Biden turns 80, joining a growing number of octogenarians still working

A person’s chronological age is less important than the functioning of their body and brain, experts say

John Tomkins operates a forklift while loading concrete casts in Algodones, NM Thursday.  He is 77 and plans to continue working after he turns 80.
John Tomkins operates a forklift while loading concrete casts in Algodones, NM Thursday. He is 77 and plans to continue working after he turns 80. (Ramsey de Give for the Washington Post)

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Last year, when Bob Hyde was 78, he stood in front of a mirror and decided it was time to retire. Hyde, who lives in Rio Rancho, NM, ran his own accounting firm and was happy to be free from deadlines, payroll, and hiring. He learned to bake sourdough bread and kimchi and began teaching himself to play the clarinet.

But retirement lasted less than a year. “I missed the engagement,” he said. Hyde had been employed since he left home at 16 and joined the British Army. Now, on the verge of 80, he is back in the workforce doing the bookkeeping for a specific company.

“I’ve found I need something to keep me busy,” Hyde said, adding that he has a comfortable job compared to his 77-year-old boss who is “out there every day as they are pouring concrete.”

“I think retirement is voluntarily stepping foot in the grave or, if you will, ordering the chipboard box.”

Much hand-wringing has accompanied the fact that Joe Biden is by far the oldest person to hold the highest office in the nation. When he turns 80 on November 20, he will be the first octogenarian to serve as president, raising the question of how old is too old for the job.

But working over 80 is still the exception, but not as rare as it used to be. In recent decades, the number of octogenarians in the U.S. workforce has skyrocketed, from about 110,000 — or 2.5 percent of those age 80 and older — in 1980 to a peak of about 734,000 — or 6 percent of all octogenarians — each year 2019 Washington Post analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Numbers begin to fall after the pandemic began, with around 693,000 — or 5.5 percent of the population — working last year).

That makes sense when you consider that American life expectancy has been steadily increasing — from 47 for a baby born in 1900, to 68 in 1950, to 79 in 2019, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (although also life expectancy in the last few years).

Once a person survives childhood and young adulthood, the outlook improves even more. When Biden was born in 1942, life expectancy was 66. But today, an 80-year-old man can expect to live to 88, and an 80-year-old woman to nearly 90, on average, according to the Social Security Administration’s actuarial estimates. This means that anyone who turns 80 this year will have far exceeded the life expectancy for the year they were born.

As there are more octogenarians, it stands to reason that more of them are still working — and if they’re healthy, experts say there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. The number of years since a person was born, or chronological age, is less important than their biological age — how well their bodies and brains are functioning, said Dan Belsky, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“An 80-year-old today and an 80-year-old twenty years ago represent different groups of individuals; they are not directly comparable,” he said. “Today there are a lot of physically active, cognitively healthy 80-year-olds taking classes, running around, governing.”

Age discrimination can make it harder for older people to seek employment, but unlike countries with broad mandatory retirement ages, the United States has few restrictions on working after a certain age (commercial pilots must retire by age 65, for example) . As the population continues to gray, many politicians and other leaders have stayed in their jobs well past the typical retirement age. Nancy Pelosi is 82, Mitch McConnell is 80, Anthony Fauci is 81. “We’ve never seen a cohort hold dominant positions in society for so long,” Belsky said.

That may have surprised President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ended his second term in office at the age of 70, at the time the oldest a president had ever served. A possibly apocryphal story has it that an incumbent president should never be older. But Stuart Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cautioned against making blanket claims about age and ability. “Just because you as an individual may not be able to do something by the time you’re 70 or 80, doesn’t mean someone else can’t do the job,” he said. “There are people who can make it into their late 80s and 90s who process as well or better than other younger people.”

Scott Goldstein, 80, started working at Hecht’s in the District when he was 14; He’s a lawyer now, works 40 hours a week in Miami and has no intention of retiring. “I’ve seen friends who have retired and mentally deteriorated, and I don’t want that to happen to me,” said Goldstein, who is also a pilot and flies small planes on weekends. “I stay mentally alert while I work.”

Some brain changes take place as we age, said Joe Verghese, chief of the Division of Cognitive and Motor Aging and Geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Health System. “Your ability to process information, for example, slows down, the speed of processing slows down. Your ability to multitask when presented with different pieces of information at the same time is also affected,” he said, adding that slower processing can affect a person’s ability to make split-second decisions.

But aside from cognition-impairing illnesses, older workers also have some benefits, Verghese said. For example, as people age, they often become better decision-makers.

“Your judgment is not only a factor of the biological process but also of experience, and your judgment might actually improve over time because you have multiple experiences to draw from,” he said. When it comes to the job of President: “Most of the major decisions that have affected this country that I can think of were not split-second decisions, but decisions that required consensus building, the involvement of people and I think , age gives you a little more opportunity to do that.”

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One reason older people may take longer to make decisions is that after their early 40s, the myelination, or insulating covering, around the brain’s axons begins to break down, meaning messages aren’t transmitted as effectively, Rex said Jung, neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

That can make precision tasks like math more difficult, but it can also loosen associations in the brain, making it easier to see the big picture and improvise and create, which might explain why jazz musicians and abstract artists often take on some of their best Work in old age, he said.

It can also be advantageous for a world market leader, for example. “One of the benefits of this slowing down, if you will, is slowing down and more conscious thought processes. [making] Make sure you look before you jump and aim before you shoot,” Jung said, adding, “Older people are known for that thing called wisdom.”

However, not everyone wants to work. John Tomkins, owner of Precast Manufacturing New Mexico, where Hyde is employed, still works 40 to 60 hour weeks because he can’t afford to retire. “This is a small company, I’ve put my life and money into it,” he said, adding that he started working at the company his father founded in 1958 at the age of 12.

As a widower, Tomkins would like to travel and see more of the country, he said. But “every time I think about selling it, something happens that stops me.”

At the same time, he said, the work “keeps my mind and body sharp. … I never wanted to be in a country club or play golf or any of that nonsense. If I’m alive, I’ll do something productive. I think human value comes from the goods and services we produce. What else is there in life?”

Elizabeth Shaughnessy, 85, is President of the Berkeley Chess School, which she founded in 1982. The organization brings chess to around 150 schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and hosts classes and tournaments. Shaughnessy estimates that she works at least 40 hours a week, including many weekends.

“It never crossed my mind to do anything else,” she says. “I’m not the kind of person who’s spent my whole life wondering when I’m going to retire. When the game first clicks for a child, she said, “Seeing your little eyes, the joy of that moment, it’s very wonderful… It gives me energy.”

Hazel Domangue, 82, teaches memoir writing to seniors and US veterans at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland, and recently founded a company, Precise Expression, LLC, to provide writing classes. She said her views on working in old age have evolved.

“When I was younger, I thought the same thing as other people — ‘No, he’s too old, he should have retired a long time ago,'” she said. “But as I got older, got old, it’s just not true.”

One advantage Biden may have is that he’s spent his life in government, Domangue said. “He’s been doing what he’s been doing for years, 50+ years, and he gets the job,” she said. “He doesn’t go as a freshman. He does what he can. … If your mind is still sharp, why not?”

Tomkins would go even further. Two of his best employees, a welder and a salesman, were males in their eighties, and given the choice he would choose to be hired in that age group.

“Today, if you want someone with experience, wisdom and a work ethic, I would prefer to go with the older guys,” he said. “This generation [of young workers] want flexible hours, they don’t want to be managed, they don’t want to be told what to do, they may or may not be on time. I would stay with the older generation anytime.”

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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