The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

Apr 11, 2024 32 min listen

Today, eight of the world's most populous countries, or about 4 billion people, are led by politicians 70 years of age, or older. Wall Street Journal reporter Jon Emont joins Doorstep co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in both autocracies and democracies.

What do we lose when generational change is stifled? Can the world effectively address 21st century crises from pandemics, to melting ice caps, to technological advances with 20th century frameworks? Are we reaching a tipping point?

Full transcript coming soon . . .

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NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming today Jon Emont from The Wall Street Journal. Jon is a Southeast Asia reporter based in Singapore. He writes about political and economic developments in Asia and has covered topics ranging from COVID-19 to the Rohingya crisis to the effects of automation in the developing world, but today he is going to speak with us about a recent piece he wrote about our aging global leadership.

Before we get to Jon, this week we have the Japanese prime minister visiting Biden along with an old familiar name from the Philippines as well, but these leaders as well as Biden are suffering in the polls at home, and I am wondering, can they really bring new ideas to the table? I want to know, Nick, what are you hearing in your meetings in DC? What are some concerns?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think one of the concerns is that as you have leaders—Japanese Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden—meeting, that these are 20th-century leaders trying to grapple with challenges of the 21st century, and the question is how well equipped are they to deal with the dramatic changes that climate and environmental shifts bring, dislocations created by the new technologies that seemingly spring upon us overnight, and the sense that you are attempting to take policy consensuses that were developed, say, in the 1980s and 1990s and fit what is happening today within those parameters and whether or not that can be done successfully.

The other issue, and this ties back to the doorstep considerations, is that as you mentioned both Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden have questions about their political futures. This is driven in both countries by doorstep concerns—energy, the economy, people wanting to know whether or not they are going to remain in the middle class; this drives political pressures—and the sense that we are in an era now where leaders may make agreements today but will those agreements endure? Will they last? Will their successors carry them through?

This touches on that point that I think we are going to be bringing up in our discussion with Jon both about aged leaders and their relationships but their networks and their willingness to groom new generations of leadership that can adapt to these changing conditions that we are in in the third decade of the 21st century.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let’s get to Jon now.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Jon, to talk about such an important topic as we enter a redux, reimagining, Rip Van Winkle moment in our U.S. elections, Trump versus Biden this fall. Your recent piece caught our attention: “Old Leaders Run the World—and They’re Not Going Anywhere.” A decade ago just one of the world’s ten most populous countries had a leader 70 or older. Today eight do. That is an incredible statistic. Why?

JON EMONT: A lot of reasons. The main one is that the old guys have just managed to cling to power, and that goes across political systems, so in China you see Xi Jinping, who has been in power for over a decade, managing to stay in power. Vladimir Putin has managed to stay in power. These are two strong, authoritarian leaders who have been able to head off challenges.

You would think that in democracies there would be a lot more renewal. That is the promise of democracy, that you can elect new people who can solve problems in different ways. Maybe that is happening, but if it is, it is happening via old leaders. It is a little hard to understand why in democratic countries where the average age is often in the 30s or 40s people are selecting leaders overwhelmingly now in their 70s or in Joe Biden’s case in his early 80s.

One thing it speaks to is that it is very difficult to break into power. In democratic countries you need to raise a lot of money generally in order to win elections, you need to have very deep networks, and those tend to accrue with age. Somebody like Joe Biden or Narendra Modi, who have been in politics for a very long time, have those networks.

In Indonesia’s recent election, which just came in February—Indonesia is easy to forget, but it has 280 million people; it is a very important country in Asia and the world—Prabowo Subianto won overwhelming in the election, and he is in his early 70s too. He has been around the block, this guy, but that seems to have helped him. It has allowed him to make deep connections with businesspeople who he needs to provide financial support. In this sense there seems to be an advantage that accrues with age. It is not just the United States; it is a lot of countries.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: When we are looking at this phenomenon, two things I am struck by, and your comments and your piece touch on this and set it forward. One is that certainly we have autocratic systems where leadership change may be a lot slower, but your point about what is happening in democracies I think is well taken.

