Thoughts on gerontocracy, from an article having nothing to do with the Church. At the Atlantic, on the ascension of King Charles III at the age of 73: “King Charles Should Get Ready to Abdicate.” Why, you ask? “To counter a global trend toward gerontocracy, Britain’s new monarch should retire at 75.” That’s the age that British judges must retire, according to the article. The article provides some perspective on the LDS church governance regime whereby apostles, the Big 15, serve until death, regardless of declining health or mental capacity.
The United States doesn’t have a head of state who serves until death, but faces similar problems. “How imprudent for a great power such as the United States to have presidential elections in which septuagenarians vie for the presidency while the public watches debates for signs of dementia. Seven U.S. senators are in their 80s.“
Some sort of mandatory retirement age makes sense. It’s an easy argument to make. The details can be tricky, of course. At what age would an apostle or president retire? 80? 75? Should apostles then be called younger, in their fifties, which would provide for roughly twenty years of service with a retirement age of 75?
The counter argument is that it is valuable to retain the wisdom, experience, and prudence of older heads of state or (in the LDS case) apostles. Some people do just fine into their eighties and even nineties. Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson are good examples. So there really are two sides to the argument.
What caused this problem? Blame modern medicine. “Charles III is taking the throne at an age when most of his predecessors were dead. If he goes on to rule long enough to put Prince William in that same position, history may remember this as the era when modern medicine transformed the British monarchy—but not for the better.” It would seem modern medicine has transformed the LDS leadership system as well.
If the present LDS system remains in place, a likely succession in coming years would be Oaks, Uchtdorf, Bednar. Get ready for conservative-progressive-conservative whiplash if that happens. If it’s Oaks, Holland, Bednar it will be more like conservative, passionately conservative, then inordinately conservative. Any proposal to change the LDS succession program is also a proposal to change the leaders who are eligible and likely to become President. That alone makes it very tricky to implement or even officially discuss.
Given how much we hear about modern revelation in Conference and lessons (so God can direct actual decisions), I find it ironic that it is the Catholics who convene senior leaders and actually work as a group to *choose* the next Pope, while senior LDS leaders merely convene to execute a pre-ordained program of elevating the longest serving apostle.
I know this topic gets discussed from time to time. The ascension of King Charles III and the discussion in the linked article maybe give us some food for thought. The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
I support mandatory retirement ages in the 70-80 range depending on position. Sure, stay on in part-time advisory roles, but relax and leave the leadership to those young bucks in their 60s.
I find it strange that we have to worry about the conservative swings of the future Church based on who we project the future prophets to be.
If this whole enterprise is directed by the Lord, as we are told, it seems like the future of the Church wouldn’t deviate much. But we all know it will.
There is always a push/pull between declining faculties and the benefits of expanded experience. There’s conflict there that needs to be addressed on individual merits.
In the case of the American Presidency there’s the matter/mechanism of election (in theory at least). We’ve had older Presidents and younger Presidents and I think the gross effect probably comes down to the quality of their advisors who may span generations regardless of the age of the President in any administration and that President’s ability to grasp information and openness to new information.
In the case of the church it’s more calcified predetermination by tradition. How useful that is folks will have to decide for themselves. But with 100% of the power reserved to the First Presidency what Mormons think about it matters precious little.
With respect to England’s monarchy perhaps public sentiment can eventually be reflected in Parliament and some change made. …if that’s the will of the British people. But since the role of King/Queen is so limited to public relations and tourism does it really matter? The idea that an individual persona could hold the Commonwealth together without regard to the intentions of individual nations seems more hope that reality to me.
To the original matter at hand, does it really matter how old the King or Queen of England is? They aren’t a Minister and they aren’t Parliament.
Thinking to not just heads of state, I think the Boomer generation is really missing out on training their replacements. For example, Fauci is also very old. The pandemic lasted long enough that he should have been tasked with sharing his platform and on-the-job training his successor, in camera, in front of us, allowing his successor to learn how to communicate health directives with the public. He didn’t do this (at least not visibly) which I think is unfortunate. And this is not a dig at Fauci’s qualifications or his politics. I would say the same thing either way.
