Why are U.S. politicians so old? And why do they want to stay in office?

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 2023 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. 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, making him 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,…

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