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When Job Demands Exceed Their Abilities, Older Workers Retire. Politicians and Justices Should Too
With federal and judicial representatives among the oldest ever to serve, the experience and concerns of younger voters go unheard.
By Saif Hossein
In 2023, videos and images of President Joe Biden, Senator Mitch McConnell, and the late Senator Dianne Feinstein went viral, and it wasn’t for their policies. Multiple news organizations from both sides of the aisle drew attention to their rambling speech, slurring, and freezing, asking whether these were a product of cognitive decline. However, none of these politicians’ physicians offered any insight into their health. In the absence of this information, Americans are concerned about the ability of some senior officials to perform in their roles. These individuals make decisions that impact the lives of generations of Americans and millions more worldwide. Increasingly, Americans feel less and less comfortable with that prospect. An NBC News poll found that 68 percent of responders were concerned about Biden’s mental and physical ability to handle the duties of a President.
In the late 18th century, the founding fathers established age minimums for elected officials. The Constitution declared that the President and Vice President of the U.S. must be at least 35 years old. The precedent of a two-term maximum for the President was later encoded into the Bill of Rights. The Constitution also stated that House Representatives and Senators must be at least 25 and 30 years of age, respectively, with no term limits. The Supreme Court possesses no age requirement; however, justices are granted lifetime service, as long as they demonstrate “good behavior.” Thus, the U.S. Constitution allows for situations in which judges and Congresspersons can die of old age while holding office. And, though the two-term limit can restrict the President’s age to an extent, it does not prevent those elected in their 60s or 70s from pushing into an elderly age bracket during their last years of service.
The structure of the U.S. government allows politicians and justices to spend decades in the same position, so long as they remain popular among constituents and exhibit “good behavior,” respectively. However, this becomes misguided when individuals who are no longer competent make decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of millions. Each branch of the U.S. government ought to implement mandatory, standardized cognitive testing annually for every politician and judge above the age of 65. Those who cannot meet the standard must step down from their position.
The ages of politicians are creeping upward
The first reason is the difference in age during employment. We should approach the issue of age in the U.S. government differently than how it is handled in the private sector. U.S. politicians and justices remain employed at older ages than workers in the private sector. President Joe Biden is 80 years old. President Donald Trump was 70 when inaugurated. The median age of the Senate is 65.3 years, the highest it’s ever been, while the median age of the House of Representatives is 57.9 years. The average age of the United States Supreme Court is 62.9 years. In comparison, the average U.S. retirement age is 63, while the average U.S. life expectancy is 76.1 years. Each branch of the United States government has seen an upward shift in its members’ average age.
The second reason is the stakes. The decisions made by the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court shape the lives of generations of Americans, including those yet to be born. More than 330 million Americans and countless more worldwide are affected by the choices of our elected officials and Supreme Court justices. It is problematic if biological factors impede them from competent decision-making.
The second reason is the stakes. The decisions made by the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court shape the lives of generations of Americans, including those yet to be born. Over 330 million Americans and countless more worldwide are affected by the choices of our elected officials and Supreme Court justices. It is problematic if biological factors impede them from competent decision-making.
“IQ goes down on average at a rate of 5 IQ points per decade. If elderly people in their 70s and 80s were compared to young people, or a norms group of all ages, then their average IQ may be on the same level that we associate with intellectual disability,” said Alan Kaufmann, a clinical professor of psychology at Yale University Child Study Center. He says that people lose ability as they get older, both in how they solve new problems and the time it takes them. “You used to be this super-gifted, hot-shot lawyer, and now you are average. I don’t want somebody with average intelligence trying to solve the problems of a nation or make decisions.”
Aging increases the risk of cognitive and physical limitations. From dementia to hypertension, to heart failure, aging brings forth numerous health obstacles. We must be certain that members of Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court Justices are performing at their best in the face of these heightened health risks.
Recent research indicates that elderly government officials may be cognitively affected by the biology of aging. A study back in 2020 found that two-thirds of all Americans around the age of 70 and older are cognitively impaired to some extent. In other words, the majority of Americans over 70 exhibit at least mild levels of dementia. Furthermore, another study by the American Psychological Association found that cognitive function can deteriorate up to seven years before a mild cognitive impairment diagnosis, and up to eleven years before a dementia diagnosis.
“There can definitely be cognitive changes that happen in the sixties and seventies,” said Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at Rush University Medical Center. “They may affect the person’s ability to reason well or think through complex choices and complex situations.” Given these findings, it is fair to wonder whether our elderly government officials are executing with the mental acuity demanded by their position.
An older government deprives young voters of a voice
The third reason is that the elderly demographic is overrepresented in the United States government. Government officials should be fully cognizant of the consequences their decisions have on the lives of younger Americans. There is a concern that elected officials may inadvertently prioritize issues that resonate more with their age group, at the expense of overlooking the pressing needs of younger generations. Topics such as Social Security and pensions may receive more legislative attention than issues relevant to the young such as student loans, climate change, and social justice. This situation risks alienating younger voters who feel underrepresented in their government. Responsible, timely replacement of elderly government officials who can no longer keep up with their position presents an opportunity for younger politicians and judges to introduce the perspectives and priorities of newer generations.
Of course, it is wrong to assume that people over the age of 65 no longer possess the ability to perform as an elected official or federal judge. Many well-known individuals produced their life’s greatest work as a member of the elderly age bracket. Long-time actor Judi Dench became famous worldwide at age 61, after taking a prominent role in the James Bond movie series. Grandma Moses became a renowned painter only after reaching her 60s, and many of her works are displayed in the Museum of Modern Art. Charles Darwin was in his 60s when he wrote The Descent of Man.
However, their professions did not involve shaping the laws and policies of an entire nation. Furthermore, The precedent of forced retirement upon reaching a certain age is not new, even in the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits commercial airlines from employing pilots over the age of 65 for the safety of airline passengers. The number of people affected by the U.S. government is orders greater in magnitude. Additionally, world events, policies, and public sentiment change rapidly: keen senses and adaptability are paramount.
Retirement reform will increase public trust
Major criticisms of the federal government today include a lack of public trust and appearing out of touch with the people they serve. “We want to know that the people that we are electing as our decision makers are smart. We need to know they have a good working memory,” said Kaufmann. “We as the people, who want to be protected, should be able to evaluate the competence of those people we elected.” Cognitive testing will not only strengthen public confidence in our nation’s leaders but also facilitate a potential changing of the guard in Capitol Hill, with a shift towards younger representatives and judges.
Annual cognition tests on government officials above the age of 65 will balance the physical and mental health risks with the insight, experience, and wisdom that comes with old age. It is the most logical step to address concerns about aging government officials, given the high age brackets of Congress and SCOTUS, the sheer magnitude of their influence worldwide, and the disproportionate representation of age in the U.S. government. Those who have lived through historical events have different perspectives than those who have not. It would be irresponsible to block competent individuals from serving their constituents. However, it is even more irresponsible to allow the cognitively impaired to take part in serious, high-stakes decisions on behalf of the United States.
We owe it to ourselves and our fellow Americans that our Representatives, Senators, President, and Supreme Court Justices represent the best of us. That they can be trusted to handle their responsibilities and meet the needs of American citizens. Cognitive tests represent a monumental step forward in regaining confidence — and promoting transparency — in Washington, D.C.