As to the Church, I’m not sure retirement at 80 vs serving until death in the 90’s will really change the church much. YMMV.
I have mixed feelings about this. My processing of Church history leads me to conclude that many of the actions of top Church leadership are not revealed by or inspired of God. If fact, if God actually is leading the Church in some way, it appears that he often has to work in spite of Church leaders rather than directly through them. If this is really true, and we really do have leaders that frequently take actions that they themselves think are the best thing for the Church, but aren’t necessarily inspired of God, then I’d personally prefer to have leaders that have beliefs and values similar to mine. This means that, for me, I’d prefer not to have Nelson, Oaks, Holland, and Bednar lead the Church while I am intrigued to see what Uctdorf might accomplish as Church president. If I take a short-term view of things–the next 20 years or so–then I’d love to see every apostle over 70 years old forced to emeritus status. I’d sacrifice the possibility of an Uctdorf presidency (will he really be able to do anything, anyway, if the rest of the Q15 doesn’t want it?) in order to eliminate the influence of Nelson, Oaks, Holland, and Bednar from the Church. However, what if 40 years from now, the tables are turned, and now we have a group of leaders that are more aligned with my values (yes, I realize the probability seems low right now, but I can still dream), I’m not sure I’d want all these leaders forced out if they were still in good health.
I think Monson is going to go down in history as a Church president who didn’t really do anything significant. I’m not sure all Church presidents should make big changes (although I think he potentially could have done a whole bunch of things, but he unfortunately never asked me), so I’m not saying just because a leader doesn’t make any big changes means he was a bad leader. That said, when Monson started suffering from dementia, I was really, really hoping he would take the opportunity to abdicate. Had Monson stepped down, I believe he would have been remembered as a Church leader that really did make an important change to the Church. Once the first prophet has done it, I think it would have opened up the option for any of the Q15 to step down if they feel like their health is preventing them from fulfilling their leadership responsibilities. Unfortunately, Monson didn’t step down, though, and a huge opportunity was missed.
I don’t think the Q15 wants any other member of the Q15 to step down (did Monson want to step down but was Monson not allowed to by the rest of the Q15?) because if this became an option, then there would be pressure on every member of the Q15 to continually prove to the Church that they were physically and mentally up to the job once they hit the age of 70. Honestly, perhaps that might be the answer. Instead of forcing a member of the Q15 to abdicate when they hit an arbitrary age limit, once a member of the Q15 turns 70, they would be required to pass both an annual physical and a mental examination done by independent medical professionals (truly independent–no Church doctors or personal doctors allowed! Perhaps at least the mental part would be recorded and available to stream online if they passed it, so that members themselves could believe the results, but I guess that might be a little too much.). If they failed either of the tests, they would be immediately sent off to emeritus status. By passing the tests each year, Church membership would have some assurance that the older members of the Q15 were still up to the task.
Even if physical and mental tests were passed, though, we still might have a problem with the Q15 having too many older members. This problem is likely to continue to increase as medical treatments for older people continue to increase life expectancies. Ideally, the Q15 would have representation from multiple age groups (including elderly people–I don’t think we want a situation where older people aren’t represented at all just as younger people aren’t represented today), races, nationalities, genders, etc. Perhaps a policy would be put in place that limited the number of members of the Q15 to be 3-5 members. If a member of the Q15 turned 70, and the Q15 was already at the limit for age 70+ membership, then the oldest member (or longest member?) would be bumped to emeritus status, even if they could pass their physical and mental exams.