This leads to two sets of approaches to this: One is that older leaders, are they projecting and getting voters to accept the idea that they are just better at solving problems, a “Give me another four years to finish the job I started 24 years ago” type of narrative and that younger leaders are not seen as problem solvers or effective?

The second and flip side: Is it that younger voters look at younger candidates and are prepared to find a lot more things wrong with them? We hear this a lot in the U.S. context about next-generation leaders: “Well, this leader won’t appeal to these groups or can’t form a coalition,” and you have seen, Tatiana, going back to what your students talk about, we default to older white males as the safe consensus candidates that can build coalitions. Is there a sense that younger voters are much more picky about younger leaders and therefore are more prepared to accept the idea that an established older leader can get things one and let’s just go with that?

JON EMONT: To your second question it is hard to know the answer about which type of leader younger voters would prefer just because they don’t have too many choices. They do not have too many chances to vote for young people. I think when there is evidence it shows that young people actually prefer younger leaders in general. Certainly if you poll younger Americans and ask, “Generally, what is the age at which you would want to see your president,” younger people tend to want younger presidents. To your point, of course it could be different when you actually have the candidates in front of you.

I do think there is some advantage to being older in the sense that somebody like Joe Biden, because he has been around the block, I think certainly four years it ago was easier therefore to make the case that he was not that scary, that he wasn’t that radical, that you kind of knew what you were getting, you were getting Joe. In a polarized country where everyone is very terrified of the other side, having someone who has been there often and is seen as more of a centrist-type person for a while, certainly that is an advantage whereas you might think that a younger candidate, even if they were perhaps more centrist they do not have the track record so they might still inspire a lot of fear in the other side, but I am speculating.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that gets at the idea, which I think we did see in the 2020 primaries, where you had a number of younger leaders and yet the idea that, “Well, Joe Biden is the safe pair of hands, he is reassuring,” and there was always something with one of the younger candidates where people said, “They are going to scare voters” or they are going to move in different directions, but as you said it creates this chicken and egg of young leaders don’t rise, they don’t develop the networks, and they don’t develop the experience to do that, getting at that process of that it is not just the people but is also the process and the system and how it does not encourage leadership transition.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I don’t mean to be ageist here, but let’s take a look at the ages you had in this graph, which is fantastic: Xi Jinping in China at 70, Bola Ahmed Tinubu in Nigeria, 71. You mentioned Indonesia, Russia, and Modi. They are all in their 70s. Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina at 76, and Brazil, da Silva is 78. Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is 88, and in Cameroon Paul Biya is 91. Should there be—and when you were doing your reporting—a consensus that maybe there should be an age limit? I am not being ageist, but maybe you should retire and teach or do something else.

On the flip side, as you were talking we were talking a lot about domestic politics. Do these leaders somehow on the international stage have more international support because they have been around the block? What is your sense from your reporting?

JON EMONT: There is not going to be a global rule obviously that once you obtain a certain age you have to go out to pasture. In the United States there have been some efforts to establish age limits. These seem like publicity stunts. It is hard to imagine any of them will get through, but I think a bill was introduced—was it last year perhaps?—trying to establish an age limit I think of 75 to run for president.

Obviously, you leave it to voters, but then the problem is that voters often don’t get a chance to pick young leaders. It is complicated in the United States. It is different in every country, but in the United States primary voters tend to be older, older people seem to tend to prefer older candidates, so you tend to get older candidates for the general election, which is when young people start paying attention, and by then the choices are two old guys in this case.

As to your second question, obviously we don’t want to be ageist and there are a lot of effective older leaders. You could certainly make the case, for example, that Joe Biden has been a very effective president. Some people would. Obviously you could make that case. You might argue that, for example, if you compare him with Obama that Joe Biden’s experience in the Senate made him much better suited to actually passing landmark legislation that required bipartisan support. There would be an argument. I guess it is important obviously to remember that old leaders can be effective.

