President Joe Biden’s 80th birthday on Sunday, November 20th, was a lot less glamorous than Marilyn Monroe’s breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday Mr. President” for John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday in 1962. Too bad for Joe.
But more important for the rest of us is the 35-year difference in their ages. JFK was the second youngest president after Theodore Roosevelt and the youngest ever president since Roosevelt moved up from vice president when William McKinley was assassinated. At 78 when he took office, Joe Biden is the oldest person ever elected president, eight years older than the second oldest, Donald Trump.
The age of our congressional leadership is not news. Nancy Pelosi is stepping down as House Speaker at age 82. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80 years old. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a youthful 71. He’s in fact the only Baby Boomer in the bunch, the others being to old to be members of that aging cohort.
Pelosi’s departure from leadership means that there will be some change to more youthful leadership, at least on the House side. Incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at age 57 is a child in comparison to the others, a quarter century younger than Pelosi. The likely Minority Leader in the new House is Hakeem Jeffries, who is 52 years old (and attended my law school).
Wisdom vs. Different Lived Experience
But what does it mean to have such old people in leadership? On the plus side, these men and woman have extensive experience. They are no longer striving for higher office. They may be more concerned about their legacy than scoring political points. Perhaps this aspects combine into the concept of “wisdom.”
But their lived experience is quite different from that of the bulk of Americans. They grew up and made their ways forward in a very different country than ours today, one in which climate change was not a concern, the Cold War was the primary international concern, racial discrimination and inequality were for many accepted facts of life, the internet did not exist, and most LGBQT individuals felt the need to stay in the closet. The population of the United States in 1960, when Nancy Pelosi was 20 years old, Biden and McConnell 18, and Schumer was 10, was just 179 million as compared with 330 million today, almost twice as many people.
But it’s not just that the country in which these leaders grew up that’s different, so is their lived experience as adults. All have spent many decades serving in Congress, a very different life from that of most Americans.
Effects of Aging
Then there’s the question of the continued ability of these older folk to function well in their leadership roles. So far, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for these particular leaders. But illness and cognitive decline become much more likely as people age. According to Dr. Gill Livingston, a psychiatrist at University College London quoted in a New York Times article about Biden’s age, after age 65 the risk of dementia doubles every five years with 10% of Americans age 80 to 84 and 20% between ages 85 and 89 suffering from dementia.
But the effects of aging on individuals are quite variable. In fact, Dr. Dilip Jeste, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, cites “studies that have been done all over the world which show that in people who keep active physically, socially, mentally and cognitively there is increased connectivity among specific networks, and even new neurons and synapses can form in selected brain regions with older age.” So, perhaps serving as president or in Congressional leadership can serves as a prophylactic against cognitive decline.
Good for them, but does it really make sense for the nations leaders to be from a generation that preceded the Baby Boomers? (As a Baby Boomer, I’d say it’s about time we had a chance to lead, but we’re also now older than most other Americans.)