For a long time, two of the great gerontocracies were the Roman Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party. It is quite a thought that if Joe Biden were a Catholic bishop, he would have been required to submit his resignation to the pope five years ago. If he were a cardinal, he would, when he turned eighty in November 2022, have lost his right to vote in the conclave that will choose the next pope. These rules were introduced in 1970 in a papal instruction titled “Ingravescentem Aetatem”—Growing Old. If Biden won a second term as president, he would (assuming he survives) be older at its end than Pope Benedict XVI was when he announced, against the church’s long-standing precedent of popes dying in office, that he was retiring because he was simply too old to continue. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party’s unwritten rule, introduced in the 1990s, is that members of the Politburo Standing Committee should retire if they are sixty-eight or older at the time of the party congress, which is held every five years. Li Keqiang, the former premier who died unexpectedly in October, had stepped down in March, four months before his sixty-eighth birthday.
There is no “Ingravescentem Aetatem” for American politics. The term “gerontocracy” was coined in 1828 by Jean-Jacques Fazy, a Swiss republican, in the title of his book De la gérontocratie. He jeered that, in political terms, “France has been reduced to seven to eight thousand eligible individuals, asthmatic, gouty, paralytic, impaired, and only aspiring to rest.” In the contemporary US, the gerontocracy seems even more exclusive and its membership even older than the one that was swept away in France by the July Revolution of 1830. The baby boomers who sang along with Bob Dylan when he warned, “Senators, congressmen/Please heed the call/Don’t stand in the doorway/Don’t block up the hall,” now linger in the lobbies.
Age has not withered their appetite for power. In 2014 the US elected the oldest Congress in its history. The record did not last long: It was broken in 2016. And then again in 2018. And yet again in 2020, when—remarkably—the majority of the incumbents who lost their seats were replaced by someone even older. In the 2022 midterms, the House did become slightly younger (the mean age of representatives dropped by a year, from fifty-nine to fifty-eight), but the mean age of senators continued to rise and is now over sixty-five.
The Senate allocates committee places according to seniority, compounding the disproportionate power of its oldest members. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who is eighty-one, appeared to freeze during several press conferences and interviews last summer and fall, apparently losing the power of speech. The veteran California senator Dianne Feinstein died in September at the age of ninety, after a period in which she was clearly too frail to fulfill all the duties of office. The former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who is eighty-three, announced in the same month that, even though she had stepped down as minority leader, she intends to run for Congress again in 2024. She was first elected in 1987, two years before Taylor Swift was born. When Mitt Romney announced his intention not to seek reelection to the Senate in 2024, he explained that “at the end of another term, I’d be in my mid-eighties. Frankly, it’s time for a new generation of leaders. They’re the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in.” This conclusion would once have seemed obvious—now it feels almost eccentric.
The presidency is following the same trend. In 2016 Donald Trump, at seventy, became the oldest president ever elected. In 2020, at seventy-seven, Joe Biden demolished that record. If Biden and Trump are the main candidates in 2024, it will be a contest between a man just weeks off his eighty-second birthday and one well past his seventy-eighth. Both Trump and Biden were born in the 1940s, the same decade as presidential candidates from 1992 (Bill Clinton), 1996 (Clinton), 2000 (Al Gore and George W. Bush), and 2004 (Bush and John Kerry). A pattern of forcing Americans to choose between men born during or shortly after World War II was seemingly broken by the election of Barack Obama. But it has returned with a vengeance. The torch was passed to a new generation but the old one grabbed it back again.
It’s also true, of course, that younger politicians can suffer debilitating illnesses. The Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman’s struggles with a stroke and depression and the Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin’s treatment for lymphoma have been highly visible political dramas. True, too, that older people with access to good health care can now lead productive public lives well past the ages at which their political forebears would have died or become incapable. But in other democracies where healthy life spans are just as long as those in the US, the governing class is nonetheless much younger.
