Its ageing elites symbolise a broader cultural stagnancy
With his approval ratings hitting new lows, Joe Biden doesn’t have much to celebrate right now. But he will look forward to the 20th November: his 80th birthday. And this won’t just be a personal milestone, but also a national one — because for the first time in its history the USA will have an octogenarian President.
Though Biden is the first to break this particular age barrier, he’s no outlier. As Derek Thompson explains in a fascinating — and alarming — piece for The Atlantic, America’s elite is ageing fast. In just about every field of human endeavour — from politics to business to science — the leading figures are, on average, not as young as they used to be.
But it is politics where the greying of the elites is at its most obvious. Just look at Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2020 — when the second, third and fourth-placed candidates (i.e. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg) were all seventy-somethings. Together with the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, that meant that the top five presidential hopefuls were all of retirement age. It’s not just the Presidency that’s a pensioners’ playground. For instance, America now has the oldest Senate in its history. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the Speaker is 82-year-old Nancy Pelosi.
Why is this happening? Why aren’t America’s leaders making way for younger men and women? The most obvious explanation is that Western societies as a whole are getting older. Thus there’s a larger pool of older people to fill the top jobs and a larger number of older voters willing to elect them. Advanced medical treatments mean that our leaders can keep going for longer and advanced cosmetic treatments keep them from looking too decrepit.
One might also blame cultural stagnation. Across most art forms — music, cinema, literature — this is clearly not a golden age. Perhaps voters prefer older politicians because their public personas are rooted in a more colourful and creative era. And yet these demographic and cultural factors apply just as much to Europe, where politics is not dominated by the elderly. For instance, the French elected Emmanuel Macron to the top job when he was just 39. Now at a still-youthful 44, he can count himself as Europe’s senior statesman. Or perhaps that honour belongs to another 44-year-old, Ukraine’s Volodymr Zelensky.
Meanwhile, in Britain, our next Prime Minister will either be Liz Truss (47) or Rishi Sunak (42). Furthermore, the average age of our MPs — approximately 50 — has barely shifted over the last forty years. So the mystery remains: why are America’s politicians so old? It’s not as if everything is going so swimmingly that they don’t need an infusion of fresh blood.
Instead of looking to the ageing of Western societies, the answer must lie in factors unique to America’s political system. Two explanations immediately spring to mind: firstly the rigidity of America’s two-party system; and secondly the unrestricted influence of big money politics. A country whose economic success was built on ruthless competition is now held hostage to a political system that is ideally designed for the hoarding of power.