American Gerontocracy

Gerontocracy, noun: a form of social organization in which a group of old men or a council of elders dominates or exercises control.

President-elect Joe Biden, who recently turned 78, is the oldest man ever elected to the US presidency. Yet given Donald Trump’s own age and generally loose grip on reality, it seemed a relatively moot point during the election.

What is most striking is not Biden per se, but how normalised the advanced age of American leaders is. In exit polling, unsurprisingly, roughly 90 percent of Biden voters said that Trump is not physically and mentally fit for office. Around 90 percent of Trump voters said the same of Biden. The shocking part, though, is that 11 percent of people who voted for Biden agreed, but voted for him anyway.

In other significant professions, such advanced age would be a disqualification from the role. In Australia, High Court justices are obliged to retire at the age of 70. International airline pilots cannot fly past the age of 65.

There are good reasons for this. According to Boston University neurologist Andrew Budson, at age 70 just under 10 percent of the population are experiencing dementia. At 80, the figure is about a third and rises to 50 percent by age 90.

Moreover, as the incrementality of these figures imply, dementia sits on a continuum. The term dementia itself, according to Budson, “means that cognitive decline is severe enough to interfere with daily function.” It is a relative rather than an absolute condition, in other words. Our mental processing speed – as evident in mental arithmetic, for instance – in fact peaks in our 20s and 30s.

Of course, experience counts for something. Yet its effects are more than just quantitative: more knowledge, more life experience, etc. The generation gap is also qualitative and political. 

How much of the perceived “radicalism” of 30 year-old congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, is in fact due to the overrepresentation of the elderly in politics? In polling of young adults, more than half of Americans view “socialism” positively and have a negative view of “big business”. Given the views of her generation, Ocasio-Cortez’s politics are not radical but normal.

It’s past time we stopped talking about 20 and 30 year-olds as “young adults,” as though it were some sort of transition age in which things like workplace rights and home ownership aren’t important. Let’s call young adults what they are: adults.