The average age of the members of the European Parliament elected in 2019 was fifty. In Canada, the average age in the House of Commons is fifty-two. The average in Australia’s parliament is fifty-one. According to the Pew Research Center, the median age of heads of government across the world, as of last March, was sixty-two. Just 5 percent are in their eighties, and most of those are autocrats. Apart from Biden, the only octogenarian currently running a democracy is Hage Geingob of Namibia, which has a smaller population than Mississippi.
America’s gerontocracy may well reflect a broader cultural obsession with the denial of aging and a peculiar disdain for retirement, which seems to be regarded as a very European form of decadence. Yet this doesn’t mean that Americans are happy to be ruled by gerontocrats. In recent Pew surveys, only 3 percent of adults said it is best for US presidents to be in their seventies or older, while 79 percent favor maximum age limits for elected federal officials (a change that would likely require a constitutional amendment). Nearly half of Democrats say the best age for presidents is in their fifties, while a quarter prefer presidents in their forties. These are, of course, the age ranges at the time of election of all Democratic presidents since 1961, except Biden. It is not for nothing that, in the Kennedy era, when Biden’s political consciousness was formed, youth was a Democratic brand. As his sister and campaign manager, Valerie, recalled in Growing Up Biden, “In the early ’60s, Washington was the province of youthful, beautiful Democratic idealists…. Republicans, back then, were seen as stodgy, old.”
Being the bright young thing was part of Biden’s own appeal when he was first elected to the Senate at the age of twenty-nine in 1972. He won in part by successfully labeling the Republican incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, who was a mere sixty-three, as too old to understand contemporary problems. Biden’s characterization of Boggs was summed up at the time as “Dear old dad may have been right for his time—and I love him—but things are different now.” Campaign reporters noted that “the younger men get that ‘new hero’ look when Biden raps about how the old guard has bungled things,” while Boggs “gets tongue-tied and dry-throated in public.”
It should hardly surprise Biden, therefore, that his verbal gaffes and dry-throated voice do not say “new hero” to most voters now. In early November The New York Times published a poll that showed Trump ahead in five of the six swing states. It found that 62 percent of respondents did not think Biden had “the mental sharpness” to be effective as president and that 71 percent thought him “too old”—an opinion shared even by 54 percent of Biden’s own supporters. While polling may not be a reliable indicator of voting intentions this far from Election Day, it seems foolish to pretend that Biden’s age is not a serious obstacle.
Those who think otherwise point to Trump’s almost equally advanced years. Yet, on this as on so much else, Trump gets a pass. Just 39 percent of respondents in that New York Times poll viewed him as too old to be an effective president. On the face of it, this makes little sense. Trump’s mental sharpness is at least as questionable as Biden’s—he has recently claimed that Biden would lead the US into “World War II” and that he himself defeated Barack Obama in the 2016 presidential election. He claims that “Kim Jong-un leads 1.4 billion people,” apparently confusing the North Korean dictator with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He told supporters at a rally that the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has recently called on “President Obama” to resign and be replaced by Trump. Nikki Haley’s repeated calls in her Republican primary campaign for cognitive tests to be made mandatory for officeholders over seventy-five are aimed as much at Trump as at Biden. Yet it seems to be Biden alone whose age will matter in the coming presidential election.
Some of this concern is manufactured. Both the Republican National Committee and the online alt-right nexus have manipulated or faked images that purport to show Biden as literally senile. Yet there is an underlying reality. Biden is not just chronologically old—he is politically ancient. Trump has clocked less than a decade in the electoral arena. Biden has been around for half a century as senator, vice-president, Democratic primary candidate, and president. He launched his first bid for the presidency in 1987, when today’s median American was four years old.
