Foreign Policy

70 is the brand new 50 for world leaders

When the next US president is sworn in on January 20, 2021, he will be the oldest person to ever take the oath of office. If Donald Trump is re-elected, he will be 74 years old; If it's Joe Biden he'll be 78 years old. (The previous record was set in 1985 when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for his second term three weeks before he was 74.)

Both candidates raised concerns about each other's fitness and relied on common tropes for age and disability. Trump's campaign even portrayed Biden in a wheelchair as an elderly and disabled potential resident of a retirement home, while Trump himself took heat off due to problems going up and down ramps.

Of course, we've had senior presidents for whom health was a problem. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt both suffered debilitating strokes in their 60s in office. Reagan was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's five years after he left, and opponents raised concerns that he may have had early signs by then. A generation ago was 70 years old, well beyond retirement and into old age.

Today, however, that's just not true anymore. In a variety of dimensions, Americans – especially white college graduates – are living longer, healthier, and more active than before.

In Washington, DC and New York (at the youngest homes of Trump and Biden), male life expectancy rose 13.7 years from 1990 to 2015 only. Across the country, the gains were even several years higher for those who had earned college degrees. Older people are much healthier too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly three-quarters of Americans age 75 and older rated their health (or the health of a family member) as good to excellent in 2017, compared with two-thirds who did so in 1991 .

Concerns are sometimes voiced regarding both candidates that they may be at risk of dementia. And it is true that dementia is a moderate risk in those aged 75 and over. However, the latest studies show that these risks are also decreasing. A study conducted by Harvard University, published earlier this year, shows that the risk of a 75-year-old man developing dementia in the remaining years went from a 25 percent chance in 1995 to an 18 percent chance has dropped today – a decrease in the risk of dementia by almost a third.

Other old age weaknesses are also being remedied today. Loss of mobility, vision and hearing was once seen as an inevitable consequence of aging, which deprived seniors of their ability to lead powerful and energetic lives. But today, 80-year-olds play tennis on spare hips and knees, see clearly thanks to routine cataract changes, and gain access to powerful digital hearing aids that filter random noises for clear understanding and conversation. We now know that routine exercise and fitness prolong youth: as of 2019, the average time for people between 60 and 65 years of age to complete a 10K race is less than 10 minutes longer than for people between 25 and 29 years of age!

The result of these positive trends is that 70-year-olds are playing a more active role in key management positions than ever before. According to the Crist Kolder Volatility Report 2020, the age of new CEOs is around 20 percent higher today than in 2005, and around 40 percent of working CEOs are over 60 years old. This includes such famous decision makers as Warren Buffett (90 years old). Rupert Murdoch (89) and Roger Penske (83).

At the US Congress, 36 members of the House of Representatives and 14 members of the Senate were over 75 years old. seven of the latter were 80 or older. These include the heads of both chambers: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (78 years old this year) and spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi (80 years old).

Many other countries around the world, including both democracies and dictatorships, have old national leaders. These include Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel (71), Mahathir Mohamad from Malaysia (who resigned in March before his 95th birthday to be replaced by Muhyiddin Yassin (73)), Sebastián Piñera from Chile (70) and Hassan Rouhani from Iran (71), Sheikh Hasina from Bangladesh (73), Yoshihide Suga from Japan (71), Nicos Anastasiades from Cyprus (74), Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar (75), Rodrigo Duterte from the Philippines (75), Nguyen Phu Trong from Vietnam (76), Nana Akufo-Addo from Ghana (76) and Muhammadu Buhari from Nigeria (77). In retrospect, Winston Churchill, one of Trump's heroes, began his final term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the age of 76. and since 1975 Japan has had no fewer than seven prime ministers who served until the 1970s.

So a president at 70 shouldn't be a cause for concern. Indeed, in the current political situation in the United States, this can be beneficial.

Older executives differ from younger ones in their skills. Your strength, of course, is experience. A leader with decades of experience has likely seen various crises before and knows how to respond effectively (and what mistakes to avoid). They know what it's like to make difficult calls and have a longer perspective. They are less innovative, but for that reason they are also likely to be less polarizing.

Of course, that was not true of 70-year-old Donald Trump when he took office in 2017. But Trump came to the presidency with no political experience. He's honed his real estate development and reality TV skills, so it should come as no surprise that he drew on his vast experience running his White House much like a development company with a reality TV model for media exposure.

Joe Biden is more likely to rule as a seasoned high-ranking political leader. That said, he's more able to compromise, be less ideological, and offer a more calming presence. Given that the United States is in the midst of two colliding crises – an ongoing pandemic and a severe economic contraction – while facing the need to manage US relations with alienated democratic allies and the growing threats posed by authoritarian regimes, this is possibly exactly what the country needs. After the non-stop din and chaos of the Trump years, veteran Biden can provide a calming contrast.

Does this mean the United States faces a future of geriatric leaders? I do not think so. We are likely seeing the final culmination of leadership in the baby boom generation in both Congress and the Presidency. In fact, the 2020 election is likely to be the last with boomers being the largest generation of voters. If US voters have shown a pattern in their political preferences, it is a desire for change. After George W. Bush resumed the Bush dynasty, voters were drawn to the promise of a young, inexperienced, but passionate candidate for Barack Obama. After Obama, when voters had a choice between another potential dynastic leader (Hillary Clinton) and a complete outsider (Donald Trump), enough voters chose something completely different to give Trump the presidency. According to polls, this year the pendulum could return to a candidate in Biden who is exemplary of political experience.

But in 2024, voters may again be impatient for change. In the upcoming election, the new generations of millennials and post-millennials – a larger, more ethnically diverse, and better educated group than baby boomers – will make up a much larger portion of the voting population. While 75 percent of Americans 55 and older were non-Hispanic whites as of 2015, it was only about 56 percent for millennials. The shift is particularly pronounced in electoral states such as Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania. As this trend continues, the electorate is likely to prefer a candidate who represents youth, change, and diversity. For the next quarter of a century, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Marco Rubio will fit the profile of future presidents more than aging baby boomers. But for now, a seasoned 70 year old should work fine.

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