|How the sausage is made|
Gerontocracy (meaning "rule by elders") is a term for a type of oligarchical rule where the offices of government or influence are held predominantly by those of middle age or older. Gerontocracy has roots in Ancient Greece, where Plato once said that "it is for the elderly to rule and for the young to submit." Gerontocracy has problems for any system of government in that it excludes or severely restrains the young from participating in the affairs of government, and hence only issues that the elderly are concerned about get any real attention.
Gerontocracy started becoming increasingly prominent in the USSR from the 1970s onwards. By 1980, all members of the Politburo were in their 70s or older. Brezhnev himself died at the age of 75, but had a stroke ten years prior. By the last two years of his reign, he was so debilitated that he was little more than a figurehead. Among the eight Soviet leaders, only the last one, Mikhail Gorbachev, was born in the actual Soviet Union.
There had actually been something of a running theme of Soviet leaders dying of old age one after another. Yuri Andropov, Brezhnev's successor, only served for 15 months before croaking. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, actually fared worse, somehow, only lasting for 13 months before kicking the bucket. Saint Ronnie, himself a noted gerontocrat, once said about this: "How am I supposed to get anywhere with the Russians if they keep dying on me?"
It should come as no surprise that the good ol' US of A has a gerontocracy problem, rather sad for what was once a young nation born from revolution. Joe Biden, the current POTUS, is 79 years old. The man himself has said his age is a "valid issue for voter concerns." In fact, Biden is the oldest US President on record. His immediate predecessor was little better, being elected into Office at the age of 70. Trump exhibited signs of dementia (an age-related spectrum of neurodegenerative diseases) while in Office. In fact, Trump's own pet ghoul, Steve Bannon, also apparently believed Trump had dementia.
The US Congress is nearly as bad, with 117th Congress (2021-2022) having an average age of 64.3 for Senators and 58.4 for Representatives. The Senate is especially notable for having its average age barely below the US age of retirement. It's even worse when one looks at lengths in office, with an average of 8.9 years for the House and 11.0 years in the Senate. In short, many of these people are goddamn fossils and have been around for a long time. Like the people involved, the problem is very old. Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, stayed in the Senate for 51 years, and Patrick Leahy, also a Democrat but from Vermont, is currently in the Senate as of 2022 and has held his seat for 47 years. On the Republican side, former Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been in office for 37 years, and Orrin Hatch of Utah was in office for 42 years. Senator Byrd's time in office especially illustrates the kind of time periods we're talking about. Byrd entered office in 1959, before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and he stayed in office long enough to vote on Obamacare in 2010. Also, continuing the subject of Joe Biden from above, he held his seat in the Senate for 36 years.
The US Constitution delimits age requirements for the various federal political offices. The minimum to be President is 35 years, the minimum to be Senator is 30, and the minimum to be a Representative is 25. To be fair, this does not necessarily lead to a gerontocracy, but it is definitely one of the root causes of the gerontocracy problem within the government of the United States.
Cognitive impairment is a major health problem for the elderly. Studies show that the risk of cognitive impairment starts to rise significantly after age 70, and the prevalence of moderate to severe cognitive impairment in the US population 70 and over is about 9.5%. Symptoms of mental decline include forgetfulness, difficulty following a conversation, difficulty making decisions, and potentially shortness of temper or increased aggression. These are really traits one should not find desirable in their national and world leaders. Cognitive decline is also a potential symptom of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, a point that raised the debate over whether Ronald Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer's while he was sparring and dealing with the Soviets from the White House.
For the United States, this has already had an impact on politics. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump snidely raised concerns that the opposing candidate was getting slow in their old age. After Trump — good god — became President, his increasingly erratic and twisted speaking style combined with his obesity and age as risk factors led journalists and voters to speculate whether Trump was suffering from neurological problems and whether the US government was even equipped to deal with such an eventuality. Trump's successor Joe Biden, even older, suffered from such speculation as well, especially after he asked an audience where US Representative Jackie Walorski was when she had actually died in a widely-publicized car accident the previous month. US Representative Ronny Jackson of Texas went so far as to call on Biden to take a cognitive test and share the results. Despite partisanship motivating much of this furor, it is concerning for anyone when the most powerful men in the world, with a massive nuclear arsenal at their fingertips, are subject to the "should Dad still be driving" talk.
Symptom of an elite class
Gerontocracy, when discussed as a problem, also exposes the deeper problem of entire generations maintaining a disproportionate hold on political capital and regular capital. The Soviet Union, for instance, became a widely-recognized gerontocracy thanks to the generation born before the 1917 October Revolution keeping a stranglehold on the Politburo until Mikhail Gorbachev managed to take over in 1985. These men stayed in power despite the average life-expectancy of the Soviet Union being in the low 60s.
