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You’re never too old to be president

If Joe Biden wins the US election in November, he will become the oldest US president ever to be sworn in (inaugurated).

While many people say this is ‘too old’ to become Head of State, there are others who argue that his time spent in office (he first won his seat three years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon!) gives him the experience and knowledge needed to lead a country.

At SunLife, we celebrate and embrace ageing, knowing that life after 50 can be more rewarding than ever. We decided to crunch the numbers on the presidential ages across the world to find out if there really is such a thing as ‘too old’ to be president.

Our study includes heads of state from around the globe and looks at their birth date, inauguration date and age at inauguration. 4,650 records are included in our study, representing all global heads of government in the Wikipedia database. Some of the heads of state included were re-elected at least once; we have treated each inauguration separately to allow us to explore age exclusive of other factors.

Age of inauguration around the world

The average age of inauguration around the world is 53.4.

Norodom Sihanouk holds the record for the youngest ever head of state. He was inaugurated into his role as Ruler of Cambodia in 1945 at the age of 23 upon the death of his maternal grandfather King Monivong. He held the position for 14 years and later returned for a second reign which lasted 11 years.

In the interim, Sihanouk stepped down in favour of his father to allow him to focus on political duties as Prime Minister. He was defeated in 1970 and in 1981 formed a resistance party, which returned him to power.

Between 1941 and 2006, Sihanouk also produced and directed a range of films about the history of Cambodia and its neighbouring countries, some of which he acted in himself.

The oldest person inaugurated into a head of state role is Mahathir Mohamad, who became the 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia in 2018 at the age of 93. He held this position until March 2020. This wasn’t his first experience as PM though, Mahathir was also Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1976 to 1981. A bold leader, Mahathir won five elections in a row. He also made many changes which supported Malaysia’s rapid modernisation and economic growth during his time in power.

As shown in the chart below, the range of ages of inauguration is represented by a relatively standard bell curve, meaning that Biden, while being an anomaly, would be by no means the oldest nor the first head of state to be more advanced in years.

The chart shows the ages along the X axis with a count of how many people became head of state at that age depicted by the Y axis:

infographic age of inauguration by country.

Age of inauguration by country

The age of inauguration can be broken down by country.

The table below shows the countries with the highest average age of inauguration:

Country Average Age of Inauguration
Vatican City 70
Lesotho 68
South Africa 66
India 66
Malawi 66
Mauritius 66
North Korea 64
Vietnam 64
Japan 63
Sri Lanka 63

The table below shows the countries with the lowest average age of inauguration:

Country Average Age of Inauguration
Bahrain 35
Liechtenstein 41
The Gambia 42
Burundi 42
North Macedonia 42
Georgia 42
Mauritania 45
Rwanda 45
Eritrea 45
San Marino 45

The country with the highest average age of heads of state is Vatican City, where the Pope’s average age at the start of their reign is 70. The lowest is Bahrain, where the age of those inaugurated into the head of state role is, on average, 35.

The map below shows the range of average ages across heads of state globally:

A world map which showcases the age of inauguration by each country according to the depth of colour blue

The world’s oldest heads of state

The table below shows the top 20 oldest heads of state from around the world:

Name Country Year of birth Average Age of Inauguration
Mahathir Mohamad Malaysia 1925 93
Marino Fattori San Marino 1832 93
Themistoklis Sofoulis Greece 1860 87
Xenophon Zolotas Greece 1904 85
Themistoklis Sofoulis Greece 1860 85
Manuel Antonio Sanclemente Colombia 1813 85
Beji Caid Essebsi Tunisia 1926 85
Philippe Pétain France 1856 84
Anerood Jugnauth Mauritius 1930 84
Konstantinos Kanaris Greece 1793 84
Theodoros Deligiannis Greece 1820 84
William Ewart Gladstone United Kingdom 1809 82
Carlos Correia Guinea-Bissau 1933 82
Theodoros Deligiannis Greece 1820 82
Morarji Desai India 1896 81
Antoine Gizenga Democratic Republic of the Congo 1925 81
Abdullah of Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 1924 81
Malik Meraj Khalid Pakistan 1916 80
Salman of Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 1935 80
Alberto Demicheli Uruguay 1896 80

Age of inauguration in the United States

The average age of inauguration in the United States of America is 56.

This shows that Joe Biden would be 22 years older than the average and 7 years older than the current oldest President, Donald Trump, at 71.

If we break this down by political party, historically the Whig and Federalist parties have provided an older candidate, with the average age of winning candidates for Whig being 67 and Federalist being 62. The youngest presidents have come from the Democrat party, where the average age of a successful candidate is 53.

Age of inauguration in the United States

56

Republican

66.5

Whig

53.5

Democrat

62

Federalist

56.8

Democratic
Republican

57

Independent

As a Democrat himself, Joe Biden would be 15 years older than the average age of a Democrat president.

Meanwhile, the states most likely to put forward an older candidate are Florida and California; the average age of presidents from Florida is 66 and 64 from California. Arkansas and Illinois have put forward the lowest average aged presidents at 47 and 49 respectively.

66

Florida

64

California

61

Michigan

61

Missouri

60

Texas

58

Virginia

57

North Carolina

57

New Jersey

56

Indiana

56

Tennessee

55

Ohio

55

New York

54

Massachusetts

53

Georgia

50

Pennsylvania

49

New Hampshire

49

Illinois

47

Arkansas

Achievements of the older head of state

George Washington was the first US President and took on the role at the age of 57. His achievements were varied, and it would be easy to simply state that he ‘founded a nation’ and be done with it. In reality, Washington’s legacy remains - he was the one who chose to be addressed as ‘Mr President’ and decided on the two-term maximum time in office.

Andrew Jackson began his presidency at the age of 62, forming the Democratic party to do so. He is credited with initiating the modern shape of US politics, which is still a battle between two primary parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

Becoming president in his 70s, Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in his first term and went on to bring on economic reform through his “Reaganomics” ideas. Under his presidency, inflation reduced and GDP increased by 3.6%.

Conclusion

Whether it’s running for presidency, starting a new business, or embarking on a life changing journey, we believe there is no such thing as ‘too old’. We think people can achieve great things at any age, which is why we wanted to highlight the experience and knowledge that age can bring to anything, including world politics.

Methodology

Being the over 50’s specialists, at Sunlife, we believe that the older generations have a lot to give, thanks to experience, knowledge and insight that’s only gained through living.

We wanted to see just how age influenced global powers and, specifically, what the trends were in ages of heads of state around the world.

We used Wikidata, a platform through which all Wikipedia data can be accessed, to pull the records of 4,650 heads of state. This data represents:

  • Every country where a ‘head of state’ is provided
  • Every ‘head of state’ ever listed on Wikipedia for that country

The data itself included:

  • Name
  • Country
  • Birth year
  • Year of inauguration
  • Role/title

From the birth year and year of inauguration, we were able to calculate the age at the time of inauguration.

The term ‘head of state’ encompasses any leadership role, dictated by the entity label “head of government” in Wikipedia. This allowed us to pull every single recorded “head of government” entity from the global database.

Some heads of state have occupied these roles more than once; for the purposes of our study, we treated these as separate instances because our intent was to identify the age at which people moved into head of state roles at any time, regardless of whether they had been there before.

The full dataset can be provided on request.

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