Monson’s Age Considered

It is something of a commonplace to note that the system of Apostolic succession all but guarantees that presidents of the LDS church are quite old by the beginning of their time in office. Thomas S. Monson (barring unprecedented changes in Apostolic succession) will be no exception; he is currently 80 years old. What this means substantively is a complicated issue. Medical developments stretch people’s lives substantially compared with past centuries, and they often also help people retain higher levels of physical and emotional functioning than would have been the case for people at a similar age in past generations.

As a matter of historical comparison, it may be worth pointing out that, while Monson is old, he is by no means unusually old for an LDS church president. Six previous presidents were older than Monson at the moment they were ordained: Hinckley, Hunter, Benson, Fielding Smith, Snow, and Woodruff. In fact, the average age at ordination of Mormon church presidents (excluding the two early outliers, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) is about 78; Monson is only barely above the mean. So while Monson is elderly by any standard at the beginning of his term in office, he is by no means exceptional.

However, this raw comparison of ages obscures as much as it reveals, specifically because of changes in medicine and life expectancy. If we adjust for contemporary life expectancy, Monson is no longer merely about the normal age for a beginning Mormon church president; he is instead one of the youngest beginning church presidents in history. The exact statistics and fine details of ordering of course depend on exactly how one measures life expectancy, and there are many such measures. However, without getting too picky, the following is roughly true for a variety of different operationalizations.

  1. Monson is one of the youngest starting church presidents since the 19th century, relative to life expectancies. Heber J. Grant, who was 62 when he was ordained, was clearly younger in relative terms than is Monson. Joseph F. Smith (age 62, as well, but a few years earlier and therefore during a period of lower life expectancy) was also a bit relatively younger than Monson. Harold B. Lee (age 73) was either fractionally younger or fractionally older than Monson in relative terms, depending on the specific measure of life expectancy chosen. All other church presidents since the 19th century have been older, relative to life expectancy, than Monson is now.
  2. The only 19th-century leaders who were younger, relative to life expectancy, when they became church presidents than Monson is today were Joseph Smith, Jr., and Brigham Young. Since the system of Apostolic succession was instituted with Young, selection effects have guaranteed that Mormon church presidents will almost always be older than contemporary life expectancy at the moment they are ordained.
  3. Monson is four years younger in absolute terms than Hinckley was when he assumed the presidency of the church. This is no guarantee that Monson will live to Hinckley’s ripe old age. Yet we shouldn’t automatically assume that he won’t. Conditional on health and circumstance, Monson is well-positioned to serve a lengthy period in his probable new calling.

Comments

  1. Very interesting post. I had not considered relative age – only that Pres. Monson would have been in office much earlier if Pres. Hinckley hadn’t lived so long. I know when I first became aware that he was 17 years younger than Pres. Hinckley, I assumed he would become the President at a much younger age than 80.

  2. Yes, I remember when President Hinckley was a new prophet thinking what a young prophet President Monson was going to be.

  3. Monson is not in good health, generally. He has diabetes and fails to watch what he eats as carefully as he should, I am told. In today’s medical world, health is much more important than age.

  4. Interesting thoughts, but I think there may be some problematic demographic reasoning here. Life expectancy is not the right measure for assaying the “youthfulness” of a group of older people. many people argue that the demographic transition meant merely that more people reached the advanced age that is hard-wired as the upper limit of our lifespan. In point of fact, with medical advances, we now have people alive at advanced ages who would otherwise have died from strokes, heart attacks, cancer, or other once terminal conditions. We may in fact paradoxically have more feeble or “old” people at the age of 80 than we did previously. The more relevant measure would be “how many 70-year-olds survive to 80 with intact cognitive function” a much more specialized question than the one you propose.

    This is all a technical point. I’m delighted to have President Monson take the reins.

  5. JNS,

    I am not sure that I agree with you and your analysis of TSM being “one of the youngest…relative to life expectancies.” Let me do some research and get back to this.