More relevantly, the United States' current problem with elderly lawmakers is reflected in its economy. In 2021, Americans age 70 and above had a net worth of nearly $35 trillion, more than a quarter of all wealth in the US (and you know it's bad when the goddamn Wall Street Journal is sounding the alarm on this). It's estimated that this elderly generation will hand down $61 trillion to their direct heirs, and inheritances in general increased 45% from 1998 to 2021. What these numbers demonstrate are members of an entire generation stockpiling a nation's wealth for themselves. Millennials, by contrast, had less than 5% of all US wealth in 2020, while baby boomers who were the same age in 1989 had 21%. Most millennials could also forget about the stock market, as they only held 2% of corporate equities and mutual funds, while in 1989 baby boomers had 18.2%. The youth in America are broadly worse off than their parents and grandparents were before them. Instead of fulfilling the human dream of leaving behind a better life for their children, older Americans are leaving behind a worse one.
In the United States, the problem won't be going away soon either. Baby boomers experienced far better economic circumstances far earlier in their lives than any future generations and therefore stockpiled a greater degree of wealth from a younger point in their lives. Older people, having more money, resources, and connections, find it much easier to win offices. And the electoral advantage enjoyed by incumbents ensures they stick around for a long time as well. The gerontocracy problem will also get worse for the US in the future. The number of elderly Americans will be at its highest point ever in 2023, and the baby boomer hold on the US government won't break until they literally start dying off in about 20 years.
An elderly ruling class also has serious implications for the overall direction a country is heading in. The much-criticized Soviet gerontocracy created a ruling class that stockpiled wealth and resources for itself while refusing to reform old economic policies that were clearly failing in the modernizing world. For the United States, the elderly are 52% of the voting population despite being only 34% of the overall population. It's therefore their ideals and priorities to which Congress and the president will respond. The US government therefore spends far more on Medicare (which benefits the elderly) than Medicaid (which benefits the poor), and its approach towards race and immigration are tailored in response to elderly voters' overall more conservative attitude towards those subjects. On the issue of climate change, the issue is seen even more clearly. Gallup polls showed 70% of respondents aged 18-34 worried about climate change versus only 54% of respondents 55 and up. With that context, it really makes perfect fucking sense that the US government likes to drag its shoes so much on climate issues.
- Bytheway, B. (1995). Ageism (p. 45). Buckingham: Open University Press.
- America, the Gerontocracy. Politico.
- "The Coming Change of Generations in the Kremlin" - The New York Times
- Kort, Michael. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, p. 335. M. E. Sharpe, 2006, ISBN 0-7656-1454-5.
- Post, Jerrold M.; Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World, p. 96. Cornell University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8014-4169-2
- See the Wikipedia article on List of leaders of the Soviet Union.
- An article on Yuri Andropov courtesy of the Britannica Encyclopedia
- "Where's the Rest of Him" - The New York Times
- Biden Congressional Bio
- "Biden acknowledges his age is an issue"
- "Joe Biden Will Be the Oldest President Elected"
- How old is Donald Trump?
- The CDC's guide on aging and dementia
- Does Trump have dementia?
- Steve Bannon claims Trump has dementia - The Guardian
- Membership of the 117th Congress: A Profile. Congressional Research Service.
- Longest-Serving Senators. US Senate.
- Sen. Robert Byrd: key health care votes. healthcarereformvotes.org
- Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution
- Article I, Section 3, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution
- Article I, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution
- Life Expectancy With Cognitive Impairment in the Older Population of the United States. Kristen Suthers, Jung Ki Kim, Eileen Crimmins. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 58, Issue 3, May 2003, Pages S179–S186, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/58.3.S179 Published: 01 May 2003.
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Mayo Clinic.
- Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's while president, says son. The Guardian.
- Is Donald Trump Too Old to Be President? Politico.
- Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change? Stat News.
- Obesity and Advanced Age Are Risk Factors for Trump. Psychology Today.
- Is Something Neurologically Wrong With Trump? The Atlantic.
- Biden’s Brain Farts Should Scare the Hell Out of Anyone Who Doesn’t Want Trump Back in the White House. The Daily Beast.
- Rep. Jackson Renews Call For President Biden To Take A Cognitive Test As Democrats Acknowledge Biden’s Cognitive Decline. Ronny Jackson, Congressman for Texas-13.
- Who`s Got A Gerontocracy Now? Chicago Tribune.
- When Brezhnev comes to America: Gerontocracy in action. Salon.
- Older Americans Stockpiled a Record $35 Trillion. The Time Has Come to Give It Away. Wall Street Journal.
- Millennials own less than 5% of all U.S. wealth. CNBC.
- Corporate equities and mutual fund shares by generation. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
- Here’s why millennials have to fight harder than their parents did to stay in the middle class. CNBC.
- Gerontocracy Is Hurting Democracy. New York Magazine.
- Old men helped cause the Soviet Union's collapse. Historians say it's a warning sign for the United States. Business Insider.