Still it feels a little odd sometimes because you think about the pressing challenges that we face with climate change and regulating artificial intelligence (AI), these are big issues, not to mention all the geopolitical conflicts. Netanyahu has been around for a while; Mahmoud Abbas has been around for a while. I am not sure if he is still in power, but it is still a lot of old people, and you do wonder if they are going to be able to come up with new solutions to some of these old problems. I agree that it is an important question.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Tatiana, as an interesting side point, the Catholic Church has a rule now that cardinals that are over 70 are not allowed to vote in papal elections, so the Catholic Church at least has introduced a version of your rule saying, “Look, once you hit a certain age we don’t want you casting”—at least in this case, cardinals casting votes for the next pope.

Two things I was thinking as I was listening, Jon, you are talking about again this litany of leaders. In some cases there is that Rip Van Winkle effect, that if you went to sleep at a certain point and woke up again, familiar faces, the joke that Daniel Ortega is running Nicaragua again.

Interesting with some of these leaders as you point out, at some point they were young leaders. Abbas was a young leader, Daniel Ortega was a young revolutionary, and yet their ability to step aside for next generations at some point—is it that people buy into this narrative that “Only we can solve these problems, the young people can’t, and we really need to stay in power.”

Thinking about that, you raised the issue, Tatiana, from the people on the list, is some of this a side effect that healthcare has simply gotten a lot better? It used to be that leaders would hit a certain age, they would be debilitated, they couldn’t travel, they couldn’t function, but now 70 is the new 50, and therefore what we expected of a 50-year-old in 1980 a 70-year-old today seems to be able to deliver.

JON EMONT: I think you are totally right. In fact, I probably should have mentioned it. If you want to look at the one thing that is definitely causing this it is that across the world healthcare has gotten a lot better, especially if you are in the elite, if you are leading a country. About eight of the ten most populous countries currently have leaders over 70 whereas ten years ago it was just one, and that one country was India, where Manmohan Singh was very old, something like 86 or something when he got power.

Certainly there are cultures in Asia and Africa where it seems like there is a preference for older leaders, that people expect to be led by older leaders, and that is not necessarily demoralizing for them. That is just how things ought to be.

Sub-Saharan Africa is an interesting example because you have the youngest population in the world by far. In a lot of these countries the average age is 18, and yet they are often led by people in their 60s. There again you would not ascribe it I don’t think it to lifestyle practices, but there is no question that culture plays a powerful role in terms of determining who people feel should be their leader, and how appropriate is it to be led by someone who is in a very advanced age.

That definitely plays a huge role because you might think that even if you were a young revolutionary and took power in your 30s, say, 50 years ago, well, yes, by the time you are 55 or 60 you might be on your way out, and now there is just no reason for that to be. You can likely be healthy into your 80s perhaps.

If you think about it, typically there would be advantages that accrue with age. As you get older you have deep networks that you are able to tap into, you have a lot of people who are loyal to you, who rely on you, but then on the other hand you are getting older, you are getting frail, and maybe your cognitive health is declining. Those two things eventually force you out, and maybe you would play a role as a grandfather or maybe advising in the background.

But now, what is to stop you? You are still accruing power, you have these deep networks, and again this is true seemingly in democratic and authoritarian systems, and you are not being forced out by health reasons, so, yes, I think it is huge. It is a real change. Obviously it is great that people are healthier longer, but it definitely makes it harder for young people to worm their way in. I think that is arguably an issue.

TATIANA SERAFIN: There is an exception, and it seems to be that in parliamentary systems—and I am looking at Europe—you have much younger leaders able to come to power because they are able to create their own party, stand for election, and drive issues from the bottom up. We certainly saw that in Poland, that ousted a very conservative government. It was all young people and many women who were opposed to some of the conservative laws that were being put in place.

