The Arguments for and Against Age Limits in the Era of America’s Gerontocracy
If Joe Biden runs for re-election and wins in 2024, he would complete his upcoming term at the age of 86; should Donald Trump - the favored Republican nominee - win, he would finish the term at 82. Some Americans are starting to question how old is too old to become President of the ‘free world.’ This has led to a recent call from the public to implement age limits on our government-elected officials to prevent our government from delving further into a gerontocracy.
Currently, the average age of a Senator is just over 65, while the average age of a Representative is almost 58. In contrast, the average American age is 38.9, roughly half the age of the average Senator representing them. This becomes an issue when the health of some of the older elected officials endures a serious decline. For instance, following a concussion in March of 2023, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader, suffered two public instances where he seemingly froze mid sentence as if unable to speak, and stared straight ahead in silence. Following these repeated health lapses, there have been calls from both Republicans and Democrats for his resignation after nearly four decades in government.
Not only is the health of elected officials important in regards to their ability to govern, but it also greatly affects our government's ability to function. This past year Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who recently passed away while in office, was forced to miss 91 votes due to health concerns, leading to a delay in Democrats being able to process judicial nominations.
In December of 2022, a CNBC All-America Economic Survey found that 70% of Americans do not want Biden to run for re-election. When asked why, the main reason given was his advanced age. Another poll by YouGov asked 27,797 Americans in January of 2022 if they think there should be a maximum age limit for government-elected officials and if so, what they think the age should be. YouGov found that 58% of Americans do think there should be an age limit, compared to 21% that say there should not be. According to this poll, Republicans are more likely to be in favor of an age limit compared to Democrats. Of the respondents who do believe there should be an age limit, 39% said 70 should be the cutoff age, 24% said 60, 23% said 80, and 5% said 90.
This poll clearly indicates that a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the high age of our politicians; which raises the question of why there is relatively no change in the age of individuals representing Americans? The current president is turning 81 this year, and the leading Republican candidate, Trump, is only three years younger. Instead of turning away from these older candidates at polls, voters are still willing to show their support for aging politicians. According to Jennifer Wolak - a professor at Michigan State University who researches whether voters consider age at the polls - "When it comes down to it, if you're going to vote for someone you could be like 'I would prefer a younger candidate but if I have two old candidates, I'm going to vote for my party candidate.' People are much more likely to choose a candidate based on promises and party ideology than age."
In addition, it is much harder to vote out incumbents because of the name recognition and fundraising advantage they receive while in office. This advantage means a reduction in the rotation of politicians, preventing the introduction of younger minds into government. Alan Lichtman, a historian at American University, said this when asked about this incumbency advantage: "These long-serving members are pretty safe… In terms of primary elections, it's very hard to defeat an incumbent." In 2022, 98% of incumbents were reelected.
One of the primarily-discussed solutions to America's gerontocracy is age limits. Arguments in favor of age limits point to the fact that there is already an age minimum for Congress written in the Constitution, so why is there no age maximum? Furthermore, age limits are not a new phenomenon; other countries such as Canada require the maximum age of a senator to be 75. In the U.S., politicians such as Mitt Romney (R-UT) have come out saying it's "time for a new generation of leaders." Further, former President Jimmy Carter announced he is in favor of age limits, saying, "I hope there is an age limit." Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) said, "I do think that as a general rule, my goodness, when you get into the 80s, it's time to think about a little relaxation… The problem is, you get elected to a six-year term, you're in pretty good shape, but four years later you may not be so good."
However, others are not so fond of baring an entire generation of Americans from office. Professor Jay Olshansky at University of Illinois said, “How old is too old? That's an unanswerable question … Some people make it out into their 80s and beyond very healthy, functioning cognitively at a very high level and there's some people who can't make it past their 50s and do very well.” Others argue that age is not necessarily a negative attribute as it allows for greater knowledge and experience. According to an article from Business Insider, “Seniority itself isn't necessarily a negative attribute; over time, members may develop institutional knowledge and close working relationships that allow them to be more effective legislators.”
In order to implement an age limit, a Constitutional Amendment would have to be proposed and ratified. As of right now, this would be virtually impossible to achieve, especially since the Representatives potentially being barred from office are the same Congressmen voting on the Amendment, and thus have strong personal interests in maintaining the status quo. In fact, if the proposed age limit was 60, it would bar 71% of the Senate from holding office.
Although age limits are just one talked-about remedy to our aging government, it is likely that any proposed idea would struggle to gain sufficient votes to pass. The most likely way for change to occur is at the voting booth. If Americans do want a government more representative of their ages, then they will have to start voting for those younger politicians.