Is Mayor Pete Too Young to Be President?

Insights from Adult Development Research

Posted Jul 15, 2019

Last week I wrote a post on Joe Biden, pondering whether he is “too old” to be president, considering the question through the lens of research on adult development. However, Uncle Joe is not the only Democrat whose age is an issue in this primary season. At the other end of the spectrum is Pete Buttigieg, who has become informally known as “Mayor Pete” due to his basically unpronounceable last name. Mayor Pete is just 37-years-old. In the same way that you could ask if Joe Biden is too old to be president, you could reasonably ask if Mayor Pete is “too young.”

Dreamstime, used with permission
How young is too young?
Source: Dreamstime, used with permission

So, what does adult development research tell us about whether or not Mayor Pete is too young to be president? The most relevant area of research to apply to this question concerns the development of expertise, the accumulation of knowledge and skill in a specific field. Gaining expertise allows people to address problems and tasks more quickly and efficiently. They build a store of knowledge and experience in their field, and when confronted with a problem or task they are likely to know something about it and to have had experience with something similar. This allows them to form ideas quickly about how the new situation should be addressed. They know not only what has worked in the past but also what has not worked, so they waste less time than novices do in pursuing potential solutions that are unlikely to bear fruit. According to scholars in this area, it takes about 10 years of study or practice in most fields to attain expertise.

Clearly, someone like Joe Biden—or Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, or Kamala Harris, or Amy Klobuchar, or Corey Booker—has a big advantage over Mayor Pete in political expertise. Biden was in the Senate for decades, then served as Vice-President for eight years. The others have years of experience serving in the Senate. Mayor Pete has only a term and a half of serving as mayor of a small city. That’s not nothing, but it’s pretty close. He has no expertise at all in any federal office. (Of course, neither did the current occupant of the White House in 2016, but let’s not go there for now.)

Expertise is not the only important quality for performing well. There’s also creativity, the capacity for innovation. Here, you may think at first glance that Mayor Pete has the advantage. A number of studies of persons with outstanding accomplishments have found that their creative achievements rise during young adulthood and peak in the late 30s and early 40s, then gradually decline through middle and later adulthood. However, creativity requires expertise. Because Mayor Pete has no expertise in national policy-making, he would be unlikely to devise successful new policies if he became president, at least in his first term. On the other hand, it could be that he would attract people to his administration who could provide the expertise he lacks, and he could make creative use of it.

It should also be remembered that expertise is a mixed blessing in the long run. Eventually, “familiarity breeds rigidity,” as one early scholar of creativity put it. At first, gaining expertise promotes creativity, because expertise provides the knowledge and skills that are the raw materials of creative work. Eventually, however, expertise becomes a liability. The problems, concepts, materials, and ideas people are working with are no longer fresh, and they have more difficulty seeing them in new ways. Their accumulated expertise now tends to steer them down the same paths they have trod many times before rather than forging new ones.

Did Joe Biden come to mind as you read that last paragraph? Biden’s expertise in national government could prove to be useful in many ways if he became president, but he may also tend toward 1980 solutions to 2020 problems. There are hints of this when he talks about the good old days of the Senate when he could work successfully on legislation with colleagues in both parties who were diverse ideologically. That hardly seems like the Senate as it functions today.

It’s interesting to note that the Constitution specifies a minimum age of 35 for the office of president. Apparently, the crafters of the Constitution held some kind of implicit theory of adult development that viewed anyone under age 35 as too young, regardless of their individual qualities. Yet they specified no maximum age, no age when a person should be regarded as too old for the demands of the office—regardless of their individual qualities. Should they have?

Would you rather have the expertise of Joe Biden, even if it may be stale in some ways, or the creative potential of Mayor Pete, green as he maybe? It seems clear that Mayor Pete is a person of exceptional intelligence, with a first-rate mind as well as a first-rate temperament. Is that enough to make up for his lack of expertise? That’s a question voters will soon be pondering.