Western world leaders have been getting younger and younger (Donald Trump, who at 70 was the oldest person ever to be elected for a first term as US president, notwithstanding).
Maybe the ‘youth obsession’ held by movie and TV companies, advertisers and the fashion industry is increasingly influencing voters’ choices. But given that a reasonable amount of life experience can only help in the many stressful, demanding situations a leader must face, is this a trend that should concern us?
Research from 2014 – before Trump burst on to the presidential stage – showed that voters in the US, UK, France and Germany elected increasingly young leaders over the past 50 years. In the 1950s, voters picked venerable heads such as Winston Churchill (66), but JFK (42) in the ’60s marked a sharp change in trend and since then, politicians have tended to be younger than those they replaced, culminating in Barack Obama (47) in the White House and David Cameron (43) in Number 10.
It could be argued that in some countries at least, the trend has continued, with France last year electing 40-year-old Emmanuel Macron.
One study found that voters were apt to choose younger leaders during times of change, and older leaders during times of crisis – though this hasn’t been borne out in recent times, given that both Obama and Cameron were elected during the Global Financial Crisis.
People who believe that older leaders are better usually value a leader’s extensive life experience and maturity over a younger person’s enthusiasm and energy. They often argue that the wisdom age brings makes older leaders more effective at seeing the big picture and reflecting more deeply on the meaning of events.
It’s an argument that makes sense. Having lived through previous crises, a leader may keep a cooler head and have first-hand experience in how to respond, rather than being forced to draw that information from history books. Others say that younger leader may have trouble relating to the needs of older generations, thus failing to properly serve a portion of society, while older leaders are still able to remember being, and sympathise with, younger people.
There are many examples of hugely effective older leaders – few would quibble over Queen Elizabeth’s continued ability to unite her public – while the business world is fully of older CEOs and chairmen such as Rupert Murdoch, who continue to run corporate empires with unusual acuity.
Some voters believe that younger leaders are better at coping with rapid change, put a greater value on innovation and aren’t as afraid to break with tradition if it means a better result.
There may be some truth in this – a study by the Harvard Business Review found younger business leaders welcomed change more quickly, had more inspiring behaviour, were more receptive to feedback, were more results-focused and valued continuous improvement more highly. Younger leaders are also perceived to be more comfortable with technological advancement – a must in today’s world – and better able to truly transform a situation because they’re less tied to the status quo.
Again, the Queen serves as an example, given that she was just 25 when she ascended the throne yet has been largely regarded as an effective leader right from the start of her reign.
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