Those who now make light of his verbal slips note, as Franklin Foer does in his recent book The Last Politician, that the problem is less “Biden’s age or acuity” and more “his indiscipline and imprecision, traits that stalked the entirety of his career.” This may well be true, but reminding voters that Biden was always thus is no great help when that “always” seems to stretch back into what is, for most of today’s voters, a fuzzy prehistory. Biden’s longevity in public office means that, unlike Trump, he can appear as an embodiment of the gerontocracy that Americans do not want but have ended up with anyway.
Trump, meanwhile, exudes a dark energy. His is perhaps the most radical mainstream presidential candidacy in US history. He offers a program of organized revenge, telling his fans that “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” He promises a transformation of democracy into authoritarianism. He envisages a war on all the “vermin” who have thwarted him. He plans, as The New York Times has reported, “to scour the country for unauthorized immigrants and deport people by the millions per year.” He wants to build giant camps to house those awaiting deportation and to vet would-be travelers to the US for political (and presumably also religious) purity: “US consular officials abroad will be directed to expand ideological screening of visa applicants to block people the Trump administration considers to have undesirable attitudes.” The relentlessness of this determination to reshape the US into an autocracy may be horrifying, but it has the vigor of grand ambition.
Another reason why Biden’s age works so much against him is that he did not present himself in the 2020 campaign as a man who would still be running in 2024 and intending to still be in the Oval Office in 2028. “Look,” he told a rally in Detroit in March 2020, “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else.” He referred to three much younger Democratic politicians who were standing behind him on the platform, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Gretchen Whitmer: “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.” It is true that he did not explicitly promise to stand down after one term to make way for that future, but the signals were clear enough.
They were also effective. Americans were struggling to come to terms with a deadly pandemic and the chaos of the Trump presidency. They needed not so much a radical break with the past as simply a break. Biden could present himself as a national grandfather who could provide a calm space in which, as he put it in his inaugural address, he would emulate those past presidents who “healed a broken land.” But no one imagines a period of recuperation lasting eight years. If the broken land is not healed by now, many will seek a different doctor.
Historically, gerontocracy was a way of ensuring that leaders did not last too long, with death operating as the functional equivalent of term limits. Republican Venice controlled its doges by electing them, on average, at the age of sixty-eight. Nature could be relied on to make sure that rulers did not overstay their welcome. A similar impulse may have been at work for many voters in 2020. Biden could be embraced for what he was not (Trump) rather than for what he was. Being a very familiar face was, in a time of strangeness and disorientation, quite appealing. But by insisting on running again, Biden risks stirring the kind of familiarity that breeds contempt—not just for him but for the whole gerontocratic system. He already had a problem with young voters, who were not particularly excited about him in 2020. Now, polls consistently suggest that young voters are by far the most likely to say that he is too old to be an effective president.
Foer concludes his sympathetic account of Biden in the White House by twisting the idea that he is a “man of his age” into the notion that he is, rather, “a man for his age.” He concedes the validity of the first phrase: “His public persona reflected physical decline and time’s dulling of mental faculties that no pill or exercise regimen can resist. In private, he would occasionally admit to friends that he felt tired.” But Foer balances these acknowledged deficits with an insistence that, in his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden showed “the advantages of having an older president.” Biden was “the West’s father figure, whom foreign leaders could call for advice and look to for assurance.” Foer praises in particular Biden’s “strategic clarity.” Even if this is true in relation to Ukraine, it would be quite a stretch to claim that, in the crisis triggered on October 7 by the Hamas assault on Israel and amplified by Israel’s violent response, Biden has been the West’s father figure or that he has shown much strategic clarity. He has seemed, rather, both impulsive and relatively powerless, a combination that is far from reassuring.1 The appeal of the wise old man has been greatly diminished.
In fairness to Biden, it should be stressed that he has not actually governed as a gerontocrat. A standard accusation against elderly leaders is that they have little interest in, or incentive to think about, the future. But Biden’s signature achievements as president—securing large-scale investment in infrastructure and in the transition to a carbon-free economy—are about the long term. He can claim with justice to be the first US president to achieve at least the beginnings of an adequate response to the climate crisis. In this he has been addressing a temporal horizon that stretches far beyond his own remaining life span, giving him a good case for insisting that his age should not matter. That it does indeed matter is a consequence of another long-term problem whose lightning rod, fairly or not, he has become: generational inequality.
