Even among world leaders, Biden and Trump are old


When President Biden, 81, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, 78, take the debate stage Thursday, they’ll be making history as the two oldest major-party candidates in American history to vie for the Oval Office. They are also both at least 16 years older than the median age of world leaders.

Distribution of ages

It’s no surprise that world leaders are often older than the people they govern. In democracies, age requirements to run, costly campaigns and incentives to gain experience and clout in political spheres mean it can take a long time for candidates to reach the top job. Dictators can stay in power for long periods. This leaves large parts of the world with major gaps between the age of their leaders and their populations. The median age difference between a country’s leader and its population is 32 years.

World

Europe appears to be bucking this trend. Countries there have some of the smallest gaps between their leaders and their populations. Its heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, 46, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, 46, and Irish Taoiseach Simon Harris, 37, skew so young that even a candidate in their early 60s can cause a stir.

At the start of Britain’s general election campaign in May, Conservative Party members appeared to take jabs at Labour leader Keir Starmer’s age — right out of the Trump playbook — calling him “Sir Sleepy” and “Sleepy Keir.”

At 61, Starmer is younger than 62, the median age for global leaders, according to Pew Research Center, and 20 years younger than Biden.

2024 age gaps of leaders and their populations

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Europe’s leaders are younger because established parties have declined in popularity in recent decades, said Jan Berz, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Political Science at Goethe University Frankfurt. This “has provided opportunities for younger politicians to create new political parties and enter office.” Macron, for example, founded his party shortly before becoming president at the age of 39.

Parliamentary elections, where leaders are elected by politicians, tend to favor candidates with charisma and communication skills rather than experience, Berz added.

But how important is age in politics? Well, it’s complicated.

How old leaders are could affect the issues they focus on, said Daniel Stockemer, a professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. He noted gun control, climate action and marijuana legalization were some of the issues older leaders in the United States are less committed to.

It’s a matter of relating to public figures, too.

“I wouldn’t even say Joe Biden is doing nothing for the young,” Stockemer said. “But there needs to be this emotional connection.”

Globally, young people are becoming more dissatisfied with democracy, according to a 2020 study from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University.

World average gap

In the United States, presidents tend to be older because of the way the U.S. political system works, said Kevin Munger, a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University. America’s two-party system, Munger said, “means that you have to basically work within the party in order to advance to the point where you can actually become the nominee.”

He noted that in the case of former president Barack Obama’s election at 47, his youth and short time in national politics made his success a surprise. It’s also what may have driven young voters to be, as a 2008 Pew Survey put it, “unusually active in the campaign.”

Talking about age, especially in U.S. politics, can be sensitive, often coming with undertones of mental fitness. Trump has repeatedly brought up the age of Biden, or as Trump calls him, “Sleepy Joe.”

“The guy doesn’t even know he’s alive,” Trump said while campaigning in the summer of 2020. As his 78th birthday loomed — the age Biden was when he was first inaugurated — Trump walked back his messaging, saying on Truth Social in May, “JOE BIDEN IS NOT TOO OLD TO BE PRESIDENT—NOT EVEN CLOSE…”

On June 14, Biden posted on the X platform wishing Trump a happy 78th birthday. “Take it from one old guy to another: Age is just a number,” he said.

Stockemer said it’s not about cognition, but rather it’s about representation. “If we are concerned about the quality of democracy, if we are concerned about the low engagement of young people,” he said, “this should be a topic we should discuss.”

US Presidents

Large age gaps between leaders and their population are especially significant in countries that are not free as described by Freedom House. Some of these are African countries, including Uganda and Cameroon, where at least half of the population is under 18, according to United Nations estimates, but their leaders are 79 and 91, respectively.

The disparity sparked the #nottooyoungtorun movement, which originated in Nigeria in 2016, and became a global push to make it easier for younger people to run for office.

Scatter

The age gap between America’s leaders and constituents doesn’t stop in the Oval Office: The U.S. Congress is also much older than parliaments around the world.

Congress

A political body should be representative of many generational experiences, Stockemer said. People around the same age may not always share the same ideologies or political leanings, but they do share the same history, the same world events.

“How you view the world is different from how your grandparents view the world. That’s why these different conceptions should be represented,” he said.

About this story

Sources: The Post used data from the Pew Research Center for 2024 world leader ages, data from Daniel Stockemer for leader ages from 1950 to 2023, data from the Worldwide Age Representation in Parliaments Dataset for the legislator ages, and U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs data for median ages by country for 1950 to 2024.

Editing by Reem Akkad, Anu Narayanswamy and Samuel Granados.



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