If it seems like elected leaders in the United States are getting older and older, it is not just your imagination.
President Joe Biden, at 79, is the oldest president in U.S. history, surpassing his predecessor, Donald Trump, who—elected in 2016 at 70 years of age—is now second oldest. The current 117th Congress is also the oldest it has been in two decades.
A recent YouGov poll found that more than half of Americans support a maximum age limit for elected officials to hold office, and prominent public figures including Elon Musk and former President Jimmy Carter have expressed desires to see limitations put in place.
The question of “how old is too old” for politicians seeking public office is not often framed as a policy question, says Jeremy Paul, professor of law and former dean of Northeastern’s School of Law. But the question of whether there should be term limits, as opposed to age limits, might better address some of the concerns the public have with politicians—lawmakers specifically— clinging to positions of power for prolonged periods, or overstaying their welcome.
“There has been a very robust movement in the country for term limits for a very long time,” Paul says.
The criticisms of term limits are well known, Paul says. Term limits can prevent officeholders from gaining institutional experience and clout, making it more difficult to build relationships that ease the strain on passing legislation. That includes relationships with other members and lobbyists. “In general, I think term limits are a bad idea,” Paul says.
But proponents of term limits argue that the current federal system encourages careerism in politics, and that limitations would restore competition and ensure rotation—helping to drain the so-called “swamp.” While there are no term limits on federal lawmakers, more than a dozen states have implemented them over the last couple of decades for local politicians.
Arguments that could be made for age limits, on the other hand, run the risk of promoting age discrimination. While people have questioned the mental acuity of politicians such as Biden and Trump, life expectancy has been increasing, meaning “there are more politically relevant generations than ever before”—and more pols capable of performing their duties as they age, Paul says.
Additionally, how would voters determine how old is too old?
“Whatever we think of the wisdom or merits of imposing age maximums for politicians, it would be extremely, extremely difficult to implement at the federal level,” Paul says.
The main difficulty would be passing such a constitutional amendment. According to the U.S. Constitution, amendments may be proposed one of two ways. The first is by a two-thirds vote of approval by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The issue could also be taken up in a national convention called for by a two-thirds vote from state legislatures. Either way, the amendment would then have to be ratified by three-fourths of states.
Whatever legitimate concerns may exist about aging politicians could be addressed through “normal democratic voting and persuasion,” says Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern.
“One of the arguments against the term limits is that there is a distinction between people thinking [politicians] shouldn’t serve too long” and creating laws enshrining those beliefs, Beauchamp says.
Beauchamp says the YouGov polling results point to an underlying discontent among liberals and conservatives alike about their establishment party choices.
“I think we have to ask, ‘Why does this poll exist?’” Beauchamp adds. “Well, it exists because there’s a large anti-establishment populism on the left and the right; everyone is mad at their establishment leaders in some way.”
The connection between age and political ideology has a rich history in the politics of Western nations, wherein generations typically exhibit very specific political identities. But that relationship has grown increasingly complicated, Beauchamp says.
And it is less the case that younger voters are simply voting out older politicians and more about the track record and message of those being considered for public office. How else to explain the support for former presidential candidate and current Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders among mostly young people? When Sanders, 80, who identifies as a socialist, ran for president in 2016 and 2020, he was the oldest candidate in both races.
“On the left there’s definitely this sense that the younger Democrats tend to be more liberal,” Beauchamp says. “My guess is on the right it’s a little bit more mixed up than people might think, since younger Republicans may be more anti-establishment; but older Republicans are more conservative.”