America’s gerontocracy is a contrast with the rest of the world

In classic stereotype, the ideal national leader is a graybeard rich in experience, a pillar of stable continuity. No more. The new prime minister of France is 34. He’s the latest in a crop of young leaders springing up around the world. Millennials are taking over.

The current prime ministers of Ireland and Georgia, the presidents of El Salvador and Turkmenistan, and the emir of Qatar all climbed the ranks of power while in their 30s. Saudi Arabia’s leader is one of the world’s most powerful men at 38. Montenegro hits the double: Its president is 37 and prime minister 36. The president of Chile was the world’s youngest leader when he took office in 2022 at the age of 35. Since then, leaders even younger than Boric have emerged in Ecuador and Burkina Faso. Now Prime Minister Gabriel Attal of France holds the title.

President Emmanuel Macron, who appointed Attal this month, was himself elected at the age of 39. “I could read and hear it: The youngest president of the Republic in history appoints the youngest prime minister in history,” Macron said in explaining his choice. “I want to see it only as the symbol of boldness and movement. It is also, and perhaps above all, a symbol of confidence in young people.”

Little of that confidence shows in the United States. President Biden, 81, is the ninth-oldest leader in the world and the oldest president in American history. His presumptive opponent in this year’s election, Donald Trump, is 77. The leader of the Democrats in the Senate is 73. His Republican counterpart is 81. While young leaders are emerging around the world, Washington remains frozen in time.

That so many American leaders are old is not the real problem. It’s that their ideas are old. The most powerful people in Washington were shaped by the Cold War and are caught in the grip of irrelevant experience. Our political system allows many of them to cling to power for as long as they wish. Incumbency brings access to campaign funds, which are decisive in American politics. That makes it difficult for young challengers to break through.

Unfortunately for many of the world’s people, the United States is not the only country led by superannuated warhorses. President Xi Jinping of China is 70 and President Vladimir Putin of Russia is 71. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, is 84. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, arguably the most brutally repressive leader in the Western Hemisphere, is 78. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is 74 and the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is 88. All bear scars from old conflicts. Imagining a new and different world is difficult for all of them.

Frustration with the failures of old leaders is now propelling younger ones to power. People expect them to act decisively and to boldly defy convention. Several have done just that.

Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who could be in power for the next half century, has launched what he says will be a radical reinvention of his oil-rich kingdom. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador took over a nation terrorized by gang violence, ordered the arrest and imprisonment without trial of every suspected gang member, and is now immensely popular. The new leader of Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traoré, expelled French troops from a country where they had been based for nine years. Wise or unwise, those are not steps that prudent elders would have taken.

Some modern world leaders emerge at such a young age that they retire shortly after turning 40. Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Carlos Alvarado of Costa Rica have returned to private life after being elected to national leadership in their 30s. So has Sanna Marin, who became prime minister of Finland at 34 and served for four years.

Are young people inherently better at running countries than their parents or grandparents? It’s an eternal debate. Youth is energetic, visionary, and eager to try what has never been dared — but also headstrong and inexperienced. Age brings wisdom, but it can also make leaders hidebound.

In good times, people look for stability. They want more of the same and abhor the idea of change. When Britain ruled the waves in the 19th century, its famously reactionary prime minister Lord Salisbury perfectly summarized this principle in his credo: “Whatever happens will be for the worse, therefore it is our interest that as little should happen as possible.” As postwar Germany was rising from ruins in the 1950s, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer won elections with the slogan “No Experiment.”

Today, however, turmoil and upheaval shape the world. Wars rage. Grotesque inequality distorts many societies. Anger poisons public discourse. Old rules, old ways, and the old world order seem to have failed. In such an uncertain climate, people seek profound and even radical change. That often leads them to young leaders who may be unproven but at least are not part of the ruling order that has produced so much injustice.

Younger Americans, shaped not by the Cold War but by events of this century, are waiting impatiently for a chance for political power. Their elders are loath to step aside. One day — possibly in the presidential campaign of 2028 — the dam will break. Until then we may be doomed to gerontocracy.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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