One problem with allowing younger people into the Q15 is there are inevitably going to be scandals in Church leadership–BIG scandals, at least by the Church’s standards. If you start letting 40-50-year-olds into the Q15, there are going to be extramarital affairs that come to light while they are Q15 members. People are currently added to the Q15 at such advanced ages that sex scandals seem less likely to happen. Q15 members called in their 40s and 50s are going to be coming in straight out of their careers, so probably some big business-related scandals will come to light a few years after one of them is added to the Q15. But if we let 40-50-year-olds into the Q15, it seems like there is a very real chance of a nuclear scandal–we could actually have a member of the Q15 lose their faith and leave the Church. I suspect many 70s never make it to the Q15 because the sex and business scandals or their faith crises come to light when they are a 70 in their 40s and 50s, so they are never really considered for a Q15 spot. Personally, sex scandals, business corruption, faith crises, etc. aren’t a huge deal to me (I do think they should be cause for removal from their offices in some cases, but it wouldn’t break my faith in God) since as I said at the beginning, I’m not at all convinced that these are God’s specially chosen leaders, but a scandal like this may be a hard thing to process for those members who believe that Q15 members are chosen by God because of their unrivaled righteousness. In the long run, though, maybe scandals like these would be a good thing for the Church membership since it would lead them to have more realistic expectations of the Q15. Rather than worshiping Q15 members as uber-righteous men who converse with God each week in a special room in the temple that need to be referred to by first name-middle initial-last name and who need to be respected by standing up whenever they enter a room, church members would view them more as actual people with flaws and weaknesses–people like themselves.
One problem with forcing healthy members of the Q15 to emeritus status is you might start having an emeritus apostle speak out against the current Q15. Traditionally, US presidents aren’t very politically active after they leave the presidency, but think about what Donald Trump is doing now. What if someone like McConkie had been forced to emeritus status while they were still healthy? Would he have quietly sat on the sidelines while the Q15 moved forward with changes or policies (would he have gone along with the reversal of the temple/priesthood ban if he had emeritus status at in 1978?) that he disagreed with, or would he have published a new and “improved” edition of Mormon Doctrine to call the Q15 to repentance–and likely pull a number of his followers along with him?
I’ll tell you what worries me just a little: Having a president who is still physically on top of things, but mentally unfit for the calling. I could be wrong on this, but it seems that in the cases of McKay, Kimball, Benson, and Monson, one could argue they were slipping both physically and mentally and therefore tapering their impact in decisions and important meetings. But imagine the scenario of physically fit but not mentally. Hmm.
From the Greg Prince’s Dialogue article on this very topic a few years ago, we learn that just because modern medicine is keeping us alive longer (disregarding Covid’s lowering of the life span average of course), the age needle of when dementia sets in really hasn’t moved much. That to me is a bit worrisome.
But what a double-edged sword this all is. If there were a mandated retirement age for the Q-15, we would miss out on some great years like we saw with President Hinckley for example. He was still working on a talk just a day or two before he passed away. I miss him tremendously. His death and Pres. Uchtdorf’s reassignment back to the Twelve were two inflection points that tended to negatively influence my confidence in where this Church seems to be headed.
Overall though, I guess I’d have to wish for a younger Church leadership and definitely in our nation’s political leaders. These geriatric-theatrics back in Washington are just not sustainable in the long run. We need some fresh ideas.
Average age of the Q15 at some arbitrary points in time:
1846: 39.4 years
The ages of the oldest and youngest apostles have been steadily climbing since the church was organized. Gone are the days of 30-something apostles (Monson was the last – he turned 40 in 1967) and gone are the days of the 40-something apostles (Monson was the last when he turned 50 in 1977!). Of the current 15, only Oaks (51) and Bednar (52) were called before age 55. Since Bednar, the average age of a newly called apostle is 62.4.
I would love to see a retirement age established for the Q15. Even setting it at 80 would still provide for plenty of age and wisdom. Somehow we survived until 1887 before we got our first octogenarian apostle (Woodruff). To prevent a huge shock to the system (there are 7 apostles over the age of 80 right now), they could set the age at 100 today, and bump it down one year each year until it settles in at 80 in 2042. Some of the current apostles would likely die before aging out, but it would allow the group to gradually transition.
