are Hard to Beat – and A Lot of It Has to Do with Money,” CNBC News, 26 April 2018.
Rod Hague and Martin Harrop, Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction (Palgrave-Macmcillian, 2007),323.
CBC Archives, “Ronald Reagan Heckled During Second Visit,” 6 April 1987.
Thanks again for a very compelling read.
You didn’t even have to bring up the US Supreme Court, where the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in harness at 87.
I think you meant to write that Kim Campbell, Harper, and Trudeau were the only PMs not born British.