What America’s Gerontocracy Means for its Economy?

The next U.S. president will be older than all his predecessors.

By Ca,eron Dbadi, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy, and Adam Tooze, a columnist at Foreign Policy and director of the European Institute at Columbia University.

A vertically split image shows former U.S. President Donald Trump on the left and current U.S. President Joe Biden on the right. Both men are shown from the chest upward, wearing dark suits.
A vertically split image shows former U.S. President Donald Trump on the left and current U.S. President Joe Biden on the right. Both men are shown from the chest upward, wearing dark suits.

Age has become a central campaign issue in this year’s U.S. presidential election. Both candidates qualify as elderly, with President Joe Biden running for election at 81 years old, and former President Donald Trump, his likely Republican challenger, at 77. Biden’s age especially has come under focus, with many voters expressing a belief that he might have become too old for the job, and a special counsel Report  raising questions about his memory. But the advanced age of both candidates has also raised questions about the broader concerns, both political and economic, produced by gerontocracy—rule by the elderly.

In capitalism inherently gerontocratic? Have elderly leaders historically been effective? How do extended life spans affect economic policymaking?

Those are a few of the questions that came up in my recent conversation with FP economics columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. For the full conversation, look for Ones and Tooze wherever you get your podcasts. Cameron Abadi: Is capitalism itself inherently gerontocratic? Through the mechanism of compound interest and just rates of return on capital, advantages seem to accrue systematically over time. That would seem to privilege those who are older.

Adam Tooze: I thought this was a fascinating question. I think in general, yeah, one has to agree that the older people are, the wealthier they tend to be. Certainly, once you cross a certain level of wealth where you’re not consuming it so as to be able to sustain yourself, the longer it has to accumulate, the better. It seems to work in the labor market as well, with what economists call human capital. It’s generally true on average that workers, their returns to human capital—in other words, the returns to their skills and education—increase through to their mid-40s and then plateau and inch upward for particular categories of employee. So that, generally speaking, seems to be true.

I think one could push this a little bit further, and in fact, sort of make this even more stark in that, historically speaking, before the advent of the welfare state, it was also true that age exposed inequality in the most extreme way. That’s because for that much larger part of the population that was dependent on selling its labor power to survive, old age, of course, represented an existential threat of immiseration and poverty, or being cast on the charity of your family. And it was often argued that people had large families to ensure a large support network in their old age. And when you remove the effects of tax and welfare, that’s also a very powerful effect, that as people age, the differences in wealth and capital endowment and labor market opportunities become more and more polarized over time.

And it’s not by accident that the first welfare state provisions in the most affluent societies of the world—take Germany, the United States, and Britain—are all centered on old age insurance, old age pensions. I mean, there were pension systems all the way back to the Middle Ages, in the medieval period in the West. But from 1881, in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany; from 1890 in the United States, with the introduction of pensions for Union veterans from the Civil War; and then in Britain with the introduction of National Insurance in 1911, we get a series of experiments.

And there are many other countries doing the same kind of thing—I just singled those out because they’re particularly large and important and not the kind of countries you’d expect to easily jump into the project of extending the welfare state. But they did, and this is the zone that it immediately extended to, because it’s such an obvious risk to the vast majority of the population.

CA: Have elderly politicians historically managed to be effective leaders? The example that came to mind is Konrad Adenauer, the West German chancellor after World War II. He was reelected even after multiple terms into his 80s. And he oversaw pretty major changes in West Germany—or am I misinterpreting the Adenauer example?

AT: It’s a fascinating comparison. Adenauer, I believe, was 85 when he won his last election in 1961, that year being a significant moment because of the Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin Wall being built. There’s this extraordinary image of him riding in an open top cabriolet around West Berlin alongside the youthful looking John F. Kennedy and Willy Brandt, ultimately his successor as chancellor. And the generational divide in that image is extraordinary, because Adenauer was born in the 1870s and came out of the era of Bismarck.

I mean, the same astonishing way that Biden was born at the time of the Stalingrad battle—in fact, right as the Soviets launched their counterattack, which again seems as though it harks from a different era. Yeah, that whole generation was rather remarkable. I mean, Winston Churchill won his last election in 1951 at the age of 77. I mentioned Bismarck. He finally was pushed out of office in the 1890s at the age of 75. So there certainly is a track record amongst senior states figures, if you like, of very, very great longevity.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, leaning out of the roof of a car, shakes hands with supporters at an event in Jakarta.
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, leaning out of the roof of a car, shakes hands with supporters at an event in Jakarta.

GettyImages-56145158 (1)
GettyImages-56145158 (1)

Ukrainian flags at a cemetery
Ukrainian flags at a cemetery

I mean, the fundamental issue here is that you ask about effectiveness. I was looking at one of the Harvard Medical School websites. They say that there can be a case made that the branching of dendrites increases in the human brain over time, so connections between distant brain areas strengthen. And apparently, neurologists believe that this enables the aging brain to become better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, “capturing the big picture, and understanding the global implications of specific issues.” This is literally from their biomedical website. So, “perhaps this is the foundation of wisdom. It is as if, with age, your brain becomes better at seeing the entire forest and worse at seeing the leaves.” So, this, I thought, was the most game effort to justify and rescue the aging brain from the condescension of youth.

