Are Older Leaders Better? Here’s What History Teaches Us

Are Older Leaders Better? Here’s What History Teaches Us

“It was only relatively recently that we started to fetishize youth. The idea that being young, energetic, and powerful is something to be praised,” Mitter said.

“The Confucian tradition, which came to China 2,500 years ago from the philosopher Confucius, always made a big point of having those in charge be older. There’s a famous section in one of the texts attributed to him that says that when you’re in your twenties, you don’t really know much. It’s not until you’re about 60 that you can begin to have the wisdom that makes you a true philosophical sage.”

It’s only been relatively recently that we’ve been fetishizing youth

Hannah Skoda, senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Oxford, points to the reverence shown to older leaders in the Middle Ages.

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“For example, England had two kings who were famously long-lived. Henry III, who reigned for 56 years, was born in 1207 and died in 1272, so by the time his reign ended he was quite old,” she noted.

“And Edward III was born in 1312 and died in 1377, after reigning for 50 years, and his reign was later seen as a kind of golden age. That was partly because he had been so successful in the Hundred Years’ War, but also because he lived so long.”

Edward III

Edward III’s 50-year reign was seen as “a kind of golden age,” according to Hannah Skoda. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

However, age was not seen as an advantage for those in power by everyone in the Middle Ages.

“There’s an interesting sense of ambivalence about the idea that you have acquired wisdom by the time you get older,” Skoda suggests. “On the one hand, there was a sense that old age brings wisdom, maturity and the ability to reflect without the rashness of youth. But on the other hand, there was a fear of senility, forgetfulness and a lack of sharpness.

“We can also see this in theological terms: there was a sense that people were closer to heaven in old age – that they were completing the trajectory of earthly life. At the same time, old age was seen as a reminder of the transience of life and worldly success. So old age was both something good and something that made people quite anxious.”

Fear of senility, forgetfulness and a lack of sharpness arose.

Looking back a few centuries later, Mitter cites the example of 19th-century British Prime Minister William Gladstone. He was already in his 80s when he was elected Prime Minister for the fourth time in 1892.

“Think about his nickname – he was the ‘Grand Old Man’,” says Mitter. “Compared to some of the things that have been given to prime ministers since then, that seems like a pretty big deal, as far as nicknames go. Of course, he was succeeded by the Earl of Rosebery, who was not considered one of the most successful prime ministers. So maybe the fact that he was seen as a ‘grand old man’ suggests that there was a sense of nostalgia for remembrance – but it could also be an indication that, even for Victorian times, his age was seen as outside the norm (for someone in power).”

British Prime Minister William Gladstone

British Prime Minister William Gladstone was in his 80s when he was elected prime minister for the fourth time in 1892. (Photo: Getty Images)

Finally, returning to the United States, Mitter cites one of the organization’s foundational texts as a possible contributing factor to the organization’s older leadership.

“It’s worth noting that the U.S. Constitution has a minimum age for politicians. You can’t be president until you’re 35, you can’t be a senator until you’re 30, and you can’t be a congressman until you’re 25. Biden, I think, was able to wreck himself as a senator when he was just a few months over 30.”

Perhaps that medieval ambivalence – about youth versus age, vitality versus experience – has proven more enduring than we think…

The 10 Oldest Presidents in US History

The first four presidents of the United States were each 65 years old when they left office. By most recent standards, that is demonstrably young.

Perhaps America’s Founding Fathers did not foresee that the two leading presidential candidates – Donald Trump and Joe Biden – would be 78 and 81 years old respectively, and well into their 80s when their terms ended.

But if we look further back in American history, and include the two most recent presidents, who are the oldest American presidents, as judged by when they began their term? James Osborne offers a closer look…

  1. Joe Biden
  2. Donald Trump
  3. Ronald Reagan
  4. Willem Hendrik Harrison
  5. James Buchanan
  6. George H.W. Bush
  7. Zachary Taylor
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  9. Andrew Jackson
  10. John Adams

Joe Biden

Age at inauguration: 78 years, 61 days

Inauguration Date: January 20, 2021

Chairmanship: 2021–present

Joe Biden became the oldest president in U.S. history, at 78, when he took office, taking the record from his predecessor and political rival, Donald Trump. Biden’s tenure has been marked by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, its subsequent economic fallout, and America’s involvement in—and influence over—global conflicts.

Donald Trump

Age at inauguration: 70 years, 220 days

Date of inauguration: January 20, 2017

Chairmanship: 2017–21

Donald Trump, previously known as a reality star and real estate mogul, became the oldest president when he was inaugurated in 2017. His presidency was marked by his unconventional approach to communications and his populist policy positions.

Ronald Reagan

Age at inauguration: 69 years, 349 days

Inauguration Date: January 20, 1981

Presidency: 1981–89

Ronald Reagan, a former actor turned politician, dominated the political landscape during his two terms as president through a combination of charismatic communications and his primary focus on the American economy, foreign policy and military spending.

Willem Hendrik Harrison

Age at inauguration: 68 years, 23 days

Inauguration Date: March 4, 1841

Presidency: 1841

William Henry Harrison, perhaps the most insignificant president in history, has the unfortunate distinction of having served the shortest presidency, dying just 31 days after taking office.

James Buchanan

Age at inauguration: 65 years, 315 days

Inauguration Date: March 4, 1857

Presidency: 1857–61

James Buchanan was much criticized for his leadership and his inability to stop the looming American Civil War. His legacy is overshadowed by that of his successor, Abraham Lincoln.

George H.W. Bush

Age at inauguration: 64 years, 222 days

Inauguration Date: January 20, 1989

Presidency: 1989–93

Before his inauguration, George H. W. Bush served as vice president during Reagan’s two terms. Like his predecessor, one of Bush’s main focuses on foreign policy was in the post-Cold War era, with the reunification of Germany and the Gulf War.

Zachary Taylor

Age at inauguration: 64 years, 100 days

Inauguration Date: March 5, 1849

Presidency: 1849–50

Zachary Taylor’s tenure was brief, cut short by his death after only 16 months. Taylor was elected on the strength of his reputation as a national hero of the Mexican-American War, and his overriding priority was preserving the Union in an era of unrest and uncertainty.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Age at inauguration: 62 years, 98 days

Inauguration Date: January 20, 1953

Presidency: 1953–61

Dwight D Eisenhower, a towering military and political figure, served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, where his actions included a significant contribution to the planning and execution of the Normandy landings. He went on to serve two consecutive terms as president, during which his tenure was marked by economic prosperity, social progress, and competition with Russia—including the space race.

Andrew Jackson

Age at inauguration: 61 years, 354 days

Inauguration Date: March 4, 1829

Presidency: 1829–37

After building a reputation among the American people as a war hero, Andrew Jackson served two terms in office implementing a policy hostile to the Native American population, the Indian Removal Act.

John Adams

Age at inauguration: 61 years, 125 days

Inauguration Date: March 4, 1797

Presidency: 1797–1801

The second president of the United States, John Adams, was one of the Founding Fathers and a pivotal figure in the country’s development.