January 29, 2021 • Third Third Journal
To begin, let me state plainly that this article is not meant to be partisan. What I’d like to say about the recent inauguration would not be changed if those who were inaugurated on January 20, 2021 magically switched political parties and perspectives.
Diversity on Display
Perhaps one of the most notable things about the inauguration was the fact that, for the first time in American history, we have elected a woman to national office. This is, to be sure, a watershed moment that has been celebrated by both women and men, and, I might add, by people of both major political parties. I have a die-hard Republican friend who was not a supporter of Kamala Harris in the election, but who nevertheless found her inauguration as Vice President to be deeply moving and significant.
It was also notable that we inaugurated a multiracial person as Vice President, since Kamala Harris is both Black and of South Asian descent. Many people noted that she was sworn in by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina member of the Supreme Court. All of this was, for many of us, a deeply moving sign of change that is needed in our society, whereby women and people of color are increasingly able to exercise fully their giftedness for the common good.
As I watched the inauguration on television and read many written reports, almost every pundit commented positively on the symbolic significance of Kamala Harris’s election and inauguration. They seemed to agree that this was a great moment for America, as well as for women and people of color. It was a sign and celebration of America’s diversity and growing inclusion.
Joe Biden’s Distinctiveness
When it came to Joe Biden’s inauguration, the silence surrounding his distinctiveness as a new President was rather deafening. Biden was inaugurated at the age of 78 years, 61 days. That makes him the oldest President in U.S. history on the first day of his term. The previous record-holder was Ronald Reagan, who left office at 77 years, 349 days. Now, just about every commentator mentioned that Biden began office as the oldest President in U.S. history. But I didn’t hear or read one person who had anything to say about this record-setting moment, either good or bad. My sense is that, for the most part, we as a nation don’t quite know what to think or feel about having such an old President.
The inauguration chatter wasn’t like during the Democratic primary when there was considerable buzz about the problem of Biden’s age and what it seemed to imply, both about his fitness to be President and about America. The buzz got even louder when Biden’s major opponent was Bernie Sanders, who, if I’ve done the math right, is one year and 73 days older than Biden. Many pundits and social media freelancers worried openly about these older candidates, questioning their physical and mental fitness for office. (Nobody questioned Bernie’s taste in mittens, however.)
Thinking Clearly About Older Adulthood
Now, to be sure, older adults can sometimes have physical and mental limitations. I expect Joe Biden can’t do quite as many push-ups today as he could when he entered the U.S. Senate 47 years ago. Some of the mental limitations of older adults are so common as to have given rise to the phrase “senior moment.” Forgetting a name or a familiar word are things that people with aging brains do fairly regularly. There is plenty of research to back this up. (And if you don’t trust the science, my personal example will prove the point.)
But the common assumption that older adulthood is necessarily a season of decline, especially mental decline, is now so ill-informed as to be considered unfairly prejudicial. Seniors, as it turns out, have many other kinds of moments besides petty forgetfulness. For example, psychiatrist and expert on aging, Gene Cohen writes in his book, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, “[O]lder adults often experience more trouble with word finding—the “tip-of-the-tongue” experience—but at the same time, the total number of words they use—their vocabulary—continues to increase.” Academic research shows that as you age “you continue to expand your vocabulary and hone your ability to express yourself.” Hmmm. Does that mean that if President Biden utters a cleverly articulate sentence, we should refer to it as a “senior moment”?
Expanded verbal expression in the third third of life is just the tip of the iceberg. An article from Harvard Health Publishing, “Why you should thank your aging brain,” acknowledges that our brains do change as we get older. We are more apt to “forget a name or two, take longer to finish the crossword, or find it hard to manage two tasks at once.” But, according to this article, studies have also shown that “older people have better judgment, are better at making rational decisions, and are better able to screen out negativity than their juniors are.” In fact, research identifies many abilities that, for most people, improve with age. These include inductive reasoning, verbal abilities, spatial reasoning, basic math, accentuating the positive, and attaining contentment.
Gene Cohen studied creativity among older adults, finding that “Contrary to societal myths, creativity is hardly the exclusive province of youth. It can blossom at any age—and in fact it can bloom with more depth and richness in older adults because it is informed by their vast stores of knowledge and experience.” Cohen concludes that “With age can come a new feeling of inner freedom, self-confidence, and liberation from social constraints that allows for novel or bold behavior.” (See Cohen, The Mature Mind, “Introduction.”)
