For presidents, is 78 the new 68?

On inauguration day, President-elect
Joe Biden will — at age 78 — be the oldest person to be sworn into that office.
It’s not even close: The second oldest president will be his predecessor,
Donald Trump, who was 70 when he took office. Next in line are Ronald Reagan
(age 69 at inauguration), William Henry Harrison (age 68 at inauguration), and
James Buchanan (age 65 at inauguration).

But chronological age —
measured as years since birth — is only one way to think about the concept of
age. Mortality has fallen dramatically over the decades, and people are
generally living longer, healthier lives. According to Social Security
Administration cohort life tables, the average 78-year-old male today can
expect to live for roughly 10 more years. In contrast, a male born in 1900 had
a remaining life expectancy of less than eight years at age 78.

Some economists who study aging have argued that — given the trend towards longer and healthier lives — remaining life expectancy might be a better way of conceptualizing age. In other words, rather than measure age as years since birth, it may be better to measure it as years from (expected) death. One of my frequent collaborators, John Shoven, has referred to this alternative approach as “new age thinking.”

How will Biden compare to
previous presidents under new age thinking? To answer that question, I looked
up the remaining life expectancy for the five oldest presidents at the time
they were inaugurated. These estimates — shown in the last column of the table
below — suggest that if age is measured as years from (expected) death,
Harrison was slightly older than Biden, and Buchanan and Reagan were close. So
Biden is less of an outlier. But even under new age thinking, Biden is among
the two oldest individuals to be elected president. (Note that the remaining
life expectancy estimates take into account the fact that the individual has
already survived until the age listed in the third column.)

President Year of Birth Age at Inauguration Remaining Life Expectancy
Joe Biden 1942 78 10.19
Donald Trump 1946 70 15.50
Ronald Reagan 1911 69 12.13
William Henry Harrison 1773 68 10.14
James Buchanan 1791 65 11.65

A few caveats are in order.
First, the estimated life expectancies shown in the table apply to the average
male born in the same year as the president. Presidents are hardly average.
More generally, any given individual may live a shorter or longer time than the
table indicates due to factors like health, socioeconomic status, and just
plain luck. For example, Harrison died shortly after taking office, and Reagan
lived to age 93. Second, life tables are only available for birth years
starting in 1850. I used the estimates for 1850 for the two presidents who were
born before that year. This probably overestimates their remaining life
expectancy, given the general trend towards improved mortality. Third, I
rounded age at inauguration down to the nearest whole year (i.e., it’s really the
age the person turned on his most recent birthday). Finally, these estimates come
from the life tables underlying the intermediate projections in the 2013 Social
Security Trustees Report — the most recent data I have handy. The Social
Security Administration updates these estimates every year, but they are
unlikely to change dramatically.

Americans are living longer — a positive development that also creates challenges for financing retirement, whether through Social Security or private saving. Meeting those challenges will likely involve working longer — and indeed, labor force participation among older people has increased since the mid-1990s. Both the outgoing and incoming presidents may be a reflection of that trend.

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