By Nancy S. Jecker
President Joe Biden was “fine,” according to White House Communications Director Ben LaBolt, after tripping over a sandbag at a U.S. Air Force graduation ceremony on June 1, 2023.
But his fall was caught on live camera – and people on social media speculated about what was behind it.
Biden, approaching his 81st birthday in November 2023, is the oldest serving U.S. president. He shares the distinction of old age with a growing number of politicians, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who, at age 90, is the oldest person in the Senate and has served as senator since 1992.
Some people – from fellow Democrats to The New York Times editorial board – have questioned whether Feinstein can fulfill the duties of her job, citing incidents in which she stumbled over words. Feinstein began reading prepared remarks during a Senate appropriations hearing vote on July 27, 2023, until her democratic colleague, Sen. Patty Murray, whispered to her, “Just say aye.”’
Feinstein was also absent for prolonged periods with various illnesses, including shingles and encephalitis from February through May 2023. She later told journalists that she “hasn’t been gone” and simply worked from home during her illness.
In July 2023, 81-year-old Sen. Mitch McConnell trailed off and froze mid-sentence while speaking at a lectern to the press. Aides ushered him off camera. McConnell later said, “I’m fine,” when journalists questioned him about the incident.
Such incidents prompt the question: Can politicians be too old to serve in office? Should society make retiring at a certain age mandatory for elected officials who run the country – like presidents and senators?
I am a philosopher and bioethicist who studies ethics related to individual and societal aging, and these questions are at the forefront of what I think about. Whatever view one takes on the ethics of age limits for politicians, voting remains the primary way to put one’s views into practice.
Minuimum age requirements
Requirements for U.S. presidential candidates haven’t changed since 1789, when the Constitution was written. In that era, the average life expectancy was about 34 years – but varied greatly for people who were slaves or free.
Today, the life span for the average American is 79 years. But it tends to be much higher for people like politicians, who are relatively wealthy and receive good health care.
In the U.S., a person needs to be 35 years old or older in order to be president. A person must be at least 25 years old in order to serve in the House of Representatives, while the minimum age rises slightly to 30 years old for serving in the Senate.
A question of maximum age limits
The U.S. banned age discrimination in workplaces in 1967.
Should politicians who lead the country be an exception to this law?
A 2022 YouGov poll reported that 58% of Americans want a maximum age for politicians. Those who support age limits usually say that politicians holding office should be no more than 70 years old. That would make 71% of current U.S. senators ineligible to hold office. It is unclear how age limits like that could be implemented.
Increasingly, people everywhere will be forced to confront questions about whether a person can be too old to hold public office. People are living longer lives in the U.S., but the same is true across the world.
Ethical arguments for age limits
Considering age limits for high-ranking politicians poses certain ethical questions that do not have a clear answer.
Staying in office despite health problems can threaten public safety. An American president holds immense power – including the ability to launch nuclear weapons. Members of Congress are responsible for making laws, declaring war and controlling taxes and spending.
Defenders of mandatory retirement say older people have had their turn.
Yet, if giving everyone a fair turn is the goal, why not cap the number of years worked? Like age limits, however, capping years would disproportionately affect older workers – and some say that’s unjustly discriminatory.
Even without age cutoffs, age could still be a way to flag other relevant factors, like health.
As people age, they face heightened risk of chronic disease and of having multiple chronic conditions. Chronic health problems can interfere with daily functioning and put older politicians at higher risk of performing poorly on the job –- for example, falling.
Testing health – or, even better, job performance – is another option. Testing workers of all ages at regular intervals avoids ageist stereotypes.
Biden undergoes an annual health screening and has been deemed “fit for duty.” Should Feinstein and McConnell be held to the same standard? That raises the thorny question, what if physicians disagree about a politician’s health and ability to remain in office?
Ethical arguments against age limits
Health checks differ from compulsory retirement.
In rich Western countries, people do not retire because they can no longer work –retirement is not correlated with an actual reduction in physical or intellectual capabilities.
Experts have shown that older people are diverse, and they separate biological aging – like physical wear and tear on the body – from chronological aging.
In addition to stereotyping older people, forced retirement violates principles of equality. People equally able to perform a job deserve equal chances to continue to work, independent of factors unrelated to job performance, such as age, race or gender identity.
Supporters of age-based retirement, meanwhile, say that this policy treats people equally over time, since all young people eventually become old. Yet others disagree, insisting that the point of equality is creating a community of equals, and discriminating against older adults falls short.
The people decide
People supporting a maximum age limit for the president and members of Congress have launched online signature campaigns on Change.org. But these efforts would require a constitutional amendment and have not gained major traction.
Two Republican senators also introduced an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 2023 that would allow senators to serve only two six-year terms and Congress members to serve three two-year terms. Congress has voted down previous proposals to set term limits.
At the state level, 16 states limit terms for legislators – but not necessarily because of age concerns. Direct age limits are under consideration in South Dakota, which will vote in 2024 on a ballot measure to amend the state’s constitution and establish an upper age limit of 80 years for congressional candidates.
Since the government sets age minimums for Congress and the presidency, should there be maximum limits, too? This question remains open. In a democracy, we the people decide by voting.
Nancy S. Jecker is Professor of Bioethics and Humanities at the School of Medicine at the University of Washington.
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