Say what you will about the presidential candidates, as long as it isn’t ‘They’re too old’

If American voters have any doubts about the age of the two presidential candidates, they should know that today’s 70-year-old is similar to the energy of a 50-year-old of just a few generations ago.

In just a few weeks, the United States will elect its oldest president ever, just four years after the two oldest presidential candidates in history faced each other in the last general election. Many have argued — some in good faith, but many not — whether Biden and Trump still have the fitness to serve, including the candidates themselves.

Did voters question the age of our Founding Father, George Washington? Washington was unanimously elected in 1789 at the age of 57, a surprising 32 percent above the average life expectancy of the day of 43. Our history books never portray him as old or senile, as it was precisely Washington’s experience through adversity that made him the best candidate.

Similarly, Biden and Trump have an experience bench that’s hard to match. Both have been witness to the country’s biggest wars, WWII and the Vietnam War, combined with a painful trail of financial recessions and collapses in ’62, ’74, ’87, ’99-01, ’08 and now, 2020. Experience matters, experience has value, and it often outweighs the majority of other factors — age being one of them.

What’s been absent from the conversation is how comparatively capable today’s older adults are, compared to previous generations.

Age is just a number

In 1950, the average life expectancy for white males in the United States was 67. Today, according to the CDC’s most recent data from 2017, that number has jumped all the way to 76.4. That’s nearly 10 years higher. What’s more, scientists now believe this average could go up as some people are living up to 115 years old.

Researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis argue that old age shouldn’t be defined by the specific starting age of retirement (which in the United States is 65). Rather, they believe it should be based on how much time people typically have left to live. With the average life expectancy increasing, the notion of what we once deemed as “old” is older than it used to be.

According to an estimate from Great Britain’s Office for National Statistics, the average Baby Boomer retiree will live another 24 years. And according to the World Economic Forum, at least 50 percent of individuals born after 2007 will live to over 100.

With the rising numbers of greater life expectancy, the threshold of “old age” is shifting in our society. In this case, 70 could very well be the new 50 as Boomers continue to work through their 60s and 70s. Whether they are delaying retirement to enroll in college again and continuing their studies in a field that excites them or starting a new position as a CEO at age 70, older generations are more engaged than ever.

It isn’t just this election: older leaders prevail for a reason

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are 77 and 74 years old, respectively. But a number of world leaders are well over the age of 80. Many people associate older leaders around the globe with dictators who won’t step aside, but we’ve also seen a number of effective and beloved leaders in their 70s and 80s.

People often look to older leaders to lead through times of major transitions. Nelson Mandela, one of the most beloved world leaders of all time, was 75 when he was inaugurated as president of South Africa in 1994. Tunisia’s Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in 2019 at 92 as the oldest sitting president in the world, was urged out of retirement in 2011 to become the nation’s first freely elected president following the Arab Spring protests.

Older leadership isn’t just a foreign trend: there are a dozen octogenarians both in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Some have argued that term limits must be enacted to limit the influence of incumbents, but older congresspeople also have the tenure to lead committees, propose bills and break through the inertia of Congress on behalf of their constituents and political parties. Our Supreme Court justices, who are arguably more influential on the future of the American way than a president, have no retirement age. We value and need the wisdom, judgment and balanced perspective that comes from experience. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 87, isn’t critiqued when she shares her point of view because of her age.

Relevancy and older adults

Finally, one criticism that’s been levied against older candidates is that their “older ways,” including lack of familiarity with technology, makes them unqualified for the highest office in the land. Pundits were quick to attack John McCain as “out of touch” and “too old” in 2008 when he confessed his lack of digital literacy in a series of interviews.

While similar criticisms persist today, the sun seems to be setting on the “seniors don’t know how to use technology” stereotype. According to Pew Research, 14 percent of people ages 65 and older were internet users in 2000; now it’s 73 percent. Older adults are increasingly embracing social media across the board: Usage has doubled for adults ages 50-64 and more than tripled for adults ages 65 and older over the past decade. The president is a prime example: Although his tweets elicit very different reactions from his supporters and opposition, Trump’s use of Twitter is arguably the most impactful use of communication technology by a president since FDR’s fireside chats.

COVID-19 has accelerated this shift to digital fluency: Older adults who’ve been forced to adopt new technologies as their primary form of communication have benefitted from increased proficiency. The pandemic has shifted millions of older adults to shop online, stay connected to loved ones via video chats and “visit” with their doctors via telemedicine. Many senior living communities have made a push to equip their residents with digital tools and the education needed to use them.

The rapid increase in the adoption of technology by this segment is an indication that older adults are “just like us.” The behavior of older adults is changing, and so must our perceptions of age change as well.

What comes next?

Older adults are the fastest-growing population, and both candidates are making appeals for their vote. In the last presidential election, 71 percent of voters age 60 and above exercised their right to vote, compared with just 43 percent of 18- to 29-year olds. This block of older voters will have an outsized impact on one of the most important elections in recent history. This group is certainly not judging their peers on the basis of age. Rather, they personally understand and value that longevity can be a competitive advantage.

Abby Miller Levy is Managing Partner of Primetime Partners, new venture fund focused on the underserved aging population, with Alan Patricof (the Grandfather of VC) and former President of Thrive Global.

Tags 2020 election Ageing baby boomers Digital literacy Donald Trump Joe Biden John McCain life expectancy Old age Retirement Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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