Today President Joe Biden turns 80 years old. If he wins a second term in 2024, he’d be 86 by the time he left office. A former President who has already declared himself a candidate is only four years younger than Biden.
Earlier this week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—who is 82—declared that she will step away from party leadership in the House of Representatives.
Biden and Trump should follow Pelosi’s lead.
This is not ageism. Clearly, two of these three politicians have still “got it” and have a lot to offer in terms of knowledge, wisdom, and experience. But why should we wait to retire until we can’t do the job anymore? We need to retire when it’s time to turn things over to the next generation.
The problem is not the old folks themselves, but rather the implications of their vital longevity for the generations coming up behind them. Never before in human history (I await correction if I’m wrong) have we found it needful to name successive generations—baby boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z—because there have never before been so many adult generations competing for access and relevance. (Earlier generations have been named only in retrospect.) Boomers have continued to hold fast to the reins of power while three generations of potential successors wait in the wings with increasing impatience. This election cycle saw the election to Congress of a member of Gen Z—our President’s great-grandchild generation. Something needs to change.
In societies the world over there have been mechanisms for moving society through generational transitions. It was a focus of my anthropological fieldwork (in Central America and later in Ireland) when I was in academia and it became the crux of the extended thought experiment I pursued more recently in a series of science fiction novels (the Recall Chronicles). As people live longer and maintain both mental and physical health well into their 80s and beyond, it becomes clear that we need more deliberate mechanisms of transition.
Tension is increasing to the breaking point between the stubborn boomer generation and the directions Gen X and Millennials (and, increasingly, Gen Z as well) want to take our society. Some boomers have kept up remarkably well with innovations in technology and advances in our understanding of history and genetics and climate science. Others not so much. But even those who are the most tech savvy and knowledgeable are incapable of truly comprehending the experience of the younger generations who have grown up in a world that diverges significantly from the one boomers knew in their own youth.
I’m not suggesting that the old folks be relegated to some equivalent of the Irish “west room” to which a farmer retired when they’d officially passed the farm on to an heir, becoming dependent and irrelevant as they waited to die.
But we definitely need to talk about this. For now, the best solution is for the old folks to graciously step aside, transitioning into an informal role as elder statesmen and stateswomen. Nancy Pelosi did this voluntarily. I hope Biden will follow her lead.