The mere mention of Donald Trump or Joe Biden is likely to unleash a mountain of anger and vitriol in our increasingly polarised world.
Depending on your politics, Trump is a braggart, a liar, a disaster for the United States…or a hero, a pioneer who made America great again and will be back again in 2024 to make it even greater.
By the same token Biden is a wokist warrior, a liar and a disaster for the United States…or the man who saved America from the clutches of the right and restored its rightful place as the leader of the free world.
But there’s another way to look at them that ignores these two extreme views because they have something special in common: they’re both a great advertisement for what can be achieved despite advancing years; the fast-growing belief that age is no barrier to success and fulfilling lifetime ambitions.
Both these political opposites took on the toughest job in the western world: President of the United States.
It would be a pressure cooker of a task for anybody, but doubly so for men in their seventies. Trump was 70 when he entered the oval office; Biden was even older at 78.
What drove these men to put themselves through this at an age when most people want nothing more than to sit back, take it easy and tend to the roses?
You could point to ambition, greed, thirst for power and prestige, a desire to serve, to improve people’s lives, to change the world for the better…possibly a mixture of all these things for both men but for our purposes it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they did it.
They stood up to be counted and found the energy, desire, inspiration to go ahead and try to make a difference. Whatever your politics, that is some achievement.
Until Donald Trump was elected, the average age of the previous 44 United States presidents when they first took office was 52 years. The youngest ever president was Theodore Roosevelt at 42 years, 322 days, followed closely by John F Kennedy at 43 years, 236 days.
Twenty-five presidents were in their 50s when they took office, 10 were in their 60s and nine were in their 40s.
None of the first 44 presidents were in their 70s when they first took office, although Ronald Reagan came close when he was elected in 1981 at the age of 69. At that time, he was the oldest man ever to become president and people were concerned that maybe he was too old to hold such an important position.
Reagan’s age was a big issue during the election campaign throughout 1980. His opponents were quick to highlight it every chance they got and seized on his tendency to jumble his words occasionally as evidence that he wasn’t mentally sharp enough of the job.
The issue was even more important when Reagan stood for re-election in 1984. In a televised debated with his Democrat opponent Walter Mondale, Reagan was asked if he were confident that he would have the energy to function in a crisis when he might get little sleep.
Reagan was obviously prepared for the question because he used a touch of humour to throw the question of age back at his opponent, Walter Mondale. Reagan said: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The audience erupted and even Mondale couldn’t help but laugh along.
Reagan enjoyed the applause and then sealed his moment of triumph when he said: “It was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t remember which, who said, if it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.”
Reagan may not have won the election with those two quotes alone, but they certainly smoothed the way by taking all the steam out of the age slurs.
Surprisingly, age didn’t seem to be an issue when Trump stood for office 36 years after Reagan at the age of 70. Perhaps society had moved on by then, or maybe it was that Trump exuded energy and a sense of dynamism, or maybe it was that his detractors felt there were so many other criticisms to throw at him that age didn’t matter.
It was also true that his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton was 68, from the same generation as Trump so any criticism thrown at him would rebound on her.
That all changed four years later when Trump seemed suddenly youthful compared to the 78-year-old Democrat candidate, Joe Biden.
Suddenly, we were back to the Reagan years with age again a big issue. This was partly because of Biden’s age, the oldest man ever to stand for president, but also because like Reagan, he had a tendency to get his words a bit jumbled and even lose his train of thought.
Biden didn’t have killer line in humour to wave off criticism, but he did a lot running on to stages to show his energy and dynamism, and then he cruised to a comfortable, albeit hotly contested, victory.
The debate about how that election was won or lost will continue for years but the important issue here is that for the first time, two men in their 70s were fighting it out to become president and showing great energy in the process.
Surely that should serve as an inspiration to anyone pushing on into their 60s, 70s and even their 80s. Just think about it, if you’re currently retiring at the age of 65 and perhaps feeling a little uncertain about yourself, maybe worried that you’re past it, with little to aim for…just sit back for a second and reflect that someone a whole 13 years older than you got elected to be President of the United States.
He’s running the most powerful and influential country in the world, meeting world leaders, making life-changing decisions for millions of people.
If he can do that, what might the rest of us do if we tried? What might we achieve in the next 13 years? Start a new business? Enrol for an online education course, take up a new sport, learn a musical instrument, project manage the building of a new dream home?
The list is obviously endless but it’s interesting to think that if you are retiring at 65, you could have another 13 years of achievements ahead of you before you reach the age that Joe Biden was when he became president. Even then at that age, you might feel like Biden, you’re really only just getting started.
In 13 years, MacDonald’s went from being just another small chain of burger bars to a worldwide conglomerate. Facebook went from a tiny start-up to the biggest media company the world had ever seen.
People qualify to be doctors, university professors, research scientists in less than half that time.
Obviously, not everyone can or even wants to throw themselves into some gruelling programme having already spent all their adult life hard at work. But it doesn’t have to be gruelling. It can be anything you want and you go at any pace you want.
It also raises the issue of what do we want to do with our time as we enter what would traditionally be seen as retirement years. There’s plenty of research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that those who cut themselves off entirely from work aren’t necessarily happier for it.
Many people miss the buzz of being at work, the company and the banter, the sense of purpose, and of course the money that comes with earning a wage. Lots of leisure may not be so much of a pleasure if you’re struggling for money.
Each person will find their own way but it’s worth reflecting from time to time that the traditional view of people being over the hill as they go into their 60s is no longer applicable. Older people all across the world are carrying on working, carrying on being active…starting new projects, rediscovering old interests and finding new ones.
The issue is not just a personal one; it has an impact for all societies across the world with nearly every country facing problems caused by an ageing population reaching retirement, and not enough young people coming up to replace them due to falling birth rates.
The United States Census Bureau has carried out several studies into the problem. In its report, The Aging of the Manufacturing Workforce it highlights that more than 90% of US manufacturers were concerned about losing experienced workers when there weren’t enough skilled people coming through to replace them. Nearly all of them tried to solve the problem by encouraging people to continue working beyond retirement age, even if only part time.
The US Department of Labor says that since 2018, job vacancies have outnumbered unemployed job seekers. There just aren’t enough young workers coming through to replace the baby boomers.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told the BBC: “We have a labour shortage and it’s going to be a problem for the next couple of decades as the boomers leave the workforce.”
The UK, the EU countries and even China are facing similar problems.
It means the opportunities for older workers have never been greater. When you combine this with better than ever health care and understanding leading to ever increasing life spans, it means that far from winding down, the future may still to be written for people in their 60, 70s and beyond. The best years may still be to come. Just ask Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
So it may be worth looking at these two political heavyweight adversaries in a slightly different way the next time you see them on TV. You may still want to throw things at the TV as you hear them speak, depending on your political views, but you might still allow them a reluctant nod of admiration because whatever you see as their faults, they’re out there making a difference and they don’t care about how old they are…they just care about what they’re doing and what they have yet to achieve.