Biden’s personal and political identity is heavily infused with the history of immigration (in his case Irish) and of generational mobility. Immigrants are driven by the faith that, even if their own lives will be hard, their children and grandchildren will have more opportunities and do better than in their home countries. This confidence was richly vindicated for Biden’s own generation. Among those born, as Biden was, during World War II, 90 percent went on to earn more than their parents. No nation has ever achieved a rise in earnings better than this. But, as analysis published by Raj Chetty and others in Science in 2017 has shown, the graph that maps this trend over time looks pretty much like a ski slope. There has been a relentless decline in absolute mobility from one generation to the next: from over 90 percent when Biden was born to around 50 percent for those who were born in the 1980s. In other words, if you were born in 1985, you are as likely to be less well off than your parents as you are to be richer. Just as the rise in mobility for Biden’s generation was virtually unique, this subsequent fall is also greater than in almost any other country.
It is, moreover, driven as much by politics as by economics. According to Chetty:
Most of the decline in absolute mobility is driven by the more unequal distribution of economic growth in recent decades, rather than by the slowdown in GDP growth rates. In this sense, the rise in inequality and the decline in absolute mobility are closely linked.
The unequal distribution of the proceeds of growth has been facilitated by government policies. But it also further distorts the distribution of power between the old and the young. As the political scientist Kevin Munger points out in his recent book Generation Gap: Why the Baby Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture,
historically, other generations have faded from relevance as they reach retirement age. The factors that empower a given group fall away in time. In the past, older generations have seen their numbers dwindle, their economic power wane, and their cultural relevance decline. But the Boomers are unique on each of these dimensions. Their numbers have declined less, their economic power has only grown, and their cultural relevance—or their insistence on it—persists.
So, of course, does their outsize political influence, as donors, candidates, and voters. The baby boomers are no longer the largest generational cohort of the US population, but they have more money to contribute to political campaigns, and because they turn out to cast their ballots, they are still the largest voting bloc.
The experiences of these older citizens differ greatly from those of their children and grandchildren, in relation not just to economics but to race and social diversity. Munger writes that
the Baby Boomers are the whitest generation in American history, through a combination of immigration restrictions, the deracialization of groups like Irish and Italian Americans, and the unequal distribution of resources among the parents of Black and white Boomers.
Because Black and Hispanic Americans benefited much less from the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and because they have subsequently died earlier than their white counterparts, Munger suggests that “the Baby Boom is today an almost entirely white phenomenon…. Popular stereotypes about Boomer power being concentrated in ‘old white people’ are to a large extent true.”
None of this is Biden’s fault—but it is his problem. He stands for a grim continuity: thirty consecutive years, so far, of boomer (or, in Biden’s case, technically preboomer) occupants of the Oval Office. He is caught in a generational paradox. He does not, in electoral terms, actually represent the boomers: a majority of “old white people” voted for Trump in 2020 and will, if given the chance, surely do so again in 2024. But he can be seen nonetheless as a representative boomer figure, the most prominent and powerful embodiment of the demographic group that has dominated American wealth, politics, and culture since the 1970s. He suffers on both sides of this contradiction—most of his own generation does not identify with him, but many younger Americans identify him with the age-related injustices that have shaped their lives. It is this incongruity that makes Biden so vulnerable. Being the old white man brings him no rewards, only resentments. And resentment is the medium in which Trump thrives.
Yet Biden himself does not seem to have much awareness of the seriousness of this threat to his reelection. He has little instinctive sympathy with the specific struggles of younger Americans. In 2018, when he was briefly out of public office, he told Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times:
The younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break! No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break! Because here’s the deal, guys, we decided we were going to change the world, and we did.
