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Maybe a President’s Age Doesn’t Matter That Much

Justin Fox

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump is the second-oldest president in U.S. history. If he wins re-election in November he would pass Ronald Reagan to become the oldest president ever around the middle of his final year in office. Three of the Democratic contenders to replace him, Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden (listed in descending order of age), would break the record on Inauguration Day. Elizabeth Warren would break it during a second term.

Sanders, Bloomberg (who is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News) and Biden have already passed the average life expectancy of a male American, recently estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 76.2 years. Does this mean they’re living on borrowed time? Well, no, life expectancy doesn’t work that way. Once an American man has made it to 78 years and 5 months, as Sanders has, he can expect to live to 88, according to the Social Security Administration’s life expectancy tables. Here are the estimated additional years of life expectancy, based solely on gender and age, for him and other significant remaining candidates.

All these candidates are in the upper reaches of the income distribution (Pete Buttigieg, the poorest, has a taxable income right around the 90th percentile), which in recent years has translated into much longer-than-average lifespans. As president, they would also have access to the very best medical care, and though the office is known to age its occupants in superficial terms, a 2011 study by longevity researcher S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago concluded that it did not appear to shorten their lifespans. There are obviously risks specific to individual candidates, such as Sanders’s heart troubles or Trump’s weight, but I think it’s fair to describe the life expectancy estimates in the chart as quite conservative for all of them.

Still, while all the candidates can expect to see through two terms in office, the risk that Sanders or Bloomberg or Biden wouldn’t make it is clearly a lot higher than Tulsi Gabbard’s risk. In a white paper published last year by the American Federation of Aging Research, Olshansky and five co-authors estimated the chances that each of the then-declared candidates would survive one and two terms based on the Social Security tables and a “third-degree monotone cubic spline using Hyman filtering.” For one term, Sanders came in at 76.8%, Biden 79.2%, Trump 84.8% (to make it through a second term), Warren 91.8%, Tom Steyer 93.7%, Amy Klobuchar 96.8%, and Buttigieg and Gabbard 99%. For two terms, it was Sanders 66.6%, Biden 70%, Warren 88%, Steyer 91.6%, Klobuchar 95.7%, and Buttigieg and Gabbard 98.7%. Bloomberg wasn’t a candidate at the time, and the authors haven’t run exact percentages for him yet, but they would come in slightly lower than Biden’s.

All of these percentages are well above 50% — the only exception among the candidates then running was Mike Gravel, the 89-year-old former U.S. senator from Alaska, at 48.3% for one term and 33.7% for two — so one message here might be that age shouldn’t really be an issue in this presidential race. Given “the apparent current good health of all of the candidates,” Olshansky and his co-authors concluded, “there is reason to question whether age should be used at all in making judgments about prospective presidential candidates.”

Still, when I talked to him this week, Olshansky agreed that the choice of a running mate is much, much more significant for Sanders-Bloomberg-Biden than for, say, Buttigieg, because the chance that their vice president would become president is more than 20 times higher (33.4% over two terms for Sanders’s VP versus 1.3% for Buttigieg’s). Also — and this is me talking, not Olshansky — though Woodrow Wilson was only 62 when he refused to step back or share responsibility after a physically and to some extent mentally debilitating stroke in 1919, such a succession crisis is surely likelier with an older president. Plus, aging clearly does have consequences that could affect presidential performance, for worse or for better.

There’s been a lot of research in recent decades, for example, on the links between age and decision-making. I’m most familiar with the work on financial decision-making, which generally finds that people get steadily worse at it after their 50s. One 2009 study put the age “at which financial mistakes are minimized” at exactly 53.3 years. This is bad news for 80-year-olds trying manage retirement portfolios. It’s less clear that it has to be a problem for a president who presumably has other people around to handle anything requiring calculation.

A 2011 survey of research on aging and consumer decision-making, meanwhile, cited study after study showing that older consumers differ significantly from their younger peers in how they make choices. They are more likely to use heuristics (aka rules of thumb), spend less time searching for new information, favor established brands over new ones, pay more attention to “affective and value-based information” and make better decisions when presented with fewer, simpler choices. I kept finding echoes in these descriptions of how President Trump is said to make decisions, and how Reagan was said to have, too. The two oldest-ever presidents weren’t exactly up on the latest information and relied a lot on gut feeling, emotion and simplicity. Is that a coincidence?

Perhaps it is — Olshansky says that septuagenarians who can handle the grueling demands of a presidential campaign are most likely “super-agers” who don’t really fit the cognitive profile of others their age. And yes, the differences among the old folks currently running for president do seem more significant than whatever age-related characteristics they may share.

Still, let’s assume that advanced age lends itself at least a little to a more heuristic, less analytical style of decision-making. We’ve been conditioned, in part by a succession of best-selling books about our decision-making flaws, to see this approach as inferior. But there’s a school of thought that argues that heuristics often deliver better decisions under complex, fast-changing circumstances than a more reasoned, rationalistic approach. “Gut feelings are tools for an uncertain world,” German psychology scholar Gerd Gigerenzer told me a few years back. “They are not a sixth sense or God’s voice. They are based on lots of experience, an unconscious form of intelligence.” People in their 70s and 80s definitely have lots of experience. That doesn’t mean their gut feelings are necessarily going to be right. It probably means they’ll pay more attention to them, though.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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