Old Leaders

I refer not to leaders who are old figuratively, or metaphorically. But to leaders who are old literally. To people in high places who are close to or over 75 years of age, or even over 80. There are fewer old leaders in business than in government – certainly in the United States – for which there are some obvious reasons. But there are many old leaders in governments around the world, including in the United States.

Far be it from me to say that old people in high places invariably present a problem. I am not exactly a spring chicken myself. Nor do I suggest that leaders over 75 are, by definition, ill equipped physically, psychologically, or cognitively to do the heavy lifting required of leaders, especially those in powerful posts. What I argue instead is that if too many old leaders preclude too few young leaders from replacing them, we have a problem. They range from having too many leaders who are old, tired, and rigid to having too few who are young, energetic, and adaptive. From having too many leaders who are largely ignorant of some of the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to the new technologies, to having too few leaders who are deeply informed about the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to the new technologies.

A 34-year-old woman, Arora Akanksha, who came effectively out of nowhere – she has worked at the United Nations for just four years – has declared herself a candidate to be the UN’s next secretary general. If she proceeds as expected she will be challenging Antonio Guterres, who is 71 years old. I do not especially advocate her candidacy. But is it time for the United Nations to get entirely new leadership? To be pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century? To address what this fresh-faced challenger to the existing order charges is an organization that is wasteful and adrift, patronizing, and paternalistic? Whatever her deficits, and whatever Guterres’s assets, none can question the United Nations is a grievous disappointment, light years from achieving its original high-minded ideals.  Is it possible that an unending series of old or oldish male leaders are at fault for its being so miserably stuck? It is.

The problem to which I refer has long been in evidence in Japan, said to be ruled, effectively since time immemorial, by an “old men’s club.” Is this now starting, finally, to change? Maybe, at least at the margins. Recently an online petition started by women mushroomed into what the New York Times described as a “vociferous social media campaign.” It ended dislodging 83-year-old Olympic leader, Yoshiro Mori, and, additionally, precluding him from picking another octogenarian, another man, as his successor. Mori was, of course, a symbol of a society that forever has had its most powerful and prestigious posts held by men, many if not most old, now in their 70s, 80s, and even into their 90s.

President Joe Biden is 78 years of age. Former president Trump is 74 years of age. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is 79 years of age. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi will soon be 81 years of age. And when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last year, she was still serving on the Supreme Court, at age 87.  

Time in the United States – indeed everywhere, at least in the so-called developed world – to consider term limits? Even age limits? The year of COVID-19 has been a blip – in 2020 the life expectancy of Americans slightly declined. But in the main we have been living longer and are likely to continue living even longer still. In 2021 the life expectancy for American men is over 76 years of age, and for American women over 81. Given this means many more of us will be living into our eighties and nineties, the implications for leaders are clear. We should set limits on leaders leading too long and maybe even too late.

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