Do Geezers Run the World? Should They?

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

The leading contenders for the United States presidency are 77 and 80-years old. The leaders of the emerging BRICS countries are: 77 (Luiz Inácio da Silva of Brazil), 71 (Vladimir Putin of Russia), 73 (Narendra Modi of India), 70 (Xi Jinping of China), 71 (Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa). The Turkish leader, Recep Erdoğan, is 69. Are geezers running the world? Where are the youthful leaders in public office?

The question is immediately pertinent in the United States. The second verbal freeze of Senator Mitch McConell of Kentucky and continuing concerns about the health and lucidity of Senator Dianne Feinstein of California raise doubts about their ability to function in the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress. McConnell, the 81-year-old Republican Senate Minority Leader, has served 38 years in the Senate; Feinstein, a 90-year-old Democrat, has served 31 years in the Senate. What has happened to the frontier spirit of youth and energy famously presented as an American virtue by Frederic Jackson Turner?

Turner, an early 20th century American historian, has had a significant impact on the study of U.S. history thanks to his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The importance of the frontier, according to Turner, was its place between the known and the unknown, and the crucial role of pioneers in American history venturing into new frontiers.

The history of the United States can be interpreted as a constant search for new frontiers, first across the continental landmass – Manifest Destiny from sea to shining sea – and then extending beyond the continent to Hawaii and Alaska. And finally landing in the last frontier, outer space, on the moon.

It was no surprise that John F. Kennedy chose the New Frontier as his campaign slogan. In accepting the Democratic Party nomination for president at the Party’s 1960 Convention, Kennedy declared:

“We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. … The pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives to build our new west. They were determined to make the new world strong and free – an example to the world. … Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won. That there is no longer an American frontier. … And we stand today on the edge of a new frontier, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils. … Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. … I’m asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier.”

In 1960, the junior senator from Massachusetts was 43-years-old. The concepts of pioneer and New Frontier were integral to his image of youthful dynamism. Despite his various ailments – Addison’s disease and all – Kennedy projected energy, glorified by images of his playing touch football on the beach at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, Cape Cod. JFK’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was 35-years-old when he was appointed attorney-general.

The images of the youthful Kennedy family, with all their popular narratives of reaching out to new frontiers, must be compared with today’s geriatric U.S. political scene. The average age of U.S. Senators is 64. In the 118th Congress which began in January 2023, 34 of 100 Senators were between the ages of 60 and 69. As of September 2023, there are 14 Senators between 70 and 80.

As an aging Baby Boomer, I am pleased that the average median age of Americans is increasing. Our life expectancy is going up. Great. But I am not pleased about the ages of the political leaders. Watching Biden’s stiff gait, McConnell’s freezing episodes or Feinstein’s inability to vote properly drive me to the gym, physiotherapist, and geriatric specialist. Like Joe Biden, I know my old age is setting in. I just don’t want to be governed by people like me.

Living in Europe, I am surrounded by young leaders. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, is 45. The UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is 43. The Italian Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni, is 46.

Age and experience should not be immediately dismissed. Legend has it that JFK spoke with the 65-year-old former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett to get advice just after he was elected. Rumor has it Kennedy asked: “What do I do now?” There is nothing wrong with a young person asking a wise elder what to do.

And the famous comment by Ronald Reagan in a 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale should not be forgotten:  “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan quipped when asked if, at 73, he was too old to be President. Mondale was 56 at the time.

But should the wise elder be governing in an age of accelerated time? Can “mature” Baby Boomers understand the latest inventions in technology, discoveries in science or shifts in geopolitical realities? Aren’t there qualified young people attuned to the latest ready to enter the political arena in Washington instead of heading out to Silicon Valley or down to Wall Street to make their fortunes?

Frederic Jackson Turner’s frontier spirit is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Senate, nor among the current leading U.S. presidential contenders. Geezers should not be running the United States. Baby Boomers unite! You have nothing to lose but your walking canes. Don’t vote for someone like us. Let’s find some frontier pioneers to lead us.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.