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King Charles Should Get Ready to Abdicate

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 9/15/2022 Conor Friedersdorf
© WPA Pool / Getty

When Britain’s longest-serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, died last week, a 73-year-old man ascended to the throne. King Charles III, né Prince Charles, is expected to continue his longtime focus on climate change among his many duties as the United Kingdom’s head of state. If he lives as long as his mother did, he could spend more than two decades as monarch.

But a more consequential use of Charles’s reign would be to rule briefly and abdicate at 75––the age when British judges are compelled to retire from the bench––while touting the importance of passing the throne to Prince William in his son’s prime rather than his dotage.

King Charles III ought to issue a royal proclamation underscoring that this approach is a royal rebuke to the international trend toward gerontocracy, whereby leaders delay handing off power to the next generation long past what serves the public good.

[Read: Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think]

Of course, people work effectively past 75 in many professions. Some stay vital into their 90s or even beyond, and most societies would benefit from gleaning more wisdom from their elders. However, presiding over a nation-state is unlike most other jobs in the world. Charles, at least, holds a ceremonial post. The stakes for other world leaders are far higher, rendering cognitive decline an unusually fraught problem––and stress, grueling schedules, and sleep deprivation can exacerbate the effects of aging. 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 current and former members of Congress have struggled to carry out their duties without constant assistance from staff. Plus, representation matters. Young people should have more say in the future that they alone will inhabit.

Alas, the United States, where the electorate bears ultimate responsibility for fixing that problem, is not alone in depriving post-Boomer generations of power in their prime of life. A long list of septuagenarians have taken or are holding onto power in Africa. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon are all ruled by men in their 80s. China and Russia are both led by 69-year-olds. Given the lengthening life spans of people with the best medical care, the ease with which those in power keep it, and the typical age at which cognitive decline begins, a norm where heads of state step down voluntarily at age 75 is more prudent than the status quo.

Against all that, British royalty tends to be invested in tradition and continuity, and averse to American commoners like me agitating for change. The last abdication—that of Edward VIII, who quit to marry an American divorcée—seemed at the time like a genuine crisis. By giving up his royal responsibilities for personal reasons, Edward arguably undermined a system of government rooted in the divine right of kings. But I’d counter that the British monarchy would experience more continuity with a retirement age than without one.

[Neal Acherson: After the Queen, what is Britain?]

Queen Elizabeth II reigning at 96 was far from the norm for British monarchs. Indeed, 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.

Better that Charles commit now to a retirement age, setting an example for the world and allowing us all to declare, “The Queen is dead––long live the King” without also endorsing many more years of gerontocracy.


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