Biden turns 80 and joins growing ranks of octogenarians who still work

A person’s chronological age matters less than how well their bodies and brains are functioning, experts say

John Tomkins operates a forklift while loading concrete casts on Thursday in Algodones, N.M. He is 77 and plans to keep working after he turns 80. (Ramsay de Give for The Washington Post)

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, N.M., ran his own accounting company and was glad to be free of deadlines, payroll, and hiring. He learned to make sourdough bread and kimchi, and began teaching himself 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 cusp of 80, he is back in the workforce, doing accounting for a concrete company.

“I found I needed something to engage my mind,” Hyde said, adding that he has a cushy job compared to his 77-year-old boss, who is “out there every day as they’re pouring concrete.”

“I think retirement is voluntarily putting one foot in the grave, or if you like, ordering up the particle board box.”

Much hand-wringing has accompanied the fact that Joe Biden is by far the oldest person to hold the nation’s highest office. When he turned 80 on Sunday, he became the first octogenarian to serve as president, spurring questions about how old is too old for the job.

But working past 80, while still the exception, is not as rare as it once was. In recent decades, the number of octogenarians in the U.S. workforce has soared, from about 110,000 — or 2.5 percent of the 80-plus population — in 1980 to a high of about 734,000 — or 6 percent of all octogenarians — in 2019, according to a Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. (The numbers begin falling after the pandemic started, with about 693,000 — or 5.5 percent of the population — working last year.)

That makes sense, given that American life expectancy has steadily increased — 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 and Prevention (though life expectancy, too, dipped in the past couple of 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 an 80-year-old man today can expect on average to live to 88, and an 80-year-old woman to nearly 90, according to Social Security Administration actuarial estimates. That means everyone turning 80 this year has lived well past the life expectancy for the year they were born.

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

“An 80-year-old today and an 80-year-old 20 years ago represent different pockets of individuals; they’re not directly comparable,” he said. “Today there are many physically active, cognitively healthy 80-year-olds, taking classes, running around, governing.”

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

That may have surprised President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who finished his second term at 70, at that time the oldest a president had been. A possibly apocryphal story has him saying a sitting president should never be older than that. But Stuart Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois in Chicago, warned against blanket declarations about age and ability. “Just because you as an individual might not be able to do something over the age of 70 or 80 doesn’t mean somebody else can’t do the job,” he said. “There’s people that can make it out into their late 80s and 90s that are processing as well as or better than other people that are younger.”

Stuart Goldstein, 80, started working at Hecht’s department store in D.C. when he was 14; he is now a lawyer working 40 hours a week in Miami and has no intention of stopping. “I’ve seen friends who have sort of retired and deteriorated mentally, and I don’t want that to happen to me,” said Goldstein, who is also a pilot and flies small planes on weekends. “I remain mentally alert while I work.”

Some brain changes do take place in older age, said Joe Verghese, chief of cognitive and motor aging and of geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Health System. “Your ability to process information for instance, slows down, the processing speed slows down. Your ability to multitask when you’re presented with different information at the same time, that gets affected as well,” he said, adding that slower processing can affect a person’s ability to make split-second decisions.

But absent disease affecting cognition, older workers also have some advantages, Verghese said. For example, people often become better decision-makers as they age.

“Your judgment is a factor of not only biological process, but experience, and your judgment skills 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 I can think of that have affected this country haven’t been split-second decisions, they would have been decisions that required consensus building, taking input of people, and I think age gives you a bit of greater ability to do that.”

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One reason older people may take longer to make decisions is because after one’s early 40s, the myelinization, or insulating sheath around brain axons, begins to break down, meaning messages are not transmitted as effectively, said Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

That can make precision pursuits such as math more challenging, but it can also loosen up one’s brain associations, making it easier to see the big picture, and to improvise and create, which could explain why jazz musicians and abstract artists often do some of their best work in older age, he said.

It can also be an asset for, say, a world leader. “One of the benefits, if you will, of this slowing down, is slowing down, and being more deliberate in our thought processes, [making] sure that you do look before you leap, and aim before you fire,” Jung said, adding, “Older people are known for this thing called wisdom.”

Even so, not all of them want to still be working. John Tomkins, owner of Precast Manufacturing New Mexico, where Hyde is employed, still works 40 to 60 hours a week because he can’t afford to retire. “This is a small business, I’ve invested my life and my money into it,” he said, adding that he started working at the company, which his father started, in 1958 at age 12.

A widower, Tomkins would like to travel and see more of the country, he said. But “every time I think about selling it there is something that happens that prevents me from doing so.”

At the same time, he said, working “keeps my mind and my body sharp. … I never had any desire to belong to a country club or play golf or any of that nonsense. If I’m going to be alive I’m going to be doing something productive. I think human value comes from the goods and services that 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 about 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 occurred to me that I would be doing anything else,” she said. “I’m not the sort of person who sort of wondered all my life when I might retire. When the game first clicks for a child, she said, “To see their little eyes, the joy of that moment, it’s very wonderful. … It energizes me.”

Hazel Domangue, 82, teaches memoir-writing to seniors and U.S. veterans at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., and recently formed a company, Precise Expression, to offer writing instruction. She said her views on working in old age have evolved.

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

One advantage Biden may have is that he has spent his life in government, Domangue said. “He’s doing what he’s done for years, for 50-plus years, and he understands the job,” she said “He’s not going as a neophyte. He’s doing what he knows how to do. … If your mind is still sharp, why not?”

Tomkins would go further. Two of his best employees, a welder and a salesman, were men in their 80s, and given the choice, he would opt to hire from that age bracket.

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

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.