The coming reign of the Baby Boomer gerontocracy

From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is one of my favorite books. It’s one of those works whose breadth and depth is such that I would recommend it to anyone. Jacques Barzun began writing this work when he was 84, and it was published in his 93rd year. Born in 1907 Barzun saw the full efflorescence of 20th century Western culture across much of its span firsthand. When people say that when you age you gain wisdom, surely in the domain of scholarship Barzun’s production in the last few decades of his life would qualify.

But not everyone is Jacques Barzun. If you read Intelligence: All That Matters or peruse some of Eliott Tucker-Drob’s work you will know that cognitive function declines with age beyond your twenties. Different subcomponents may decline at different rates. And, they decline differently in different people (e.g., some people may develop dementia, so their faculties will decline far faster at an earlier age). But, by and large any gains in experience or wisdom are going to be balanced against declines in raw analytic ability, as well as the slow entropic loss of information.

This is not an inconsequential matter. Our governing class is quite old. The average age in Congress may beĀ 55 to 60, but it is almost certainly true that more senior members with more power and authority are older. The president of the United States is 70 years old. If you look at the plots in these figures by 70 there has been a notable drop in intelligence by this age, though again, it may vary from person to person.

But most important in light of these figures is that the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, and many of its members are quite old, an anticipate serving until they are quite old if they are younger. In the mid-1970s justice William O. Douglas had a stroke and was basically not mentally competent to serve. Because of this fact, and Douglas’ reluctance to retire his fellow justices basically did not take his vote into account. Three of the justices today are over the age of 70, with Clarence Thomas nearing that age, and two are over the age of 80.

When it comes to Congress, or even the President, there seems to be some sort of institutional support as well as the larger collective vote in the case of Congress, which might buffer the cognitive impact of a gerontocracy. But aside from law clerks Supreme Court justices have to rely on their own individual mental capacities.

The Mormon Church has a gerontocracy among its we openleadership. Even my most devout friends in the church sometimes found it amusing how old their leadership was, and how quickly they died in succession due to the seniority principle. But The Supreme Court is not the leadership of a relatively small church. It impacts our whole nation. This sort of gerontocracy is no laughing matter.

Will we openly speak of the age issue? I doubt it. Today the Baby Boomers are between the ages of 53 an 71. They are coming into their own as a cohort into the highest reaches of the gerontocracy. If there is any generation with the grace and humility to step aside for the greater good, it will not be this generation.

7 thoughts on “The coming reign of the Baby Boomer gerontocracy

  1. Interesting idea.. two sceptical thoughts: Supreme Court judges aren’t chosen randomly so presumably wouldn’t necessarily reflect the average, and is there solid evidence of poor judgement/anti-“greater good” decisions that would be remedied by younger judges?

  2. FDR’s “court packing” plan is mostly remembered for his attempt to expand the court to up to 15 justices. However, a key element of it was offering retirement to justices at age 70, with new associate justices nominated if an elder justice refused. I have heard some suggest that if he only suggested raising the number of seats more modestly he might have gotten away with the effective retirement date, in which case the Court today would be a very different place.

  3. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s unwillingness to step down in the beginning of Obama’s second term can be read by zealous leftists as an infuriating, self-indulgent flirting with calamitous injury to all that she claims to hold dear. Either that, or perhaps her cognition had by that time already eroded so badly that she couldn’t really any longer comprehend the actuarial risk that she was foisting upon her faction.

  4. I couldn’t get into “Dawn to Decadence” — I remember finding the “kids these days” approach very off-putting (talk about a gerontocracy!) Maybe I should give it another try.

  5. The spike in your second plot from about 15-20 kind of sticks out. Where is that from? My first guess is that there is a different data source for that range, often that’s the case when you see a plot with broad arcs and isolated busy areas areas. There is anyway a lot more data points there, which would major sense because of the intensive educational testing teens and young adults endure. But interesting to ponder this as a real effect, such as feeding into brain maturation, myelinization, etc.
    @robamacl

  6. Good question. Perhaps what we see in the spike is due to societal set-aside: older adolescents are given ‘special time’ in high school college/ trade school to zoom their nascent, still-plastic adult intelligence. Their energies are focused almost exclusively there at growing knowing, and they are practiced at shepherding their daily energetic cycles toward maximum paper-test-taking successes … Then, what happens? Well, they don’t call it “the 9 to 5 job Grind” for nothin’. Throw in a stressful commute, an angry boss, squalling babes, and limited opportunity vistas and that spike dives to the bare energetic baseline needed for economic productivity. Then come the decades of general animal decline. Fortunately, Love can renew joy at all points along the way. So as to make worthwhile the journey.

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