But, you know, across the board, on average, there are simply racks and racks and racks and racks of medical papers demonstrating that with age, there is both deterioration of mental function and an enormous increase in the risk of the onset of serious neurological ailments and diseases. So, a perfectly healthy person, if you just live that long, is going to succumb at some point to one or another type of neurological condition.

And so that’s the risk, essentially, with senior figures that are under huge, inhuman levels of stress and sleep deprivation and so on, which has an aging effect on people. That this is compounded in people of very great age—it’s sort of a cheap point to make at some level, but it’s also undeniable.

CA: How does the fact that we’re all living longer affect democratic decision-making on economics? Is there a greater pressure to serve elderly interests via prioritizing pensions and Social Security? And is there a corollary underinvestment in education or other productive government services?

AT: This is a very important phenomenon, I think. When welfare states were introduced at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, the life expectancy at birth was in the 40s, and the median age of death was in the 50s. So, a promise of a pension at 65 was a promise of a pension for folks that got lucky and made it that far. And that was a small minority of the population.

Obviously, over time, this has dramatically changed, with life expectancy stretching into the 70s and high 70s and even beyond in the most rich and affluent societies. The period of retirement after working gets longer and longer, and as the overall population ages, those voices become stronger and stronger in politics. And it is a fact about the welfare states of almost all the affluent societies in the world that their spending is heavily weighted toward the older segments of the population. For the United States, the figures are about a ratio of 2-to-1 for spending on elderly folks per annum as opposed to spending on children.

And that’s if you include education. If you take education out and simply focus on things such as food stamps and family benefits and tax relief for poor families, the ratio goes, in federal spending, as high as 7-to-1. So, on average in 2015, the U.S. government, the federal government spent about $35,000 per elderly person in Social Security and Medicare. It was spending $5,000 per child on food stamps, Medicaid, and tax credits. And if you add elementary and secondary school in, that’s about $11,000 per pupil per year. So that would be a 2-to-1 ratio all in and a 7-to-1 ratio for just basic benefits and health.

In Europe, as well, we see the same discrepancies. And interestingly, this is a kind of historical dynamic, because as societies began to age and welfare states were still in their early stages in the 1950s and 1960s, pensioner poverty was a huge problem in many affluent countries, in Europe as well. And there’s been a very substantial adjustment of this. So nothing I’m saying should be taken as a critique of the efforts that were made to rescue elderly people from poverty.

But in the meantime, and this is really the critical issue from an economic point of view, spending on young children is simply the most economically effective way of using public funds. There is nothing we could do, there’s no infrastructure we could build, there’s no stimulus we could launch that, in the long run, would be as beneficial as early childhood education and raising kids out of poverty. And so there is a huge open goal here, and a great missed opportunity.

And there were, in fact, discussions in Germany, where these sorts of constitutional balloons sometimes get flown. But 20 years ago, there were debates in the Bundestag about introducing some sort of weighting system for voting in the franchise, such that the elderly share of the vote would be progressively squeezed in favor of young families that were the future of the country and whose interests in a system in which the elderly have most money, the elderly have larger and larger share of the population, and they frankly turn out to vote more often because they’re less busy and come out of relatively politicized cohorts from the midcentury. The baby boomers lived through the classic era of postwar democracy. There was a structural bias that need to be corrected.

It didn’t go anywhere. But it was actually a bipartisan, cross-party proposal that was discussed in the Bundestag. And some sort of redress would seem to be, you know, something like a sort of independent monitor that assessed the relative intergenerational bias of spending would seem like an important corrective to have in increasing the aged societies. Because it is ultimately on the productivity of those at working age that the pensions that those in retirement enjoy—it depends on their productivity.

CA: What is the capacity for political systems that are gerontocratic to change? In a broad sense, do revolutionaries, people who propose and enact sweeping change, tend to be young? Or can the elderly also oversee sweeping change in a political system?

AT: This is a really quite fundamental question. I mean, if you look around the world in the past 10, 15 years, and you look at brave movements of popular uprising, they do tend to be led by young people. Think of the so-called “A4 revolution” in China in response to the late stage of the COVID-19 crackdown, which was led by students waving sheets of A4 paper. Or the Arab Spring, which was a classic kind of youth revolt—very young societies in North Africa and the Middle East, where, you know, the young people see precious little opportunity.

I mean, you could, from a kind of rationalist point of view, say it’s not surprising that young people would be willing to take the risks of revolutionary change because they’re also going to live long enough to actually experience the benefits of those changes.

Defenders of Biden would say, you know, we’re not doing him credit. I mean, the guy has actually presided over a rather radical administration. You know, the Inflation Reduction Act is hailed as this breakthrough. Bidenomics is this mad, dramatic experiment in economic policy. But it’s not Biden doing this. It’s his younger staff. They skipped a generation in the democratic hierarchy, they say, right? We moved on past the people that moved from the Clinton to the Obama administrations. So, within the Democratic Party establishment, there really was a transfusion of new blood.

And those people created an economic policy that made Biden, in some ways, one of the more innovative economic policy presidents of the recent decades. Certainly, it’s a fundamental break with former President Barack Obama, and Obama was very tightly connected to former President Bill Clinton. So, I think that would be their defense.

Excerpts: FP, FEBRUARY 23, 2024,

Adam Tooze is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a history professor and the director of the European Institute at Columbia University. He is the author of Chartbook, a newsletter on economics, geopolitics, and history.

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