More than any other topic in historical gerontology, gerontocracy forces us to distinguish between valid representations and stereotypic images of age and aging, past and present. Our presumptions about the powers ascribed to long life must be tested in light of what we know today about age-grading in various networks as well as the impact of demographic aging on social norms and societal institutions.
There is abundant evidence to corroborate that gerontocracies—literally, rule by the old ones—existed in ancient times. Compared to today, there were few elders centuries ago. Surviving to one's first birthday was an achievement. One became "middle aged" in the second, not the third, quarter of life. Gray hairs were venerated as icons for attaining advanced ages and for the wisdom that presumably accrued from a rich lifetime of experiences. Knowledge was power. So was the accumulation of wealth (largely through land holdings in agrarian settings, and through commercial wealth in urban areas) that might tantalizingly be dangled before a rising generation who would have to pay obeisance until it, in due course, came of age. Intergenerational tensions are not novel.
So when did old men dominate society? We know that a gerousia, a council of elders that included only men over sixty, presided over bellicose Sparta. In the Laws, Plato discouraged public service before age fifty. The name of the Roman Senate derives from senex, or old. Even if we question the ages at which patriarchs such as Seth, Enoch, and Methusaleh died, Hebrew Scripture in many passages (including the Ten Commandments) attributes long life with virtue. The elders of Israel's twelve tribes were usually described as very old.
Other signs of gerontocracies dot the historical landscape. Sixty was the age in medieval England at which workers became exempt from compulsory labor or military service. Sixty was the average age of the nine men consecrated to be archbishops of Canterbury in the seventeenth century; they died in office at an average age of seventy-three. Ella, Countess of Salisbury, founded a nunnery after she became a widow, and stepped down as abbess at age sixty-eight. In addition, cross-cultural analyses have brought to light recent examples of gerontocracies. Anthropologists have offered ethnographic studies of tribes in East Africa and villages in southeast Asia in which one's relative standing in a community is primarily reckoned in terms of years, which count for more than even collateral kin ties, number of offspring, or the net value of possessions.
We must be sensitive to the class and gender biases in all these data. Life expectancy at birth was below forty before the twentieth century. It is reasonable to hypothesize that only those who could afford a balanced diet (though not so rich as to cause gout) and avoid back-breaking work (but not so leisurely an existence as to preclude the daily exercise that keeps one limber) could live until their prime. Only those fortunate enough to reach adolescence had any prospects (and then, only with continued good luck) of attaining a "green old age" that made their vital aging integral to the life of the community. Few women past sixty—only exceptionally wealthy widows, daughters of royalty, or indomitable intellects—would have commanded the same degree of power and influence as men of their cohort. Men with endowments ran gerontocracies.
For that reason, we may actually have witnessed more instances of gerontocracy since World War II than before that critical turning point in history. Life expectancies at birth and even at age forty have risen significantly in this century, thus creating a larger pool of older men who potentially can control the political, economic, and social institutions of a given society. Old men ruled the Soviet Union before its demise. These rulers by and large were bureaucrats wily enough to survive purges in their middle age and conservative enough to maintain control over the levers of power as one cohort gave way to the next. (Some claim that the system worked to its own disadvantage: Russia's gerontocracy became sclerotic.) Communist China also entered the modern era under the rule of successive cadres of men and women over sixty.
That youth ruled early America is hardly surprising since the median age in 1790 in the United States was sixteen. Yet the Constitution gave preference to mature leaders: one had to be twenty-five to run for Congress, thirty to become a senator, thirty-five to be elected president. Old men dominated Native American tribal councils. Elders determined who could marry whom and other social activities in slave quarters. Before the twentieth century older American men tended to manage the firms and farms that they had built over the course of their lives. Only infirmity or superannuation forced them to transfer power.
The United States has institutionalized the powers of age in at least two of its three branches of national government. Supreme Court justices have always served for life: few have been tapped for the highest bench before the age of fifty-five. Most then serve for decades. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, moreover, both houses of Congress adopted a "seniority" system which made long service in the House or Senate a prerequisite for committee appointments and chairmanships. People make jokes about nonagenarian Strom Thurmond, but few doubt his power on the Senate floor, which almost matches that of Senator Robert Byrd, a comparative youngster at eighty-one. In the House, Henry Hyde has dominated lawmaking for several decades. Nor has age or increasing concern over debility been impediments to attaining the White House— consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt's victory in 1944, Eisenhower's post-heart-attack landslide in 1956, and public support for Ronald Reagan even after a bout with cancer and the shock of near assassination.
Other current American organizations accord power to their elders. Older men (and occasionally women) who have demonstrated their piety and shrewdness in a succession of administrative offices tend to oversee Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches. Similarly, professional organizations—including gerontological bodies—tend to tap people known for their interpersonal skills and diverse backgrounds for management positions. It takes time to develop a reputation for leadership.
That said, there are no major gerontocracies in post-modern America. Those with the most seniority tend to be older than greenhorns, but rookies can—and do—sometimes rise quickly to the top. Educational attainment matters more than race, gender, geography or (old) age in the acquisition of power.
W. Andrew Achenbaum
Achenbaum, W. A. "Historical Perspectives on Aging." In Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. 4th ed. Edited by Robert H. Binstock and Linda George. San Diego: Academic Press, 1995. Pages 137–152.
Eisele, F. "Gerontocracy." In The Encyclopedia of Aging, 2d ed. Edited by George Maddox et al. New York: Springer Publishing, 1995. Page 412.
Gutmann, D. Reclaimed Powers. New York: Basic Book, 1987.