    Of course life-expectancies in no way predict individual life spans, and TSM may live to be 97. If so, he’ll have served two years less than David O. McKay, 10 years less than Heber J. Grant, 12 less than Brigham Young, and the same length as Joseph F. Smith.

  6. elbow, certainly Monson’s individual health is what will actually end up mattering. We’re, unfortunately, at a moment when many of our highest leaders are in suboptimal health.

    smb, I agree that life expectancy doesn’t get everything — and it certainly would be better to have something like “intact cognitive function expectancy.” But life expectancy does get at something, especially in comparisons with the 19th and early 20th centuries. In any case, this isn’t meant as a rigorous discussion, but rather as a rough, rule-of-thumb chat.

    Kari, by all means. There are certainly different ways of doing the analysis. The salient point is that Monson is not, in absolute years, unusually old for a beginning Mormon prophet — but also that life expectancy is vastly longer than it was in the 19th century.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Jay, isn’t this all irrelevant since the prophetic mantle will prolong their lives as long as necessary? Your numbers are meaningless.

  8. You’re right, Steve. Rumor mill has it God knocked off HBL early so the priesthood revelation could come.

    Although the long tenure of the by-some-accounts comatose ETB does give one pause.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Ann, you and Steve Benson both! You’re in good company.

    But seriously folks, I’d be curious to see if we can draw any conclusions about life-prolonging due to the mantle. It seems to me that our leaders do seem to live pretty long lives. One more angels-on-pinheads thing, I guess.

  10. Matt Thurston says:

    Any speculation as to who Monson might select to round out the First Presidency, assuming he keeps Eyring?

    My sense is that he would lean towards picking someone who, based on age and rank/tenure within the Q15, might be the next president. If I remember correctly, and considering average life expectancies, that person would probably be Oaks, since Packer, Perry, and Nelson are all older than Monson.

  11. Steve,

    I’m not sure what exactly it tells us to say that people who end up in a position that requires longevity (outliving their peers) tend to be especially long-loved.

    Basketball players tend to be really tall, as a group. That’s due to the fact that they’re selected, in part, because of their height.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Kaimi, you’re confounding two different things, I think. Yes, they’re all old. Such is a gerontocracy. I’m asking whether or not there’s a way to measure the storied effect of the mantle prolonging one’s life, which is an entirely different question.

  13. Okay, that’s a different question.

    I doubt that any good measurement is possible. First, sample size. And even so, you’re still in a pretty select group, age-wise.

    Three out of the last six prophets have served for two years or less. That seems to cut strongly against any life-prolonging effects of the mantle, no?

  14. Ardis Parshall says:

    Kaimi’s right in #11. How many people are longer-loved than Pres. Hinckley was?

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Ardis, few indeed have been loved for longer.

  16. Isn’t there a Dan Fogelberg song about that?

  17. What a wonderful and appropriate typo.

  18. Bednar will become a counselor. He’s the youngest apostle, by 12 years (our only Boomer apostle, and a young one at that), and needs to get seasoned for his eventual Presidency.

  19. I’m a huge fan of Elder Oaks, for personal reasons, among others. That said, I think Elder Ballard would make an excellent FP member. I’m very doubtful that BKP will outlive TSM. The next Church President will likely be Elder Oaks, depending on how less-than-stellar health (type 2 diabetes) affects the tenure of pres. Monson. Packer, Perry, and Nelson are all older than Monson, while Oaks is a spritely 75. Given the relative likelihood of his succeeding Monson as president, I think it probable that he will be elevated into the FP. FWIW, Elders Ballard, Wirthlin, Scott, and Hales are all older than Oaks.

  20. This being a democracy and all, I nominate Oaks or Holland. But I like the Ballard idea too, as he is a great public affairs ambassador and that is a quality of GBH that will be greatly missed.

  21. I’m curious on who they’ll call to the Twelve. This is the 3rd time I’ve made the prediction in 3 years (been wrong each time), but I’m hoping for Elder Kikuchi.