The picture of the aging brain that emerges from contemporary research does indeed contradict many “societal myths” that emphasize decline and degeneration. Now, of course some older adults must confront debilitating dementia and other disabling conditions. But this unhappy truth should not dominate our view of the capacity and potential of all people in the third third of life. It’s time to have our prejudices about aging reformed by science.
So, when the commentators noted that Joe Biden is now America’s oldest president, they could have added something like this, “It will be great to have a President who has a mature brain. Research shows that older people tend to use more of their brains than younger people do and to do so in a more integrated way. Moreover, according to science, an older adult is likely to excel in inductive reasoning, verbal ability, basic math, and creativity. We need that sort of thinking in our President.”
American Longevity and Its Implications
Besides honoring the mental strengths of older adults, I believe there’s another reason to celebrate the inauguration of the oldest President in U.S. history. This event allows us to recognize the growth of longevity in our country. In 1900, the average life expectancy for an American was 47 years. When Joe Biden was born in 1942, it was 66 years. Now the average life expectancy is 77 years (and that’s after COVID recently lowered it by 1½ years).
Among other things, greater longevity means we’re going to have many more older adults in our country than we have had in the past. In fact, about 10,000 people in the U.S. will turn 65 today. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that in 2034 older adults will outnumber children for the first time in history. That’s more people 65 and older than under 18.
Often the growing number of seniors is portrayed in the media as a gigantic problem. We’re about to be hit by the ominous, enormous “silver tsunami.” Younger generations will soon be forced to support growing millions of unproductive seniors who will drag down both the economy and society in general.
But what if older adults still had much to contribute to our country and, indeed, to the world? What if we began to consider the immense potential of silver-haired people, seeing them as a wave of wisdom, productivity, and creativity, rather than a killer tsunami? When we see older adults making a difference that matters – which will be true of Joe Biden whether or not you appreciate the difference he makes – maybe we’ll begin to rethink our assumptions as a society. Maybe those of us who are part of the silver wave will consider how we can contribute to making our world a better place? Maybe we’ll be inspired by something once said by the second-youngest President in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” (In case you’re curious, John Kennedy was 43 when he was inaugurated. Theodore Roosevelt was 42, the youngest President in American history.)
Celebrating a More Diverse Diversity
As I mentioned above, millions of Americans from all political persuasions celebrated the diversity evident in the inauguration, from Amanda Gorman, the young Black poet, to Sonia Sotomayor, the Latina Supreme Court justice, to David Cho, the Korean American secret service agent assigned to President Biden, to Garth Brooks, the white, Republican country music singer, to our multiracial, female Vice President Kamala Harris. Personally, I found this display of diversity refreshing and encouraging.
But I wonder if we might also celebrate another facet of diversity, one that will become increasingly significant in our future. I’m thinking of age diversity. Can we celebrate the fact that America includes among its leaders a 22-year-old Amanda Gorman and a 78-year-old Joe Biden, with an age span of 56 years between them? Can we affirm our need for the creativity of youth and the creativity of old age, not to mention the wisdom of youth and the wisdom of old age? (I am old enough to be the father of most of the people on my De Pree Center team. I love their energy, creativity, and, yes, wisdom. They help me to see things I would have missed as well as to see things in new ways.)
A Brief Biblical Perspective
As you might expect, I tend to think about these matters from a biblical perspective. So, allow me to add a couple of brief theological observations.
First, as Christians, we should celebrate when diverse peoples are brought together and empowered to exercise their giftedness. We seek to live in light of the fact that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on “all flesh” (Acts 2:17). We recognize that all people are created in the image of God and are, therefore, worthy of respect and called to invest their lives in the work of stewarding God’s world. Even in a secular inauguration we can catch a glimpse of what God intends for humanity. When we do, we rejoice.
Second, Scripture teaches us to celebrate the potential of older adults to live with purpose and productivity. Not only do we have many biblical characters to encourage us (Abraham and Sarah, for example), but also we have the testimony of scriptural passages like Psalm 92:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the LORD is upright,
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him. (92:12-15).
The flourishing of the righteous is seen in the fact that “in old age they still produce fruit.” Just because they have more years doesn’t mean they stop being productive. The nature of their mature fruitfulness might differ in ways from what it was when they were young. Older adults don’t usually bear and raise children (Abraham and Sarah being counterexamples). But fruitfulness in life doesn’t stop just because we celebrate our 65th birthday or retire from our job or get a Social Security check. If we are deeply connected to God, or to speak in the language of John 15, if we abide in Christ, then we can expect to flourish, to produce fruit even in old age.
We are most fully the people of God when we are united together in our varied diversities, including age diversity. As it says in Psalm 148,
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven (148:11-13).
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.