That “we” is an explicitly generational identity. In Biden’s mind, he and his age cohort changed the world in much tougher circumstances than those that millennials and Gen Z face today. He seems barely conscious of the implication that it’s their fault if they fail to change it again.
More profoundly, though, Biden has his own very particular difficulties with death and succession. He is the most death-haunted figure in American public life.2 His heroes Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. His first wife, Neilia, and their daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash. His son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of forty-six. A large part of Biden’s psychological armor is the feeling that death must not be allowed its dominion. He is a death-defier. He insists on being undaunted by the relentless power of mortality. And while this attitude is what makes him so strong and sympathetic, it is also what makes him so blind to the obvious reality that death is not just an existential truth—it is a political fact.
In the public mind, the risk that Biden might die or be incapacitated during a second term is inflated beyond its real probability. Polls show only around a third of respondents expect him to finish a second term if he wins one. Though Biden seems able to blot out those hazards, it is not at all obvious that voters will do so. Death will be on the Democratic ticket but he will not acknowledge its icy presence.
Biden is troubled by strange notions of political succession. His touchstone was the Kennedy family, and he dreamed of achieving what it could not: the creation of a presidential dynasty. The Bidens, very unusually for Irish Catholics, have that monarchical habit of using Roman numerals after their names. Biden himself is Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.; Beau (also christened Joseph Robinette) was III; his brother Hunter’s son is IV. This is more than a private affectation. It was intended to mark a governing bloodline. As Biden wrote in his memoir Promise Me, Dad, “I was pretty sure Beau could run for president some day and, with his brother’s help, he could win.” Before his untimely death, Beau was apparently ascending in this direction. Having served two terms as attorney general of Delaware, he had announced his candidacy for governor. His father had also suggested, when he vacated his Senate seat to become Obama’s vice-president, that “it is no secret that I believe my son, Attorney General Beau Biden, would make a great United States Senator.” There is surely a feeling that a one-term Biden presidency is a poor substitute for what should have been eight years of Joe, followed by eight years of Beau.
Who takes Beau’s place as the presidential son, given that Hunter’s messy life has put him out of contention? We know the answer because Biden has told us. In March 2020, accepting the endorsement of Pete Buttigieg, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but [Buttigieg] reminds me of my son, Beau, and I know that may not mean much to most people, but to me, it’s the highest compliment I can give any man or woman.” But passing the throne to his adopted political son would, for Biden, force him to confront the truth that his real son, the one who was once the future of both the family and America, is inescapably dead. Nor, on a more mundane level, does Buttigieg seem ready to seize the crown if there were a competitive Democratic primary in 2024.
Delaying the succession must seem, in this light, quite logical for Biden. Perhaps he feels that Buttigieg, Harris, Booker, Whitmer, Gavin Newsom, or other younger candidates have not yet established themselves sufficiently on the national stage—a somewhat circular argument given that a competitive primary would be the obvious way for them to do so. In his most recent remarks on the subject, Biden has seemed to suggest both that “I’m not sure I’d be running” if Trump were not also seeking a second term and that he would run if Trump were to drop out. He acknowledged, on the one hand, that “probably fifty” Democrats could beat Trump, and on the other that “I’m not the only one who could defeat him, but I will defeat him.”
These are fascinatingly contrary impulses for a character in a psychodrama. They are not good calculations about how the Democrats should face arguably the most consequential presidential election in US history. Trump’s senescence and mental fitness will not be an effective issue for the Democrats. Derangement, in his mad-avenger persona, is good. It is, rather, the Democrats, if they are led by an eighty-one-year-old man, who will have to bear the burden of America’s generational divide. Gerontocracy—in reality a bipartisan phenomenon—will be their brand. With the promised bridge to a new generation as yet unbuilt, time is not on Biden’s side, or on the side of American democracy. The Democrats have to determine very quickly whether they can reset that loudly ticking clock.