  22. Kikuchi is old now. My guess is that the new apostle will be in his 50s or early 60s

  23. He’s only 66. Just a year or two older than Elder Uchtdorf when he was called.

  24. Left Field says:

    Did anyone else notice that the news release on Succession in the Presidency on lds.org says that the “new president chooses two counselors from among the Quorum of the Twelve”?

    The scriptural requirement is only that they be high priests, and as recently as 1970, we had two members of the First Presidency who were never members of the 12.

    Do you suppose the news release actually represents a new policy, or was it just written by someone who didn’t have a clue, or who thought the possibility of a non-apostle being called wasn’t worth mentioning?

  25. Hmmmm. I like to think that the mantle of the apostleship prolonged President Hunter’s life so that we could learn from him as our prophet, even if just for a little while.

    And Elder Kikuchi is only 66? Are you serious? It seems as if he’s been around forever. I must be a lot younger than I thought.

  26. As JNS mentioned in his original post, the data used for life expectancy will affect any analysis of this type.

    Here are the main problems:
    1. Individual issues of health aren’t accounted for. Harold B. Lee should have lived, on average, eight and a half years, but only lived for 1.5y.
    2. Some folks will live longer than expected and some live less. And since life expectancy is generally averages, folks who live a much longer time skew the average to a longer life expectancy.
    3. Most of the time we hear “life expectancy” we think survival from birth. But before about 1900, this is really skewed by infant and child mortality, making that data no good when looking at life expectancy of someone who has survived to adulthood. (see #4)
    4. Simply put, the longer you live, the longer you live. As you get older the higher your chance of living longer. For example, a white male who was 70 in 2003, on average would live to be 84.8y, but if you were 80 in 2003, on average you could expect to live to be 88.9.

    So with that in mind, here is the data.

    Using data from the CDC (table 11, white men) (with a bit of extrapolation on my part) here is info on each president since 1900. The numbers are as follows: age at ordination – additional life expectancy – length of presidency (how much longer they actually lived).

    Lorenzo Snow: 84 – 4.1 – 3
    Joseph F. Smith: 63 – 13.2 – 17
    Heber J. Grant: 62 – 14 – 27
    George A. Smith: 75 – 7.5 – 6
    David O. McKay: 77.5 – 6.8 – 19
    Joseph Fielding Smith: 93.5 – 2.9 – 2.5
    Harold B. Lee: 73.3 – 8.8 – 1.5
    Spencer W. Kimball: 78.8 – 6.6 – 12
    Ezra T. Benson: 86.3 – 4.9 – 8
    Howard W. Hunter: 86.5 – 4.9 – .75
    Gordon B. Hinckley: 84.8 – 5.8 – 12.8
    Thomas S. Monson: 80.5 – 8 – ??

    So what can we learn? JNS’ general gestalt is correct, only three of the previous 11 presidents were expected to have a longer presidency than what we can expect for TSM. But we also learn that this doesn’t mean much. Six of the 11 lived longer than expected, five lived less, almost exactly what would be predicted since we are using averages. Five of the 11 were older than 80 when ordained, and of those five, only two lived longer than expected, while of the six who were less than 80 at ordination, four lived longer than expected. From this information, one could make the argument that the odds are that TSM will have a shorter than expected presidency, just because of his age.

    Ultimately, my opinion is that we really can’t make any predictions. We’ll just have to wait and see.

  27. “Do you suppose the news release actually represents a new policy, or was it just written by someone who didn’t have a clue, or who thought the possibility of a non-apostle being called wasn’t worth mentioning?”

    Someone who didn’t have a clue.

  28. Michael Towns says:

    Don’t be surprised if Boyd K. Packer becomes prophet in a few years. The Lord enjoys a good laugh like the rest of us, and BKP is probably the most hated apostle of those who style themselves intellectuals.

  29. For new member of 1st Pres. I’m caucusing for Elder Oaks. Of course I had him back in August too, but I got skunked. Second times the charm right?

