On Saturday 29 September 2023, Senator Dianne Feinstein passed away at age 90. At the time of her death, she was the longest-serving woman in the Senate and the longest-serving senator from California. While netizens expressed their condolences and paid tribute to the politician’s impressive three-decade tenure, they still had one burning question: How was a 90-year-old still in office in the first place?
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Under an Instagram post commemorating Feinstein, one user noted: “Our government is basically hospice care at this point.” Another added: “Can we enforce a mandatory retirement age for US representatives yet? No one should be working until the day they die. Love to her family, and may her soul be at peace.”
According to a YouGov poll from 2022, 58 per cent of Americans want a maximum age for politicians. In September, another survey showed that over 75 per cent of voters were in favour of age limits now. Who is really surprised about this development?
President Joe Biden keeps falling down the stairs and calling Vice President Kamala Harris the leader of the free world. Mitch McConnel has had two public freezing episodes so far. Pauline Newman, a 96-year-old circuit judge, was barred from cases for a year because her co-workers were questioning her mental fitness, plus the median age of the US Senate currently lies at 65.3 years. For context, that’s around the current state pension age in the UK, which is 66.
One thing is clear: the US is ruled by a gerontocracy and it might cost the country the legitimacy of its democracy.
A gerontocracy is a society or a state where power is concentrated among older people. Considering what I just outlined, the US is definitely showing the characteristics of one—particularly when you compare it to the rest of the world. In the UK, for instance, the average age of an MP is 50, according to data from Statista.
This trend has prompted calls for maximum term limits, mandatory retirement and even compulsory mental competency tests for those over 75. In fact, one Republican congressman, John James, proposed an amendment to the US constitution that would bar anyone who is 75 from running for president, vice president or a member of Congress. Don’t ask me why he’s still endorsing Donald Trump, who is 77 years of age, for president though.
When it comes to age limits for lawmakers, the questions that most voters have are to do with medical concerns: Is a person over 75, or even 70, healthy enough for office?
After all, politicans have the ability to declare war, launch nuclear weapons, and control taxes and spending. Considering that the mental fitness of some US politicians is currently in question, voters are questioning their ability to make sound decisions. SCREENSHOT spoke with Doctor Colin Mitchell, a consultant physician and geriatrician from the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, for his opinion on the matter.
The expert explained: “Ageing varies a lot between individuals. For geriatricians, age is not a particularly good guide to fitness, function, or prognosis—we talk more about frailty, which does increase in prevalence with age but is not synonymous with it. You can also often break that down into physical and cognitive frailty which are linked, but again not the same thing. There are some highly functional people in their 90s and some very frail people in their 60s. Ultimately how long you’ve been alive is just not a good guide to whether you can do a job, whether it’s 19 or 90.”
So, while watching Biden fall down the stairs, may not inspire a lot of confidence in his agility, it does not mean that his decision-making capabilities are in the bin just yet.
“The best guide to whether someone can do something difficult is to see if they can do it successfully, reliably and well. But that would apply for people of all ages, and it’s the mechanism we use to judge competence in most jobs—if you can do it, you can keep doing it. If you can’t, you’re moved to another role, fired, or voted out,” Mitchell added.
Ideally, our leaders should somewhat resemble our population to make decisions that resemble what the overall population wants. After all, the US is a representative democracy.
However, there are a couple of reasons why we have so many older politicians. For example, senior politicians have access to more extensive political connections, endorsements, and fundraising power than younger politicians. It’s debatable whether politics are run by money, but US elections definitely are.
For this reason, SCREENSHOT also spoke with Doctor Craig Berry, who conducted research on the rise of gerontocracy in the UK for the Intergenerational Foundation.
Berry explained: “The legitimacy of representative democracy is definitely being challenged from lots of different angles. In the UK and the US, you can see evidence that younger people have less faith in democracy, than older cohorts. Political processes, electing representatives into legislatures, all of these things were designed in a time of much lower life expectancy where society was dominated by the young, rather than the old. I do not think there is any direct causation between an ageing society and people having less faith in democracy, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that declining faith in democracy and population ageing are happening at the same time.”
When I questioned him on the impact of a gerontocracy on democracy Berry replied: “First thing to say is that there is not a great deal of evidence that population ageing is having a direct negative impact on younger people. Older people are not directly voting against the interests of younger people.” Nevertheless, there is evidence that their opinions differ on some topics.
We like to assume that democracy is blind to demographic characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and age. However, our life-stage can have a crucial impact on our political beliefs, interests and behaviour.
“There are some things that are quite telling,” Dr Berry noted. “After 2010, there was an austerity period where the one area of spending that was partially protected was healthcare, which older people are more likely to use because they have more complex healthcare needs than younger ones. Education, which directly benefits younger people, was not protected in the same way. We also were given things like the protection of state pensions. We don’t have the same protection for benefits that are received by working-age people. So there is some evidence that an ageing electorate is producing outcomes which benefit older people more than younger people.”
In a world where young people are getting increasingly frustrated and disengaged with politics due to a lack of relatable leaders, who share their values, it is becoming clear that we need to invigorate the way we do politics.
According to our experts, there is no straightforward answer, such as implementing age limitations for elected officials. Instead, we need greater support for young candidates, lower voting ages, fewer statutory minimum age restrictions, and generally just an action plan to modernise the way we do politics so that we can disempower and abolish all signs of a gerontocracy.