Joe Biden will bump Ronald Reagan —just shy of 78 years old when he left the White House in 1989—as the oldest U.S. president ever when he is sworn into office Wednesday.
Mr. Biden, whose doctor in late 2019 said he is physically fit to serve as president, will be older on his first day in office than Mr. Reagan was on his last. Mr. Biden, who turned 78 in November, will also replace President Trump as the oldest to assume the presidency.
Still, he is younger than many in top Washington jobs. Working well past typical retirement age is one of the few points of bipartisan agreement in the nation’s capital.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is the Senate’s oldest member at 87, while Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is less than three months her junior. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is 78.
Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, the oldest person in the U.S. House and a member of Congress since the Nixon administration, is 87. The three top Democratic leaders of his chamber aren’t far behind: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina are 80, while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland is 81.
“It’s the world’s greatest retirement community because you have great benefits and still can do interesting things,” said Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who served as governor and in both chambers of Congress before deciding against running for Senate re-election in 2010.
“You get to the point where you are 75 and what else are you going to do?” asked Mr. Gregg, who is now 73. “Why go to a golf community when you can be a chairman?”
Mr. Gregg said there is also value in experience. “It was at least 10 years until I could compete with the staff, who had been there forever, on the budget,” he said.
Tom Harkin, a former Democratic senator from Iowa who was 73 when he announced in January 2013 that he wouldn’t run for re-election the following year, agreed.
“The longer I remained in Congress, the more I saw that longevity and age was many times more effective than youth and inexperience,” he said. “You get an appreciation for compromise and taking the long view.”
The average age in the House rose from 50.7 to 57.6 years between 1987 and 2019, while it went from 54.4 to 62.9 years during that period in the Senate, Congressional Research Service data show.
The median age of chief executives running companies in the S&P 500 was 58 in a WSJ analysis conducted less than two years ago. The average retirement age for all Americans is 64.3 for men and 63 for women, according to the Society of Actuaries.
Mr. Biden’s incoming cabinet is expected to be slightly younger than the one that started with Mr. Trump in 2017, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of 16 top administration posts. The average age of those Mr. Biden has picked to work with him is 58.8, compared to 62.4 for those who started with Mr. Trump.
Pete Buttigieg, 38, who Mr. Biden has named as his secretary of transportation, is the youngest of the incoming group, while Janet Yellen, 74, his pick for secretary of the Treasury, is the oldest.
The tendency for people in Washington—at least at the top levels—to work well past the typical retirement age extends beyond the White House and Congress.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last year at 87, allowing Mr. Trump to appoint a third conservative to the high court. He selected Amy Coney Barrett, 48, to fill the slot.
Stephen Breyer, the oldest Supreme Court justice at 82, is under some pressure to retire now that Democrats are poised to control both the White House and Senate. He was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and is the court’s second-longest-serving member.
Lobbyists also often work well past typical retirement. Richard Gephardt, 79, who served 28 years in the House and twice ran for president, now leads a Washington government affairs group. His firm didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
For some former members of Congress, Mr. Gregg said there is a tendency to move into lobbying because some of them “come from places that they don’t want to go back to” and because they can make a “very good living in Washington for a long time.”
Both Mr. Harkin and Mr. Gregg said they oppose term limits for members of Congress. Mr. Gregg said it would result in a “staff-driven Congress” if members were only allowed to serve a few terms.
Both men also pointed to partisan drawing of many congressional districts as a factor in the aging of the Congress. “Once you are in, if you are decently good at your homework and taking care of your constituents, you can get re-elected,” Mr. Harkin said.
Besides overseeing his Harkin Institute at Drake University in Des Moines, Mr. Harkin has used his time out of politics to go on several lengthy North Atlantic and Caribbean sailing trips. “I could never have done that if I stayed in the Senate,” he said.
Republican Chuck Hagel, who represented Nebraska in the Senate for 12 years and was a secretary of defense during the Obama administration, said less civility in politics has also resulted in fewer young people wanting to run for office.
“Both sides now see the other side as the enemy,” he said. “That has inhibited a lot of good people from getting into politics.”