Why Are US Politicians So Old? And Why Do They Want To Stay in Office?

November 14, 2023 By Mary Kate Cary, mkcary@virginia.edu Mary Kate Cary, mkcary@virginia.edu

The following was written for The Conversation by Mary Kate Cary, a former presidential speech writer and an adjunct professor with the UVA Department of Politics. 

When former President Bill Clinton showed up at the White House in early 2023, he was there to join President Joe Biden to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. It was hard to avoid the fact that it had been three decades since Clinton was in office – yet at 77, he’s somehow three years younger than Biden.

Biden, now 80 years old, is the first octogenarian to occupy the Oval Office – and his main rival, former President Donald Trump, is 77. A Monmouth University poll taken in October showed that roughly three-quarters of voters think Biden is too old for office, and nearly half of voters think Trump is too old to serve.

My former boss, President George H.W. Bush, happily chose not to challenge Clinton again in the 1996 election. If he had run and won, he would have been 72 at the 1997 inauguration. 

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Instead, he enjoyed a great second act filled with humanitarian causes, skydiving and grandchildren. Bush’s post-presidential life, and American ideals of retirement in general, raise the question of why these two men, Biden and Trump – who are more than a decade and a half beyond the average American retirement age – are stepping forward again for one of the hardest jobs in the world.

A Trend Toward Older People

Trump and Biden are two of the three oldest men to ever serve as president. For 140 years, William Henry Harrison held the record as the oldest person ever elected president, until Ronald Reagan came along. Harrison was a relatively spry 68 when he took office in 1841, and Reagan was 69 at his first inauguration in 1981.

When Reagan left office at age 77, he was the oldest person ever to have served as president. Trump left office at age 74, and he’s now the third-oldest to hold the office, behind Reagan and Biden.

According to the Census Bureau, the median age in America is 38.9 years old. But with the average ages in the House and Senate at 58 and 64, respectively, a word often used to describe the nation’s governing class is “gerontocracy.”

Teen Vogue, which recently published a story explaining the word to younger voters, defines the term as “government by the elderly.” Gerontocracies are more common among religious leadership such as the Vatican or the ayatollahs in Iran. They were also common in communist ruling committees such as the Soviet Politburo during the Cold War. In democracies, elderly leaders are less common.

Beyond the White House

Biden and Trump aren’t the only aging leaders in the U.S. It’s a bipartisan trend: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, is 72, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is 81. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley was just reelected and has turned 90, with no plans to retire. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is 81 and hasn’t mentioned retirement at all.

In the House, California Democrat and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at age 83, just announced she’s running for reelection for her 19th full term in office. Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who serves as the nonvoting delegate from Washington, D.C., are both 86. Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers and California Democrat Maxine Waters are both 85. Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer is 84.

The list goes on, and none of these politicians has indicated they’re retiring.

A local pharmacist on Capitol Hill made headlines a few years ago when he revealed that he was filling Alzheimer’s medication prescriptions for members of Congress. Every one of the 20 oldest members of Congress is at least 80, and this is the third-oldest House and Senate since 1789.

In July, Sen. Mitch McConnell appeared to freeze while speaking with the media, raising questions about his age and health. 

Delayed Retirement

What’s going on here?

Most baby boomers who delay retirement do so because they can’t afford to stop working, due to inflation or lack of savings. But all of these political leaders have plenty of money in the bank; many are millionaires. If they retired, they would enjoy government pensions and health care benefits in addition to Medicare. So for them, it’s not likely financial.

One theory is that it’s denial. No one likes to be reminded of their own mortality. I know people who equate retirement with death, often because of others they know who have passed away just after stepping down – which may explain why both Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed so long on the job, dying while still in office at age 90 and 87, respectively.

Mary Kate Cary leaned on a brick wall outside on a chilly day

Mary Kate Cary is a former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush and an adjunct professor with the UVA Department of Politics. (Photo contributed by UVA’s Department of Politics)

For others, it’s identity driven. Many of the senior leaders I’ve seen have worked so hard for so long that their entire identity is tied to their jobs. Plus, years of hard work means they don’t have hobbies to enjoy in their remaining years.

Another theory is ego. Some lawmakers think they’re indispensable – that they’re the only ones who can possibly do the job. They’re not exactly humble.

In the political world, their interest is often about power as well. These are the types who think: “Why wouldn’t I want to keep casting deciding votes in a closely divided House or Senate, or keep giving speeches and flying around on Air Force One as president, or telling myself I’m saving democracy?”

It’s easy to see why so few of them want to walk away.

Age Limits?

There have been calls to impose age limits for federal elected office. After all, federal law enforcement officers have mandatory retirement at 57. So do national park rangers. Yet the most stressful job in the world has no upper age limit.

For those who think mandatory retirement is ageist and arbitrary, there are other options: Republican candidate Nikki Haley has called for compulsory mental competency tests for elected leaders who are 75 and older, though she has said passing wouldn’t be a required qualification for office, and failing wouldn’t be cause for removal. A September poll shows huge majorities of Americans support competency testing. That way, the public would know who was sharp and who was not. Sounds like a fine idea to me.

So does having the generosity to step aside and think of others. And having the wisdom to realize that life is short and about more than just going to work. And having the grace to do what John F. Kennedy, the nation’s second-youngest president, once said: to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.

My colleague professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, puts it well: “I’m 70, so I have great sympathy for these people; 80 is looking a lot younger than it used to, as far as I’m concerned. But no, it’s ridiculous. We’ve got to get back to electing people in their 50s and early 60s.” And the polling shows that most Americans would say, “Amen, brother.”

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Mary Kate Cary

Senior Fellow Miller Center of Public Affairs