How old should our leaders be?

Sebastian Kurz

By Nadir Farooqi

With over 30% of the popular vote, the Austrian People’s Party, led by 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, is set to be the largest member in any coalition formed to govern. Described as the “wunderwuzzi”, which roughly translates to wiz-kid, Kurz is a talented politician who, at the age of 27, became Europe’s youngest foreign minister. He is now set to become the world’s youngest national leader – but is he too young to do so?

One of the first reservations that people throw up is that a younger generation lacks the maturity and deftness to handle brinkmanship on the international stage, and that a younger impulsive nature can easily lead to mistakes. However, it seems that sometimes the older, ‘wiser’ generation acts very similarly to the younger. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un’s recent war of words is a good example: many broadcasters observed that the style and manner of the statements were not too dissimilar. All quotes can be attributed to both leaders as it would be very plausible that they had in fact said them. Trump is 71, more than twice as old as the 33 year-old Jong-Un, and this is not to make a comment (be it ethical or otherwise) regarding the nature of the action taken by both men.

Another common belief is that the older you are, the more experienced you are. The argument is therefore that older people make better leaders as they have a greater well of past experiences to draw upon for guidance or inspiration. However, some experiences may be more relevant than others for the running of a country – any claim regarding experience is highly subjective. Similarly, any referral to age just seems unnecessarily arbitrary. Is Theresa May five-times a better leader of the conservatives compared to previous leader David Cameron, as she was MP for twenty years before taking over rather than only four years?

For many, Kurz’s age is not seen as help or a hindrance, but simply as irrelevant. Many of those whom I’ve discussed it with centered around the idea that candidates’ age should not matter: simply, whoever is best (or best suited) should lead. I don’t strongly disagree with such a reverence for meritocracy, but I still fear that such a view oversimplifies human interaction. It would be great, even ideal, if we could simply regard others on aspects such as their talent alone. However, when interacting, characteristics such as race, gender and age are inevitably taken into account. This does not mean that young people up for leadership are resigned to having their age worked against them, but it does mean that they need to be aware of it. Sebastian Kurz, much like Macron, played on his relative youth, centering his party – a rebranded people’s party – around himself. During his inauguration, John F. Kennedy referred to his youth saying that “torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans”. He went on to have the highest average approval rating of any post World War II president at around 70% (the average being 54%).

More than just being a number, age is really what you make of it.

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