The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

With a median age of 62, it’s not ageist to suggest that younger people should lead the world.

In contemporary political discourse, phrases like “Sleepy Joe Biden,” popularized by former president and now convicted felon Donald Trump, aim to cast doubt on Biden’s capability to govern due to his age. Ironically, Trump himself is 77, while Biden is 81. The upcoming U.S. presidential election is shaping up to be a rematch of 2020, pitting Biden against Trump once again. This scenario would feature the two oldest major-party presidential nominees in history, a notable reflection of a country often celebrated for its progressive values.

This trend of aging leadership extends beyond the United States. Leaders in various countries, particularly in the Global South, also exhibit advanced ages. Narendra Modi of India is 74; Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan is 72; Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria is 72; Vladimir Putin of Russia is 71; and Xi Jinping of China is 70. The prevalence of older leaders is not just confined to one region but is a global phenomenon, with many nations being governed by leaders significantly older than their populations’ median age.

Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in countries where leaders are over 70. On average, these leaders are over 40 years older than the median age of their populations. This widening age gap raises critical questions about its impact on policies and political engagement worldwide.

To understand this phenomenon, it’s crucial to examine why there is such a disparity in age between voters and their leaders. Over the past few decades, the age gap between leaders and the general populace has been expanding. In our rapidly evolving world, driven by technological advancements, continuous adaptation and skill acquisition are essential. Despite these demands, there is a noticeable scarcity of young leaders in significant positions of power.

This observation prompts several questions: Can older leaders effectively govern in such a dynamic environment? Why are younger generations less represented in leadership roles?

One plausible explanation is the advancements in healthcare and technology, which have increased life expectancy and decreased mortality rates. These developments allow individuals to remain active in their professional roles for longer periods, thereby widening the age gap between leaders and the younger population.

Understanding this dynamic is critical for developing relevant and effective policies in the contemporary era. As the world continues to change rapidly, it is vital to consider whether our leadership possesses the skills and adaptability required to navigate these changes.

The rise of autocratic regimes is another factor contributing to the significant age gap between the median age of citizens and their leaders. In countries like Russia and China, both presidents are over 70 and have entrenched their hold on power, showing no signs of relinquishing control. These nations, among the world’s most populous, demonstrate a trend towards autocracy that the V-Dem Institute notes encompasses 35% of the global population. This trend exacerbates the age disparity between the general populace and their older leaders.

In autocratic regimes, conventional methods for leadership transition, such as fair elections or term limits, are often weakened or non-existent. This results in older leaders remaining in power far longer than they would in more democratic systems, creating a substantial age gap between aging leaders and their typically much younger populations. This disconnect can lead to a sense of alienation among younger citizens, who may feel that their needs and perspectives are inadequately represented by long-standing older leaders. This disparity has profound implications, influencing policy decisions, national priorities, and the overall vitality of political and social systems in these countries.

However, age disparities are not limited to autocratic countries. Even in well-established democracies, older leaders are prevalent. In democratic nations, young individuals face significant challenges in competing in elections. One of the primary barriers is financial; running a campaign requires substantial funds, which many young candidates find difficult to secure, particularly if they lack affluent backgrounds. Consequently, wealthy youth, often disinterested in politics, leave the political field dominated by older candidates.

From a practical standpoint, younger generations are often better positioned to address contemporary issues and develop relevant policies. However, their lack of financial resources makes it difficult for them to enter the political arena, a situation that is common in regions like Asia and Africa.

Younger politicians face significant obstacles, including limited funding and a lack of political connections, making it challenging to compete with the established networks and resources of older politicians. Additionally, as populations age, older voters tend to support candidates who reflect their own experiences and values. Younger politicians are often perceived as inexperienced or as a threat to opportunities for more seasoned candidates. Some individuals may resist endorsing young candidates due to personal biases or perceptions that they are not adequately prepared for leadership roles.

The predominance of older leaders and the resulting older candidate pool have concerning implications. With older leaders dominating the political landscape, younger generations often feel disconnected from elections and state policies, posing a threat to global political engagement. Numerous surveys reveal consistently low voter turnout among young people across almost every country. In response, leaders and nations are making concerted efforts to encourage greater youth participation in politics. Figures like Joe Biden have even taken to platforms like TikTok to engage with younger demographics, while others, such as Narendra Modi, use platforms like Twitter to connect with youth.

Modi’s recent outreach to social media content creators highlights these efforts. However, these initiatives alone are insufficient; there is an urgent need to enhance young people’s involvement in politics and ensure that their voices are adequately represented in leadership.

H. M. Sabbir Hossain is an undergraduate student of International Relations at University of Chittagong, Bangladesh. He writes about international politics, specially focused on South Asia.