A negative stereotype that older adults become forgetful and sluggish in thought has been around since early civilisation.

This statement results both from autobiographical accounts as well as observations throughout history. In 1921 Robert Woodworth of Columbia University published Psychology: A Study of Mental Life, in which he observes that “seldom does a very old person get outside the limits of his previous habits. Few great inventions, artistic or practical, have emanated from really older persons, and comparatively few even from the middle-aged… The period from 20 years up to 40 seems to be the most favourable for inventiveness.” (p. 519).

Harvey Lehman spent a career documenting these trends in creativity, which he recently consolidated in a book on Age and Achievement in 2017. In nearly all disciplines, achievement peaks at around 20-40 years of age, as predicted by Woodworth nearly a century earlier. After the age of 40 it all goes downhill. Or so we are led to believe.

Out of the top 300 Forbes richest people in the world of 2017, 228 are over the age of 60 (including Bill Gates, the richest person), 107 are over 75 (more than a third), 34 over 85 years old and 12 older than 90. The richest people on earth are mainly older people.

Stephen Follows, a British director working in Hollywood who maintains a database and blog on all things to do with the business, did a unique analysis of the age of directors. He looked at over 2,000 films in the top 100 grossing bracket for the past 21 years across 20 genres – to learn that Hollywood directors are also getting older.

After the age of 40 it all goes downhill. Or so we are led to believe

In 1995 the average age of Hollywood directors was just under 44. By 2014, that had increased by six years to just under 50 years – perhaps the most famous of the older directors being Clint Eastwood at 85 when American Sniper was released. Being so prolific over the years, Eastwood was also the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth oldest director. Historical, autobiographical and war films have the oldest directors, at an average age of almost 52. While in contrast, horror films have the youngest directors, at an average age of 42.

The same gerontocracy can also be seen among politicians. The 111th US Congress, which took office in 2009, was the oldest in US history. While the 112th Congress was slightly younger by a few months, over the past 30 years the average age of a Member of Congress has increased with almost every new Congress.

In 1981, the average age of a Representative was 49, while that of a Senator was 53 years. Today, the average age of a Representative is 57, while that of a Senator is 61 years. We have a pattern whereby Representatives are at least 20 years older than the people they are elected to represent. We continue to design a world governed by a combination of gerontocracy (ruled by older adults), oligarchy (ruled by a few) and plutocracy (ruled by the wealthy).

In The Republic, Plato wrote that: “It is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit.” The sensationalism of this phrase becomes muted when we realise that we have been following this trend since the inceptions of societies – with minor but significant exceptions. 

While the ancient Greek city state of Sparta was ruled by a flat-out Gerousia – a council made up of members who had to be at least 60 years old and who served for life – most variants of gerontocracy are less prescriptive. All theocratic states and organisations, where leadership becomes concentrated in the hands of religious elders, are traditional gerontocracies, as with the Holy See, Islamic State and Mormonism, among others.

One reason why this might be the case has something to do with the skill needed to be a good politician. A study in 2012 of British civil servants by the French epidemiologist Archana Singh-Manoux reported that cognitive skills such as memory and reasoning start declining as early as from the age of 45, except for vocabulary. The greatest of Roman orators, Marcus Tullius Cicero, had some insights: “Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make it acceptable.”

Such age-related decline is detrimental. But with the increasing age of politicians comes other more serious diminishment that sometimes accompanies older adults. Ron Reagan contends that his father, US President Ronald Reagan, showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease three years into his first term. President Reagan went on to serve two four-year terms in office. At least for five years, the US President was suffering from dementia. It might be of little surprise therefore to learn that President Reagan was known as the “great communicator”.

Older adults show great variance. From the richest to the poorest, the healthiest to the weakest, from the cleverest to the incompetent. Don’t let anyone place you in the wrong category.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US. This excerpt is from a forthcoming book by the author: Coming of Age: How films Portray Ageing, Cambridge Scholar Publishing.

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