  30. Lawnmower says:

    Don’t you know that a caucus is of the devil! Only the true and living primary is the way.

    All jokes aside, I used to think that Pres. Monson was going to be our ‘forever’ prophet. He looked so young. But now… It is so odd to be without Pres. Hinckley.

  31. Mitt Romney.

  32. Matt Thurston says:

    If Monson does outlive Packer, Perry, and Nelson, and if Monson lives into his mid-to-late 90s like Hinckley, and assuming Oaks is still alive when Monson passes, Oaks will be a very old ninetysomething prophet.

  33. J. N-S, you don’t have to go back to the 19th Century to find significant changes in life expectancy. For example, 25% of sixty-year-olds in 1960 died before reaching seventy (in 1970), compared with 16% in 1990.

    Steve Evans (comments #7, #9, and #12) and Kaimi (comment #11), you may be interested in a post I wrote a couple years ago, “Longevity of the Apostles.” The short answer is that the apostles have continued to live much longer than other men of the same age.

  34. My own take is that Monson is not in great shape. I suspect that his tenure will be much shorter then GBH. 3-7 years or so. I would be curious to see how old his parents were when they passed on.

    In my family we refer to Monson as the “hospital stalker” in a loving way. Based on the stories he is at somebodies deathbed like every other day. A true Christian in every sense of the word.

  35. #31- Golden.

  36. cj douglass says:

    I’d be interested to see which President has the record for most Apostles who died during their presidency. Pres. Hinckley had 3 (I think).

  37. cj douglass says:

    Whatever the record is, Monson could shatter it.

  38. John Taber says:

    He’s lived longer than both his parents. George Spencer Monson lived to be almost 78 (17 May 1901 – 13 May 1979) while Gladys Condie Monson was almost 71 (1 Oct 1902 – 13 Sep 1973).

  39. cj douglass, I’m not sure the answer to your question, but last year President Hinckley read to us from his journal about a three year period when five apostles plus George Albert Smith died. There was also a period from 1900 to 1911 when ten new apostles were ordained, including George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, and Joseph Fielding Smith.

  40. That talk was two years ago, not last year.

  41. Perceptions are interesting. Pres. Monson has always seemed younger and more energetic, but that has been in comparison with a man 17 years his senior. And we look at John McCain and think that at 71 he may be too old to be US President.

  42. OK, CJ Douglass, I took a stab at your question. Twenty-two apostles were called to the Quorum of the Twelve during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Twelve were called while Heber Grant was president of the Church. For more, see “Apostles Called by Each Church President.”

  43. cj douglass says:

    Thanks John. Of course JS doesn’t count (IMO) but even HJG’s record of 12 seems unlikely to ever be broken.

  44. Think about 10 years in the future. President Monson will be 90. Packer, Perry, and Nelson will all be older than that. Average life expectancy in the US (as of 2005) is about 77.6 years. I figure a lifetime of living the Word of Wisdom might be worth a year or so in extending that average. Since nobody actually dies right on the average, they could all live to be much older than that, but that number will decrease as they increase in age (on average). Ten years on, I think Elder Holland has the best chance of being President (followed by Elder Oaks). Of course, both of them could die tomorrow and this whole thing would be moot.

  45. #33 – “The short answer is that the apostles have continued to live much longer than other men of the same age.”

    John, I know what you meant to say, but that simply is funny.

  46. Has it ever happened, and if so, how often, that an apostle dies younger than the average, predicted life span? It seems all the apostles live to be fairly old men. I know HBL died relatively young — but does seem to be quite a notable exception.

  47. That 1900-1911 period included replacements of two apostles who were released or resigned–Matthias Cowley and John W. Taylor. So, take them off the demographic charts.

  48. Institute Manual, “Church History in the Fulness of Times”, Religion 341 through 343 (catalog # 32502000 has a table of Apostles’ names, pictures, birthdates, ordination dates, and death dates. My copy has them through Elder Eyring.

