Longer life expectancy is changing the demographics of our politicians. Wiser and less worried about reelection, the elderly are bound to make better leaders in our fast-moving society.
PARIS — An Oxford professor who is an expert in life expectancy and demography recently concluded a lecture this way: “By listening to me for 90 minutes, as you just did, you've just earned your lives 22 extra minutes.”
Statistical projections are indeed fascinating — and spectacular. For example, a child born today has a 50% chance of living to be 100 years old, as long as he benefits from an advanced, stable and nourishing environment. The Chinese are evidently right to worry about the rise in illnesses linked to their country’s pollution. But nonetheless, the average life expectancy in China increased by 30 years between 1960 and 2010.
Living to be older and in good health is one of the most positive developments of our time. It has obvious economic and social consequences — on the retirement age, the stages of life, education and careers. Retiring later and continuing to study throughout life are becoming more and more common.
The phrase “silver economy,” in fact, is a reference to all the businesses and even entire industries emerging with the increase of life expectancy — and therefore with the rising percentage of seniors in our society.
But what about the political consequences of increased life expectancy? The media occasionally coin such ideas as “70 is the new 50,” but should these new views about age change the way we view our politicians? Will we soon talk about “silver politics”? Is age now becoming an asset? Will an increasingly senior society choose older leaders? Is it more reasonable to be governed by truly wise politicians prone to putting things into perspective thanks to their age and experience, than by so-called saviors?
Older political figures will be less inclined to consider that they must relentlessly be seen in the media. They will be more thoughtful with what they do as well as what they say, and be wise enough to know that their role includes at least as much thinking as doing. These seniors will also be less tempted to spend too much time considering their future. As Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s former prime minister, said: “We all know what to do. We just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
A person in his 70s should be less tempted by a second term than a much younger person. In his latest essay, Le Bel Âge ("The Best Age") Régis Debray denounces the prevailing “youthism” and aims to reinstate the respect for elders that has always existed — for instance, in Asia.
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Lee Kuan Yew still influential well into his 80s (wikipedia)
The figure of Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for more than three decades, embodies this perfectly, even though being a despot is not necessary to be enlightened.
But “senior” and “wise” are not synonymous
Of course, age is no guarantee of wisdom: There are crazy seniors. But age is, a priori, a protection against impulsivity and lack of maturity or experience. In this sense, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in France, and Barack Obama, in the U.S., may have come to power too early.
To continue this Franco-American comparison, two politicians today may appear to be the most qualified people to be elected to lead their respective countries. And this is not despite their age, but indeed — at least partly — thanks to it.
We are talking, of course, about American Hillary Clinton and France's Alain Juppé. In the former country, international issues must regain priority. Hillary Clinton is not only a great political personality, but she was also a good secretary of state — even though the president didn’t always back her. In 2008, she had the misfortune of competing in the Democrat Party’s primary against an exceptional man, who, once elected president, unfortunately did not keep all of his promises. If her health allows it, Clinton’s turn might come in 2016; she will then be 69 years old.
Alain Juppé will turn 71 during the next French presidential elections in 2017. He too has been a great minister of foreign affairs. “The best among us,” to quote former President Jacques Chirac, has the perfect mix of statehood, experience and gravitas that the tenants of the Elysée presidential palace over the past 20 years have lacked.
Beyond these two figures’ personal futures, there are real political issues. The spectacular increase in life expectancy is changing the way our society views the age of its politicians. Is respect for our “ancestors” about to become fashionable again, as it has always been in Asia?