An interesting side effect of a retirement system would be that the future president of the church could be predicted much more reliably, provided the seniority system remained. Apostles would almost always retire, rather than die. (Last 3 apostles to die before 80 were Maxwell (78), Ashton (78) and McConkie (69).) With current policies in place, it would be likely to have a number of short tenures as President of the church. If an retirement age of 80 were enacted today, Bednar would have 10 years as President, followed by 3 years for Stevenson and 3 years for Soares (and then we’d need more apostles!) In some cases it would probably be more sensible for some apostles not to serve as President at all if they are already in their late 70s when their turns comes up. Perhaps a maximum age to take over as president could be established at 75?
I should have added one more data point:
1835: 31 years
Frederick G Williams (47) and Sidney Rigdon (42) were the gray beards. Everyone else was 35 or younger. I don’t think anyone is wishing we would revert to that sort of age distribution, but it sure would be interesting.
I wonder if there is some sort of middle ground. Let’s say the President of the Church has to retire from that position at 80, but can chose to retire completely or recycle back into the Q12, but his (her at some point??) seniority doesn’t count any more. That way they could chose to not give up their service completely, and perhaps there’s not quite the same whiplash in either direction for the church. I think some college Deans work this way and so do bishops at the local level. There’s an extra dose of gravitas for former bishops, but everybody knows the new bishop is in charge.
I’d also add this may work for the US Supreme Court. I wonder if there would be the same level of supreme court lottery if everyone knew the retirement age. There are downsides, as I’d guess both parties would try to nominate people as young as possible (2022 Yale grad nominated by Biden!), but random deaths may not swing the court as suddenly.
I would rather that we just ditch the seniority system and go with something like the Catholics have to select a new Pope. Except put a term limit on it. That way, we could avoid the dementia problem, by voting in younger candidates, and we could avoid the fear of someone like Benson becoming president. I don’t know how many will remember the gut reaching fear we progressives had that he was going to turn the church into the John Birch Society. We could nominate candidates from all general authorities, so it wouldn’t even have to be someone from the 12. That would be the quickest way to get some diversity and younger people serving.
Beautiful dreamers, all of you. There is zero incentive for a single one of them to abdicate an iota of power. They have amassed $100B. That’s a whole lot of life support.
Well, according to the dictates of European royal tradition, the king is king for life. And there is over 1,000 years of tradition to back that. At the same time, King Charles, and same with his mother, has no real power and is nothing more than a mere figurehead. Although, Queen Elizabeth II certainly did have an important global image and certainly influenced and inspired in many regards.
On the prophet, tradition has set in and that tradition dictates that the prophet be chosen from the most senior member of the 12 Apostles + First Presidency, and that the prophet be prophet for life. It would be quite interesting, though, to see what would happen if there were a succession crisis.
For those above worried about who is represented by the 15, its conservative, old white men from Utah. No one in Australia was righteous enough. No woman, no matter if the Lord wanted her as prophet could be prophet.
The age of retirement for the other apostles when the 3 nephites chose not to retire was 72. I am 74 this year. I am much diminished from my prime, physically and mentally, and vigor wise.
Another way of replacing the prophet would be to vote. The church makes a big thing abou how there is certainty, when the prophet dies. It’s certain we will not get someone young enough to recieve revelation. Remember how exhausted a 15 year old Joseph was. 11am
Looked up choosing a pope. A cardinal is a bishop who can vote to elect a pope. A cardinal is automatically precluded from voting to elect a new pope. While the cardinals have traditionally selected a pope from their particular group, and Catholic man can be selected!
sorry left this out: A cardinal is automatically precluded from voting to elect a new if he is 80 or over.
“would be required to pass both an annual physical and a mental examination done by independent medical professionals (truly independent–no Church doctors or personal doctors allowed! Perhaps at least the mental part would be recorded and available to stream online if they passed it, so that members themselves could believe the results, but I guess that might be a little too much.). If they failed either of the tests, they would be immediately sent off to emeritus status.”
Really enjoyed your whole thoughtful post. Wouldn’t this be nice if we had this for our politicians too!
John W..ERII became Queen because her dad I filled the abdicated King’s spot.