  49. Monson’s individual health is what will actually end up mattering. We’re, unfortunately, at a moment when many of our highest leaders are in suboptimal health.

    How is Pres. Packer? I’ve not heard anything about his health.

  50. Left Field says:

    No doubt lds.org saw my comment #24 and fixed the incorrect information.

  51. although i think it likely that TSM will choose HBE again as a counselor, he could have 2 different ones. like BKP, to give experience to the potential next leader, and then another. hope they call a hispanic apostle!

  52. I think you haven’t factored in that President Monson has diabetes. I noticed that was listed for President Hinckley as a contributing factor. I also think Elder Ballard has a shot since he has the Canada Toronto relationship of both men serving there and his extensive public relations experience. He is also very close to President Monson. It would be good to see him in that role moving up higher than his two grandfathers. No one can tell who will be in but I bet he gets an interview. I remember when ETB called his counselor he interviewed three apostles before making his selection.

  53. Diabetes takes 10 years off of one’s life expectancy. Though Monson is 80 years old,
    as a diabetic he’s more like 90 years old. He’s had several close calls in the past with his diabetes.

  54. When Elder Eyring was called to be Pres. Hinckley’s second counselor, I wondered if that precluded all those with more seniority than him becoming a counselor in the first presidency. Now, J. Reuben Clark had been George Albert Smith’s first counselor while David O. McKay was second counselor, and later Clark became McKay’s second counselor with Stephen L. Richards as first counselor. So, yes, anything could happen. Practically speaking in 2008 though, I wonder if Eyring’s call means the the next counselor will be either Uchtdorf or Bednar.

  55. Clark, Pres. Packer’s health is evidently very poor indeed. There are more specific rumors, but also if you’ve seen him, he’s visibly aged in the last two years or so.

    Can I note that my least-favorite aspect of our chosen succession system is the way it leads us all, me included I guess, to develop this sort of interest in the life expectancy of old men we don’t know?

  56. Has anyone taken into account the value of meaningful work? I bet that one pretty prosaic reason that these men live longer is simply the fact that they are engaged daily in activities that stretch their mental capacities, force them to meet new people, see new things and assimilate information and experiences that their peers have shut out. Not to mention that all this “work” has profound and deep meaning to them. Regardless of their pre-apostolic professional success I bet that this work is significantly more rewarding. If I get to have a “retirement” like President Hinkley’s-bring on old age. If I get to languish in an Arizona golf village for twenty years, I think I would prefer to exit earlier than later.

  57. speculating is fun on who might be our next leader in the First Presidency, etc. But definitely we need to remember to increase the efforts to pray for them and their families, especially for their health issues that all might be well-managed.

    I don’t mean that to sound judgemental. I don’t pray enough for our leaders. We should pray for them to enjoy the best of health and that they will avoid secondary complications,etc from their conditions.

  58. Did anyone else notice that the news release on Succession in the Presidency on lds.org says that the “new president chooses two counselors from among the Quorum of the Twelve”?

    I read through it and found nothing that said that. It says this:

    “If a motion to reorganize the First Presidency is passed, the Quorum of the Twelve unanimously selects the new president of the Church. The new president chooses two counselors and the three of them become the new First Presidency. Throughout the history of the Church, the longest-serving apostle has always become the president of the Church when the First Presidency has been reorganized.”

    FWIW.

  59. m&m, this release has since been edited.

  60. Using conditional life expectancies for males in Utah, I calculated the expected number of years remaining for all of the current apostles to come up with some sort of an educated guess on who the next several prophets might be based on age and seniority.

    Here are the results:

    Monson (obviously)
    Oaks (and/or Hales)
    Holland (and/or Uchtdorf)
    Bednar

    As long as Bednar lives to be about 80-85, he’s pretty much a lock. He’s 12 years younger than any of the others. Oaks and Hales are the same age, as are Holland and Uchtdorf. If Monson lives unexpectedly long (longer than about 12 more years), Oaks and Hales will probably not be around.

    This is just for fun.

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