There is much discussion about the age of Joe Biden, 80, and much less about the age of his rival Donald Trump, 77. This disparity suggests that the claims being made have little to do with reality and a lot to do with politics and what allows media to make money from promoting the issue. I have a personal stake in the discussions. Being about to turn 80 myself, whether or not an 80-year-old is competent to be the president is a subject of great interest. This topic of aging and competence has been studied for at least a century, but none of these studies have been deemed relevant to the media chatter taking place.
I first became interested in the issue of aging and productivity when I encountered an article in The Atlantic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel: Why I Hope to Die at 75. Since at the time I was only a few years from that age and felt that I was enjoying life at the time, perhaps more than I ever had previously, I found his sentiment bizarre. Emanuel was not planning or hoping to die at that age, but he planned, and at the age of 65, still planned to forego any medical treatments that might assist in prolonging his life. He believed that life beyond that age is not worth living if it followed the normal trajectory. What he considered the normal trajectory is a concise summary of what people assume of the 80-year-old Biden.
“Even if we aren’t demented, our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older. Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established. Conversely, distractibility increases. We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower.”
These are aging issues that beset most people and they are not controversial. However, he then proceeds to make the following claim.
“.the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”
This claim is highly misleading. Emanuel used a chart showing a drop off in creativity and productivity with age provided by Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, to support this claim. An article by Simonton provides an entirely different interpretation of that chart. In fact, it suggests that if Emanuel kept his health and his enthusiasm for his work, he should expect to have a productive life as long as he so wishes. Simonton’s conclusions have direct relevance to how we should evaluate old people in general and aging politicians in particular.
Simonton tells us that the chart represents most accurately a career progression rather than a chronological age progression. Since most people have a single career beginning early in life, the two get conflated. People who begin a career later in life will likely experience the same shape productivity curve, just shifted later in chronological age. This suggests that the drop in productivity is due to things other than age. Some people will simply tire of whatever area they have been working in and look for a more satisfying activity, perhaps embarking on another career timeline. An academic, like Emanuel, will typically need a burst of productivity to even initiate his career. Once established and tenure is attained, a professor might choose to focus on more difficult studies hoping to provide more important but fewer contributions. Often academics will turn their interests to teaching or writing of books, both of which could be viewed as a decrease in productivity. But the most important reveal by Simonton is that if a productive academic wishes to remain productive for the rest of his/her life, it should be possible.
“Especially noteworthy is the realization that the expected age decrement in creativity in some disciplines is so minuscule that we can hardly talk of a decline at all. Although in certain creative activities, such as pure mathematics and lyric poetry, the peak may appear relatively early in life, sometimes even in the late 20s and early 30s, with a rapid drop afterwards, in other activities, such as geology and scholarship, the age optimum may occur appreciably later, in the 50s even, with a gentle, even undetectable decrease in productivity later.”
Simonton also introduces the concept of the “quality ratio,” a way of indicating that those farther along in their careers tend to produce fewer works, but the works are often of higher quality.
“This probabilistic connection between quantity and quality, which has been styled the ‘constant probability of success’ principle…strongly implies that an individual’s creative powers remain intact throughout the life span.”
There is also a noticeable tendency for a burst of productivity to occur near end of life, something Simonton refers to as the “swan-song phenomenon.”
“After subjecting 1,919 works by 172 classical composers to detailed quantitative scrutiny, one striking pattern emerged: As the composers neared their final years, when death was becoming more than an abstract contingency, they began to create compositions that were more concise, with simpler and more restrained melodic lines; yet these compositions scored extremely well in esthetic significance, as judged by musicologists, and eventually joined the popular mainstays of the classical repertoire. It is as if each composer, when seeing the end approaching fast on life’s horizon, put utmost into everything undertaken, with the knowledge that within the current works-in-progress dwelt a last artistic testament. Whatever the motivation, the mere fact that dying creators can pull off such feats provides another argument on behalf of the theory that the general decline in output need not be synonymous with a deterioration in creative powers.”
Hopefully this discussion clears up misunderstandings about age and competence. When it comes to the presidency, the president is not provided much time to be creative and productive. The president is surrounded by hordes of young creative and productive people who throw so much stuff at him/her that there is barely time to consider all the proposals. What is needed in this case is wisdom—the wisdom to choose the best alternatives presented. Vote for wise and experienced people.
So, if one believes Biden or Trump is currently capable of being president, there is no reason to assume another four or five years of ageing will render either of them incompetent.
You can learn a little about a lot of things or you can learn a lot about a very few things. Guess which is the most fun.
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