A friend wrote yesterday “Only the youth can take back Jamaica”. I understand what he meant, but is it really true? Only a few days ago, we were reminded of a minister’s “youthful exuberance”, which had gotten him into ‘trouble’ in the past, yet the passing of time had not necessarily given him the necessary wisdom to avoid ‘trouble’ again. Yesterday afternoon, while my daughter was swimming, I watched some youths from one of Jamaica’s famed ‘good’ schools, play with knives in the vicinity of some younger children. Some more youthful exuberance on display I thought. I made a sharp comment: “That’s not very smart!” They stopped. Being older, often means being wiser, and wisdom has its place.
Very few countries have very young leaders of their political machinery. It doesn’t seem to matter what system of government is in place, the young do not muster votes to be the top dogs. They can get there by wresting control away from others. So, for example, Samuel Doe, an army sergeant, became the ruler in Liberia after the assassination of the president; Doe was 28 at the time. He tried to legitimize his regime through elections, but lost popularity. He was overthrown by an older man, Charles Taylor (in his 40s), and Liberia’s history of violent civil war and atrocities afterwards is written in blood.
When the former Soviet Union collapsed, many countries were able to create democratic regimes afresh. In so doing, the Baltic countries were able to go back to a past of relatively strong democratic institutions. They had small populations. The general picture was that the older people were steeped in the communist past, so were not really likely to be those who took the new nations to a place of glory. Several of these countries made strong pushes to give openings to young people. For instance, Matt Lars (32) became prime minister and served twice in that position (1992-4, and 1999-2002). His first regime was radical, and made an aggressive push away from soviet thinking towards market-based economic development. His regime was one of the first in Europe to introduce a flat tax, privatized wholesale, got rid of many subsidies, pegged the new currency to the then Deutsche Mark, and pointed his country straight for EU membership. I remember his saying that his vision was to see Estonia in the EU within a decade; they joined in 2004 (after a referendum in 2003).
Most countries have rulers who are at least in their 40s. That’s a combination of several things: work experience, building confidence, willingness of older rulers to cede positions. So, Tony Blair managed to be elected an MP at the age of 30, and became Labour Party leader, by election, at age 41, and that position made him prime minister when he was 44. Britain’s current PM, David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party at age 39, and then PM when he was 43–the youngest British PM for nearly 200 years.
Barack Obama became president of the USA at 48; John F. Kennedy became president at 43. They are both regarded as young leaders. Michael Manley became PM in Jamaica when 48. Most countries have leadership that looks much older, and some, like China and Japan have a long history of keeping very old men at the top for decades. Systems tend to favour the aged; limits for driving, voting, holding office, all have lower limits that do not deny young people a start, but says that delay is due.
Industry need not be that way, and capitalist structures tend to find a slew of young people head industry, as fresh ideas capture markets and catapult their creators into leadership positions. We have a wave of technologicial change going on that is seeing young entrepreneurs rise like topsy. Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerburg–all Americans–dominate our world that is made up of things technological.
Young people tend to rule what is commonly called ‘popular’ culture. They produce the music that sells fast and well. But, they also have to contend with older musicians who are either still performing very successfully (Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney, for example, even thought they were all stars from their youth), or have music that is still very popular even way beyond their death. I could point to the constant popularity of classical music, most of whose stars have been dead for centuries. As a genre befitting its name, classical music is the power of age personified.
It’s a constant struggle for young people displace older ones. Those in the seat often do not give up their place to the youngsters. In Britain, anyway, the tradition used to be that young people gave up seats on public transport to ‘old’ people (and men giving seats to women, especially pregnant ones). That’s tradition. Many cultures have traditions that are all about paying your dues, or due respect, to elders. When I was a budding footballer, I had to serve my ‘apprenticeship, literally at the feet of older players. My skills and speed at 14 were very good, but I was not going to displace older players with that alone; I needed experience and seasoning, and I was to learn that by having my legs and body introduced to what grown men did. It was a painful learning period, but very instructive. I remember being shown painfully what happened if I did not show due respect to an older player by not constantly just sprinting past him. I still have both of my testicles, but did believe for a while that I had lost them. Never again.
The young are often impatient, and dont want to wait for their turn, rightly so, in some cases. We have plenty of stories of post holders hanging on, almost for dear life, rather than slipping away when retirement age arrives. They often lurk around, finding work as consultants, and advisers. Work also builds up a dependency. But the old codgers are not all old codgers. I’m really amused, when I play golf, that most of the really good players are well into their 50s and many in their 60s. In Jamaica, the Caribbean sun and lifestyle is a better preservative. This is a game where nerves matter a lot, and these are supposed to fray notably with age, certainly after 40. It didn’t show much last week in the LIME Cup. While one of the younger men was ranting about what had just happened on a par 3 hole that he had lost, and ready to smash his club into the ground, his older captain took him to one side and talked to him long enough for him to calm down, regroup, and go on to play the rest of the round excellently.
It’s a sort of truism that old people can throw around that “we’ve seen it all before”. Yes, we have seen many more things usually than those who are much younger. But, younger people can make sense of things in a different way.
I just asked my daughter (10) if she would like to be PM of Jamaica. Yes, she said. In your 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s. “In my mid-20s, please,” she said, when she was still beautiful and could relate to young people. She’s now discussing with her mother what experience she thinks she will need to do the job. Interesting chat going on.
I personally believe you need a blend of youth and experience. But, I think the core for success is not age-related; it’s about values (which may be deeper set with age, but should also have their roots firmly grounded from a young age). They are honesty, integrity, and commitment. If you do not have those, then really all bets are off.