The Ruling Gerontocracy

We have a president who’s 73 years old. The leading challengers are 78, 76 and 70 years of age. I’m no spring chicken, but damn, these people are old. Is that a bad thing?

Older people today hold disproportionate power because they have the numbers and the means to do so. People 65 and older, for example, are more than three times as likely to make political donations as those under 30. As a result, their voices, amplified by money, carry farther politically than those of the young and impecunious.

There are, of course, obvious reasons for this, though they’re not the sort of reasons that would interest Astra Taylor, for whom age seems to be a stand-alone hurdle to fixing our democracy.

But our democracy is in a moment of crisis. People are, for good reason, losing faith in institutions, parties and political processes and questioning longstanding assumptions. Everything, it seems, is up for grabs. The lack of intergenerational justice, of equity between the young and old, is an underappreciated facet of the current turmoil: A hoary establishment hoards influence, curtailing young people’s ability to effect change.

It’s certainly true that older people vote rather than just twit their most passionate appeals. Nothing prevents people under 30 from voting, except maybe the knowledge of how stamps work. Old people donate more to political candidates, though not bigger sums than young people spend on their iPhones. So what’s the problem?

In “Too Young to Run?” Professor Seery argues that the Constitution effectively treats young people as second-class citizens by imposing minimum age requirements for elected federal office: 25 for Congress, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for president. The nation’s framers, the youngest of whom was 26, Professor Seery writes, “bequeathed an age bias unto posterity by which they themselves did not fully abide,” devising rules ensuring that the country would be governed by people more senior than themselves. (The founders no doubt knew a Latin root of the word “senator,” senex, means “old man.”)

But a 35-year-old can run for president, so what’s that got to do with these dinosaurs from both parties? There are younger candidates, Mayor Pete is a mere 37. Tulsi Gabbard is 38. So?

That is not to say that the faults in America’s political system are solely the result of its biases against the young; the problems we face are myriad and addressing gerontocracy won’t solve them all. But an antiquated system that produces unrepresentative leadership is ill equipped to respond to the problems of our time. And that should concern anyone committed to democratic ideals.

The problem with simplistic cries like Taylor’s is two-fold. The first is that there is a word missing from her childish complaint: experience. Being old means two things. The first is that you’re old and lack the enthusiasm of youth. The second is that you’ve experienced life and, hopefully, come to the realization that enthusiasm doesn’t trump reality, no matter how passionately you wish it would.

Dreams are wonderful. Dreams without recognition of the potential damage if they’re wrong are disastrous.

The second is that young people lack an appreciation of what they don’t know, what could go wrong, despite their certainty that they’re right, they’re brilliant and they know better. When you’re young, your parents are stupid and wrong. It’s not until you get older when you realize they magically got smarter. When we come to this recognition, we realize the foolishness of our childish certainty. It’s a normal part of life.

One would think that by age 40, you would have had this epiphany already. One would think that the New York Times editorial board would know better. Apparently not, as she looks to children as her spiritual guides.

On Sept. 20, millions of people around the world took to the streets as part of the youth-led Global Climate Strike, a week of protests timed with the United Nations climate summit. The movement began when the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg stopped attending classes to protest government failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the young Americans who took up Ms. Thunberg’s call to action was Haven Coleman, a 13-year-old from Colorado. A co-founder of the national group U.S. Youth Climate Strike, she began skipping school every Friday to head to the steps of the State Capitol in Denver. Older people often stop to tell her they don’t understand why she’s protesting. “Because you didn’t do it,” she replies.

In one sense, it’s wonderful that young people are involved in big issues. But don’t confuse passion with knowledge. No climatologist looks to Greta Thunberg for her scientific prowess. She may be inspirational, but is Taylor unaware of the fact that these are not only kids, but kids who can do no more than parrot the fears instilled in them by others?

Those of us who are older, if not wiser, should take another cue from young activists. We need to support forward-looking policies, and we also need to protest.

In the alternative, people like Taylor who are older, if not wiser, should take their cues from people who are wiser. Age and experience alone are no guarantees of wisdom, which is why we don’t install some random old person as president. But lack of maturity is a problem, ironically demonstrated by the scientific recognition of brain development and the concomitant understanding that young people should not be held accountable for their worst actions in the same way as older people.

Does this mean we’re doomed to geriatrics in office? Hardly. By Taylor’s age, one should have gained the maturity and experience to be an excellent president. So where are the 40 and 50-year-olds to unite this nation in hope for all, in addressing our problems and making our nation and lives better? Us “olds” would throw them our support, votes and our money accumulated from a lifetime of working and thrift if they were running.

27 thoughts on “The Ruling Gerontocracy

  1. Richard G. Kopf


    Astra writes:

    The lack of intergenerational justice, of equity between the young and old, is an underappreciated facet of the current turmoil: A hoary establishment hoards influence, curtailing young people’s ability to effect change.

