How Old is Too Old?


Richard Davis

Our society needs to have a broad-ranging and serious discussion about the issue of when a person might be too old to take on specific responsibilities. We have been tinkering around the edges and the topic comes up more frequently now that the media has started to recognize the fact that the average age of U.S. senators is 65 and that of representatives 58.

Perhaps the most talked about age issue is that relating to President Biden who is 80 and would be 86 at the end of his next term in office. Leading candidate Trump is 77. Most of the leadership in the Senate is well over the 65 average and the infirmity of some members has been noted recently.

Some people might be inclined to rush to judgment when it comes to age and say that there should be absolute age limits for certain public offices. Other people argue that term limits would solve the problem without having to discriminate against people because of their age.

We have term limits for governors in some states and we shouldn’t forget that the U.S. President is term-limited and that does not solve the age issue in light of current candidates. Then there is the Supreme Court with its lifetime appointments. We can’t deny the accumulated wisdom of jurists who have a wealth of experience in the realm of law, but is it enough that justices may step down when they feel they can no longer do the job? Would limiting their tenure solve age-related issues? The current age range of justices is 52 to 75.

As the population ages in the world of wonder drugs and new ways to stay healthier a person who is 70 today is not the same as a person who was 70 thirty or 40 years ago. It might be accurate to say that 70 is the new 60.

As I child I remember relatives who were in their 60’s and 70’s who always seemed to have one foot in the grave and seemed to suffer more visibly from the effects of aging than people today. Of course, childhood memories are tainted and unreliable but I think there is a shred of truth in that reflection.

Maybe age should not be the determining factor. There is a wide variability among people and some people at 70 are as sharp and vigorous as a 50 year old and others at 70 may be ravaged by the effects of aging so much that they can barely function. Would it be possible to develop cognitive and physical tests for different occupations that would determine when a person should step aside? That would seem to be a fair approach, but would it be workable? It might be worth exploring..

We have to balance the wisdom that comes with living a long life with the diminishing capacity to perform at a level acceptable for the job at hand. There are many jobs that require people to retire at a certain age because their performance affects the lives of many people and relying on the reflexes and physical limits of an older person would be harmful, such as pilots and air traffic controllers.

But there are other occupations where the wisdom of an older person would benefit a lot of people and enhance the job they are doing such as teachers or doctors. Many teachers and doctors tend to self-limit in terms of retirement and there are teaching options open to them that could extend their working lives and offer a benefit to younger teachers and doctors.

The political realm is where the most heated discussions about age seem to be taking place but we need to consider the age and/or the competency issue in relation to the rest of society as well if we are ever going to be able to figure out fair and equitable ways to approach aging.

Our culture is not good at deliberative discussions and balanced and thoughtful public discourse in 2023.

Perhaps a broad discussion of the age issue could be something that offers us the chance to develop a consensus that rises above the current polarization and petty bickering that has become the hallmark of American politics.

Comments | 2

  • In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

    A few random thoughts as I read this piece… However worthy, I don’t believe a broad, substantive conversation can happen in our society, given the youth obsessed and technologically manic world we’ve created. Seems more energy these days is put into refinement and discernment in robots than people.

    As a kid I remember my reaction to the Old Timers’ baseball game. The still-living greats would lumber down the baselines, struggle to throw across the diamond. Occasionally someone, ‘would still have it’, but that was relative too. Showed pretty dramatically the inescapable decline of aging. Then there’s the case of certain artists; Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Buddy Guy..touring into their 80’s and 90’s. They have responsibilities too, but that can be filed under entertainment, not having the same dire consequences as public safety and stewardship.

    It doesn’t seem we’ve connected stewardship with public safety. Considering how new tech is rolled out, with the clear message- adapt or be left behind…It seems future-looking forces are less interested in gleaning and honoring wisdom of elders, and more eager to swing for the fences, bring the heat, or steal a base at any cost.

  • Depends

    I’m closing in on 60 soon, to which my younger self would probably say is getting pretty old. My younger self would probably appreciate my expertise in some matters, but would generally want me out of the way for making decisions about the world today. I would think I was too old. At 60.

    My younger self would definitely think 70 and 80 were WAY too old to be running the country. My current 60-ish self has some doubts as well.

    I tend to think that after 60, you’ve paid some dues and have earned yourself a break from the pressures of the world. It’s time to unwind, take it easy, navel-gaze and so on. It seems a bit weird to want to go to cabinet meetings and give major speeches every day.

    I don’t trust ANYONE who wants to be president, regardless of age. The pay is too low and pressures too high. No one in their right mind who would take on that much work for that little pay. They MUST have ulterior motives to want to do it. (Or, I suppose, they just love volunteering? Ha!)

    That said, I think age (or mobility, or activity) isn’t really the determining factor. If your mind is clear and you can think and communicate your thoughts, that’s about all that is necessary to be in charge. You need to be able to think things through and delegate. The 200 year old head in a jar could do it! : )

    And, a final thought. Who thinks these “leaders” are actually the ones leading? I’m pretty certain that we have evolved to a system whereby a team is running things. In a lot of ways, people are choosing hundreds of people when they vote for President, not just the one pictured on the box.

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