Voters throughout the United States will head to the polls this November in the nation’s presidential election – and a key aspect of the surrounding commentary has been the ages of its two primary contenders. Aged 81 and 78 respectively, current US president Joe Biden and his Republican rival Donald Trump are among the oldest people to seek a return to the position.


But is our fascination with our leaders’ ages a modern phenomenon, or does it have longer historical roots? Rana Mitter, ST Lee Chair in US-Asia Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, suggested the former in an episode of HistoryExtra’s History Behind the Headlines podcast series recorded earlier this year.

“It's relatively recently that we've tended to fetishise youth – the idea that being young, thrusting and vigorous is something that is to be praised,” Mitter said.

“The Confucian tradition, which comes from the philosopher Confucius in China 2,500 years ago, always made a great virtue of those in charge being older. There’s a famous section of one of the texts attributed to him arguing that, when you’re in your 20s, you don’t really know much. It’s only by the time you’re about 60 that you can begin to have the kind of wisdom that will make you into a proper philosophical sage.”

It's relatively recently that we've tended to fetishise youth

Hannah Skoda, associate professor of medieval history at the University of Oxford, points to the reverence afforded to older leaders in the Middle Ages.

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“England, for example, had two famously very long-lived kings. Henry III, who was on the throne for 56 years, was born in 1207 and died in 1272, so by the time his reign ended he was pretty aged,” she noted.

“And Edward III was born in 1312 and died in 1377, having reigned for 50 years, and his reign was looked back on subsequently as a kind of golden age. That was partly because he achieved such success during the Hundred Years’ War, but it was also because he lived for such a long time.”

Edward III
Edward III's 50-year reign was regarded as "a kind of golden age", says Hannah Skoda. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Yet the view of age as an asset for those in power wasn’t universally held throughout the medieval period.

“There’s an interesting sense of ambivalence about the idea that you’ve gained wisdom by the time you’re older,” Skoda suggests. “On one hand, there was a sense that old age brings with it wisdom, maturity and the ability to reflect without the rashness of youth. But, on the other, there was an anxiety about senility, forgetfulness and a lack of sharpness setting in.

“We can see that in theological terms, too: there was a sense that people in old age were nearer to heaven – that they were completing the trajectory of earthly life. Yet, at the same time, old age was seen as a reminder of the transience of life and worldly success. So age was both a good thing and something that made people quite anxious.”

There was an anxiety about senility, forgetfulness and a lack of sharpness setting in

Looking a few centuries later, Mitter raises the example of 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone, who was in his 80s when he was elected as PM for the fourth time in 1892.

“Think about his nickname – he was the ‘Grand Old Man’,” Mitter says. “Compared to some things that prime ministers have been called since, that seems a pretty good deal, as nicknames go. Of course, he was succeeded by the Earl of Rosebery, who was not regarded as one of the more successful prime ministers. So maybe the fact that he was seen as a ‘grand old man’ suggests that there was some sense of nostalgic remembrance – but it might also be an indication that, even for Victorian times, his age was seen as being beyond the norm [for someone in power].”

British prime minister William Gladstone
British prime minister William Gladstone was in his 80s when he was elected as PM for the fourth time in 1892. (Image by Getty Images)

Finally, returning to the United States, Mitter cites one of its foundational texts as a possible contributing factor to its leaders being on the older side.

“It’s worth noting that the US Constitution prescribes minimum ages for how old politicians should be. You cannot be president until you're 35, can’t be a senator until you’re 30, and can’t enter Congress until you’re 25. Biden, I think, managed to sneak in as a senator when he was only a few months older than 30.”

Perhaps that medieval ambivalence – about youth vs age, vigour vs experience – has been more enduring than we might think…

The 10 oldest presidents in US history

Each of the first four presidents of the United States was aged 65 when they departed office; by the most recent standards, that’s certifiably young.

Perhaps America’s Founding Fathers didn’t foresee a situation in which the two leading candidates for the presidency – Donald Trump and Joe Biden – would be 78 and 81 respectively, and therefore deep into their 80s when their terms would end.

But looking further back into US history, and including its two most recent presidents, who are the oldest US presidents, judged by when they began their term? James Osborne offers a closer look…

  1. Joe Biden
  2. Donald Trump
  3. Ronald Reagan
  4. William Henry Harrison
  5. James Buchanan
  6. George HW Bush
  7. Zachary Taylor
  8. Dwight D Eisenhower
  9. Andrew Jackson
  10. John Adams

Joe Biden

Age at inauguration: 78 years, 61 days

Inauguration date: 20 January 2021

Presidency: 2021–present

Joe Biden became the oldest president in US history, aged 78, when he assumed office, taking the record from his predecessor and political rival, Donald Trump. Biden’s tenure has been marked by the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, its subsequent economic impact, and US involvement in – and influence on – global conflicts.

Donald Trump

Age at inauguration: 70 years, 220 days

Inauguration date: 20 January 2017

Presidency: 2017–21

Donald Trump, formerly best known as a reality TV star and real estate mogul, became the oldest president at the time of his inauguration in 2017. His presidency became notable for his unconventional approach to communication, and his populist policy positions.

Ronald Reagan

Age at inauguration: 69 years, 349 days

Inauguration date: 20 January 1981

Presidency: 1981–89

A former actor-turned-politician, Ronald Reagan dominated the political landscape during his two-term tenure through a combination of charismatic communication and his primary focus on the American economy, foreign policy, and military spending.

William Henry Harrison

Age at inauguration: 68 years, 23 days

Inauguration date: 4 March 1841

Presidency: 1841

Perhaps history’s most inconsequential president, William Henry Harrison holds the unfortunate distinction of serving the shortest presidency. He died just 31 days after taking office.

James Buchanan

Age at inauguration: 65 years, 315 days

Inauguration date: 4 March 1857

Presidency: 1857–61

Widely criticised for his leadership and inability to halt the oncoming American Civil War, James Buchanan’s legacy is overshadowed by that of his successor, Abraham Lincoln.

George HW Bush

Age at inauguration: 64 years, 222 days

Inauguration date: 20 January 1989

Presidency: 1989–93

Prior to his inauguration, George HW Bush served as the Vice President across Reagan’s two terms. Like his predecessor, one of Bush’s main focuses was on foreign policy in a post-Cold War era, with the reunification of Germany, and the Gulf War.

Zachary Taylor

Age at inauguration: 64 years, 100 days

Inauguration date: 5 March 1849

Presidency: 1849–50

Zachary Taylor’s stint in office was brief, cut short by his death just 16 months into his term. Taylor was elected on his reputation as a national hero from the Mexican-American War, and his greatest priority was the preservation of the union in an era of turbulence and uncertainty.

Dwight D Eisenhower

Age at inauguration: 62 years, 98 days

Inauguration date: 20 January 1953

Presidency: 1953–61

A towering military and political figure, Dwight D Eisenhower served as the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during the Second World War, where his actions included contributing significantly to the planning and execution of the Normandy Landings. He went on to serve two consecutive terms as president, with his tenure being defined by economic prosperity, social progress, and competition with Russia – including the Space Race.

Andrew Jackson

Age at inauguration: 61 years, 354 days

Inauguration date: 4 March 1829

Presidency: 1829–37

After building a reputation among the American people as a war hero, Andrew Jackson, governed over two terms with policies hostile to the Native American population, namely the Indian Removal Act.

John Adams

Age at inauguration: 61 years, 125 days

Inauguration date: 4 March 1797

Presidency: 1797–1801


The second president of the United States, John Adams, was a Founding Father and a crucial figure in the development of the nation.


Matt EltonDeputy Editor, BBC History Magazine

Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.