    If this nearly incomprehensible piece of writing means what I think it means, then all I can is good. Get the fuck off my lawn.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      Not that I have any deeper insight into what this gibberish means, but to the extent old people vote more, donate more, run more, know more, understand more, influence more, I’m as hoary as they come.

  2. Leonidas

    When I hear “equity” used like this, I know someone is itching to do a robbery.

    Older people have been earning longer, saving longer, and the wealth they have accumulated will be transferred eventually to their family of dependents. Younger people have less wealth because their employment histories are shorter.

    But “private property is theft” as one of my humanities professors liked to say.

    Come, and take.

  3. phv3773

    Today is my 73rd birthday, so I feel I should stand up for the old timers. However I mostly agree. Certainly Joe and Bernie are too old. They are not only up in years, but showing their age. I would hate to disqualify Warren since she seems energetic and has contributed more ideas to the campaign than the other candidates (even if some of them don’t stand up to close scrutiny) but it is a worry.

    When Obama was elected, I thought the torch had been passed to a new generation, but as soon as he was out of office, the old generation snatched it back.

    1. SHG Post author

      I thought so as well. It’s really not a criticism of old candidates, but a question about where the next generation of great statesmen (statespersons?) are? What happened post-Obama to bring a return to the old folks?

  4. John J

    The nutty professors quoted in Taylor’s article make the judicious grieve. Runciman of Cambridge would give 6-year olds the vote. MacAskill of Oxford proposes a system where “18- to 27- year-olds should possess six times the voting weight of someone 68 or older.” Seery of Pomona, in contrast, seems almost sane, merely taking issue with the 25, 30, & 35, age minimums for the House, Senate, and Presidency. Perhaps the professors can combine their wisdom, and come up with a plan so that first graders, who command nine thousand times the voting weight of geriatrics, will elect 9-year old congresspersons, 12-year old senators, and a president of sweet 16. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

    1. SHG Post author

      I left that out because it was too ridiculous for discussion, even though it certainly reflects Taylor’s bizarre perspective.

    2. Elpey P.

      Just giving younger people the right to vote isn’t going far enough. Given the participation gap between young and old, driven largely by disparities of resources, free time, and emotional validation, forcing young people to go through the difficult and triggering process of casting a ballot in order to be represented amounts to a systemic marginalization of their voices.

      Voting is voter suppression! Autocratic justice now!

      1. SHG Post author

        After we give away our fortunes to the poor, our homes to the marginalized, our kids’ college seats to the vulnerable, we’ll have little left except the vote and a sled to drag us out into the woods.

        1. John J

          Um, ah, Wokovski of Evergreen revealed the appalling, age-related inequities in access to sleds and woods, and demands that no-one over 29 be permitted to use a sled anywhere near trees, snow, undergrowth, gay squirrels, and carbon dioxide. Sorry.

            1. John J

              He’ll need a chaperone to make sure that he uses the preferred pronouns of any transgender opossums encountered in the woods. Instructor Bodine, Mud Lick College of the Fine Arts and Titty Bar, is available, although he only takes payment in Bitcoin and meth.

  5. Hunting Guy

    Robert Heinlein.

    I remembered a time when my grandmother had asked me to explain television to her – the guts, not the funny pictures. There are things which cannot be taught in ten easy lessons, nor popularized for the masses; they take years of skull sweat. This be treason in an age when ignorance has come into its own and one man’s opinion is as good as another’s. But there it is. As Star says, the world is what it is – and doesn’t forgive ignorance.

  6. Keith

    Age and experience alone are no guarantees of wisdom, which is why we don’t install some random old person as president. But lack of maturity is a problem…”

    The people chosen for being on ballots are the end of a very specific selection process. We aren’t picking random kids, to still be standing at the end of the process — which means that the correlation between lack of maturity and age is also far from a given as well.

  7. The Real Kurt

    I’m fine with adjusting the voting age and getting involved – just as long as allowing drinking, driving and owning/carrying firearms are pegged to the same age – whether it’s 16 or 35.

    After all, voting has at least as much impact on society as the rest of those, doesn’t it?

    Let’s see what they have to say about that.

    The Real Kurt

    1. Lee

      Wisdom comes from running full tilt into enough walls that one realizes it may be better to just go around. 🙂

  8. Joseph Masters

    Considering the U.S. has never had a president younger than 42 years of age (TR in 1901) or a man elected president younger than 43 (JFK in 1960), statistically the likelihood of a 37 or 38-year old being elected POTUS seems remote. Realistically, age 50-65 seems the prime age of presidential contenders.

    Why exclude 70+? Because it took almost 200 years before it happened the first time–Reagan (age 73) in 1984. The second time was Trump (70) in 2016, and probability is pointing towards a third instance in 2020. Considering Reagan became loopy as president and was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly after leaving office, and Trump’s…issues; are there enough issues with mental acuity to question whether we should elect yet another president that hails from the 1940s?

Comments are closed.