Hayim Herring

How old is too old to run for president (or prime minister)?

Pete Buttigieg is 37 years old, Bernie Sanders is age 78, Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg are 77, and at age 73, Donald Trump is 27 years older now than Jack Nicklaus was when he became the oldest PGA champion. The unprecedented age span of Democratic presidential aspirants and Trump’s older age demand public discussion about the minimum and maximum eligibility ages for president. In 1788, the US Constitution (Article II, Section 1, Clause 5) established age 35 as the minimum eligibility age for president. With a deeper understanding of psychosocial development than the Constitutional framers, it’s time to reexamine the minimum age threshold and to consider establishing a maximum ceiling at which a person is considered too old to be president.

The framers of the Constitution also required that a member of the House of Representatives be at least 25 years old. Add another 10 years of life experience for the highest elected office in the land, and you arrive at the minimum age of 35. Today’s millennials become adults sometime in their late 20s when they can no longer rely on a parent’s health insurance. If you add another ten years of life experience, that changes the minimum eligible age to 37, a difference of two years and a battle not worth fighting. But we can suggest that if someone in their 30s is elected, they should be encouraged to surround themselves with a critical mass of advisors and cabinet members who a decade older.

Now for the taboo question: “How old is too old to be president?” It’s bad form to question a candidate’s age. Still, most people understand the validity of raising the age issue for a presidential candidate who, if elected, has the power to unleash nuclear war and trigger a worldwide economic depression.

Consider the health risks identified in AARP’s 2009 report, Chronic Care: A Call to Action for Health Reform comparing Americans 75 years and older with individuals ages 50-64:

  • While under half of Americans ages 50-64 have a chronic condition, nine out of 10 Americans ages 75 and older have a least one, and more than 20 percent suffer five or more chronic illnesses.
  • The rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and mental illness are all higher in older age cohorts.
  • The risk of heart disease is three times higher in someone 75+ than in a person ages 50-64.
  • Similarly, the risk of high blood pressure is 66 percent higher for those 75 to 84 years old than for those 50 to 64 years old.

Cognitive abilities also diminish over time. Dr. Leslie Kernisan writes in her blog, Better Health While Aging, “Most mental processes become less nimble with time. Just as your 75-year-old self can’t run as fast as your 30-year old self, your 75-year-old brain will, for the most part, not think as quickly either.” She adds that processing speed, certain kinds of memory, and the ability to focus naturally decline in healthy aging.

Based on the risks of cognitive and mental impairment for older Americans, I suggest that the maximum age at which a president should no longer serve is 75 years old. That means a person should not be eligible for a first or second term past age 71. Of course, some individuals thrive well into their 80s, and people who are younger than age 75 experience significant adverse health events. But generally, completing a presidential term at age 75 is reasonable, considering the demands of the job and a person’s potential for illness and decline.

I write as a baby boomer with millennial children, fully aware of ageism in the workplace. Sometimes, older people feel the hot breath of the young on their backs, and younger people feel the chill of older people freezing them out of advancement. This tension between inertia and impatience is not new. I recently taught a workshop at a congregation on my new book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide. We studied a Midrash exploring the mysterious death of Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they were about to be consecrated into Divine service (Sanhedrin 52a). They deviated from the Divine recipe, offered a “strange fire,” and God consumed them for this infraction. Later rabbinic commentators interpreted this painful punishment as an indication of the impatience of the next generation of leadership. They imagined Aaron’s sons asking, “When will these two old men die, and you and I will lead the generation (Sanhedrin 52a)?” Once you reached the age of 50, you’ve probably felt younger people implicitly expressing a desire that you move out of the way.

Our challenge as a society is to create new roles for those who are over age 60. 60-year-olds can expect decades of productivity in the workplace, as volunteers, as learners, and as mentors. The burden of developing new roles shouldn’t only fall on seniors. It’s a challenge that younger generations should embrace for their self-interest and the greater community good. My bipartisan message to anyone who is 71 years old and up: instead of including running for president to your “bucket list,” model how to offer your experience through advocacy, mentorships, and wise eldership. And Prime Minister Netanyahu — here’s another reason to relinquish leadership to those in your party who are more than able to take the reins.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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