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Biden win rekindles age discourse in leadership

By Stephen Ndegwa
Wednesday, November 18th, 2020
Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. Photo/AFP
In summary

The election of US Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden, who is set to celebrate his 78th birthday on November 20, has rekindled debate on both the preferability and effectiveness of youth leadership as opposed to leadership by the elderly.

Even more interesting is the fact that the president-elect is set to replace another septuagenarian in the White House, 74-year-old Donald Trump, who was born on June 14, 1946.  

Four years ago, Trump had the distinction of being the oldest US president ever inaugurated.

However, Biden will take this record on January 21, 2021 after he is inaugurated as the 46th occupant of the White House.

An opinion published in the New York Times by Ian Prasad Philbrick on July 2020 asks aptly, “Why does America have old leaders?”.

In addition to the American presidency starting to feel like a gerontocracy, Philbrick also notes that the average age of Congress has been increasing in the last decades.

For instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78, the average age of the Supreme Court’s nine injustices is above 67, and Trump’s Cabinet averages over 60. 

It seems geriatrics is not just an issue in America’s political realm, with the corporate sector also showing an affinity for the tried and the tested talent. According to research published in January this year on Workspan Daily, the average age for a chief executive officer across industries is 59 years. 

Ordinarily, age should really not be an encumbrance as long as one’s faculties are intact and effective for the assignment.

As one grows older, he or she is supposed to transform to a repository of experience and wisdom, which are invaluable assets in situations that require resolute, sober and visionary leadership. 

Unfortunately, in the current fast paced modern world, full of constant technological innovations, age has been taken as a liability, a drag in the race to perfect ingenuity. 

Unspoken feeling

The choice of yet another septuagenarian as president is testament that the US has been grappling with an identity crisis.

May be there is an unspoken feeling in the American society, that it has lost the moral compass from years of sacrificing love and concern for humanity in the pursuit for material success.

Therefore, older generation leaders act as a stabiliser and lighthouse, offering the citizens a sense of purpose and direction. 

To Americans, Biden is a safe pair of hands who they can trust to take care of their collective future.

This is a role that former President Barrack Obama symbolised through his utterances, which made him get elected at a relatively young 47 years old, three decades younger than Biden.

Further, this explains why Americans welcomed Obama’s endorsement of Biden. 

While geriatrics has been frowned upon in African leadership in recent years, the same political pundits have welcomed Biden’s election, or at worst kept silence about the age factor.

The reason for the double standards is not apparent, but going by precedence, the pundits will seek politically correct arguments that can mainstream geriatrics back into the continent’s political discourse.

Arguments about liability of old age in political leadership were introduced in Africa by the West, not out of genuine concern for the continent’s socio-economic and political wellbeing, but in search of a young leadership that would be malleable.

That is how some countries were put under pressure to amend their constitutions to block incumbent presidents from serving more than two terms. 

The world will be watching how the US media will attribute certain aspects of Biden’s leadership hits and misses to the age factor.

Moreover, if the president-elect performs well in his first term, will Americans still want him to go for a second term at the age of about 82? 

— The writer is a communications expert and public policy analyst. [email protected]

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