Why are our political leaders so old?

Plato once said, “it is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit”.

These words were used to describe the system of gerontocracy — governance by elders—which was commonplace 2,500 years ago. For example, the Ancient Greek city state, Sparta, was ruled by a “Gerousia”: a council made up of rulers who had to be at least 60 years old.

Fast forward to today: although the leading ranks of public governance are no longer exclusively reserved for elders, a remarkable amount of power is still accumulated in the hands of an age group largely unreflective of the wider population. This is true whether you look to the Occident or the Orient — we continue to choose lawmakers that are substantially older than the average age and, in some cases, even older than the national life expectancy.

There’s ample evidence to substantiate this claim. Donald Trump (yes, we have to start with him) will be the oldest elected President in US history at 70 years’ old. Interestingly, Hillary Clinton (sob…still #withher) is only one year his junior and therefore would have been the second-oldest president-elect at the ripe age of 69. The median age in America, at 38 years’ old, is more than thirty years lower than both candidates. Let’s not even talk Bernie Sanders (75) or the fact that Congress seems to be getting older each session.

L-R: Bernie Sanders, Robert Mugabe, Narendra Modi, Theresa May

L-R: Bernie Sanders, Robert Mugabe, Narendra Modi, Theresa May

Shifting our eyes to Europe: Britain’s Theresa May, recently elevated to the position of Prime Minister, is 60 (although frankly it may take another 60years to deal with the ticking time bomb that is Brexit). Europe’s superhero and villain, Angela Merkel, is 62. Alain Juppé, who may win the French presidency next year, is 72 (ironically, during his tenure as Prime Minister, he introduced an age cap of 75 on electoral candidates, but it was later scrapped by his successor). The median age in the European Union is 43.

The age differential arguably increases as you shift eastwards and, in some cases, as autocracy replaces democracy. Robert Mugabe is the oldest active head of state at a youthful 92; the median age in Zimbabwe is 21 and life expectancy barely touches 60. The King of Saudi will be 81 before the end of this year. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a spring chicken by comparison (he’s “only” 66), although he was preceded by Manmohan Singh who was 81 upon leaving office. The President of Tunisia is about to turn 90(we share the same birthday, although I’m a few years younger). Fortunately, we find some reprieve in North Korea — Kim Jong-Un is only 32.

For a brief moment, there were signs that this gerontocratic trend was reversing. Ten years of British premiership consisted of men in their 40s (Tony Blair and David Cameron), both breaking the record for youngest Prime Minister; across the pond Obama took charge as a relatively youthful 47 year old. However, with their successors all substantially older, and other nations failing to select youthful leaders, perhaps this generation was simply an anomaly.

Let me take a selfie

Let me take a selfie

There are many rational reasons why political power tends to be held by an incongruously old group. Firstly, to succeed in politics, you need a large network and a loyal support base, both of which take time to build. Secondly, apathy amongst younger voters often leads to a lower turnout than that of older generations, hindering the chances of younger candidates both running in, and ultimately winning, elections. Finally, there is the notion that, like a fine wine, people get better with age: youthful exuberance is not seen as a substitute for experience (although some countries elect leaders with no political experience whatsoever…not naming any names…).

However, I find there to be something distinctly uncomfortable about the fact that our lawmakers are so much older than the broader population.

Politicians are already accused of being out of touch with the young; the age gap exacerbates this. Leaders often skew their campaigns and policies in favour of the interests of the older population (who wield a disproportionate amount of political power, because they actually bother to vote). Society could stagnate further as younger generations become increasingly frustrated and marginalised, and as the entry barriers into politics ostensibly grow. Social and cultural progress could slow as the demographic targeted tends to be more risk averse and socially conservative. The stability of democracy is threatened as disenfranchisement turns to rage (“Not My President!”).

The system is unlikely to change unless younger generations (a significant proportion of the electorate) rise to the challenge. They can only do this by engaging in politics more — apathy will not help. Without an active voice at the legislative level, we run the risk of having our future defined by another demographic.

Perhaps a silver lining of the rise in nationalism (think Trump, Brexit, National Front, AfD) is that young people begin to realise that indifference is not working for them. Maybe then we start to see a meaningful shift in the demographic makeup of our legislatures.


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