I don’t know if parliamentary systems are the answer, but certainly they offer something different that is able to capture this change that comes from youth. It is just true. I worry—and I don’t know if you saw it in your reporting—that that is not happening in some of these places like an Indonesia, a United States, or a Philippines. We have a Marcos Jr. in the Philippines too, those of us who remember that time period. If you cannot capture that youth and that energy it is creating some of what we are seeing today, protests, discontent, and anger.

JON EMONT: Maybe your young students are feeling that, yes, democracy is not furnishing them with decent options or anyone who really thinks the way they do or understands their problems, and there is good evidence emerging in countries like Japan and Germany where this has been studied that young people are right to want younger leaders, that younger leaders tend to prioritize issues that are closer to younger people like affordable childcare and a decent education, whereas older leaders, who have been elected often by older constituencies, will think about issues like preserving Social Security benefits, also important, but there are reasons for young people to be right in worrying if their leaders don’t represent them age-wise.

Yet, to your point, I think there is this interesting counter-example that Europe offers. You have Emmanuel Macron. He is been in power for a while now, but he entered power in his mid-40s I think. I should check; he might have even been younger. Finland’s prime minister, no longer in power, but she was very young. This isn’t that abnormal. Rishi Sunak is fairly young in the United Kingdom.

Why? As you said, one of the reasons is that in a lot of these countries you can form new parties, and that means that somebody like Emmanuel Macron who has a vision that is arguably distinct from any of the French political parties of the time, could just found his own, be the head of it, and if people liked it he could get elected.

Imagine trying to do that in the United States. Imagine if I launched a third-party bid, I wouldn’t get very far. If I wanted to become a politician as a youngish person, I would have to start from the bottom of one of the two major political parties, and by the time I actually made my way up to the top not only would my views be totally conformed to party views but also I would say I would have even less hair, except I obviously do not have any hair. In a parliamentary system you can start your own party. You have different ways of jump-starting it.

The other thing is that there is more competition. If there are more parties competing for votes, then you have to think arguably even more about what voters want, and if one party that is maybe on the fringe is getting a young, dynamic person in a leadership position, you might need to match that. Otherwise you are going to seem like you are not dynamic.

In the United States it has been okay because both parties are at this, “Do you want to choose the 77-year-old or the 81-year-old?” You can imagine if there were a viable third party that was offering somebody, say, in their 40s or 50s who seemed to be offering fresh ideas how compelling that would be. In parliamentary systems that is actually happening, and that requires everyone to act.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: One of the things you just mentioned, that if you wanted to enter you would be shaped by existing networks and the like is interesting. I am looking again at some of these leaders who are older and have been around for a while. They create networks, and I am thinking here that oftentimes you have leaders and they are going to look at their own families when they are thinking about generational change. We see most of this in some of the autocratic systems, where a president wants to pass power down to a child or the like, but even in democratic systems, as you are looking at this phenomenon of older leaders, leaders who have been around for a while, as you say they develop the networks, how are they bequeathing those networks? Who are their inheritors?

Is there a risk that we are going to see more of these family dynasties arising where a political leader builds up the network, builds up the favors, builds up the funding sources, and then, as you said, eventually biology does catch up, no matter how good the healthcare is. What is the risk that we are going to start to see even more either blood family ties or we will see some sort of quasi-adoption, “I bequeath this network of power” to this person, who then will be expected to run the network for another ten, 20, 30 years, and perpetuate the process?

JON EMONT: That is an interesting question. I have not thought about it, but it makes sense. If you have more time in power because you are older and you can stay around longer, then you actually have more time to develop a network that you can hand off to whoever, whether that is your child or just your political heir. Yes, that could potentially limit options for voters. That is interesting. I think that is a worry. Certainly nepotism is a real problem in a lot of democracies.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is a problem in any industry. Nepo babies, that is all we talk about here in the United States, in the arts and movies. That is all over my students’ minds, and I think it is happening in politics too.

I wonder, though, it doesn’t seem that that energy—I want to go back to the fact that we do have pressing problems that we need to solve, and you mentioned climate change being one of them and the wars that are happening. It seems that, not to be ageist and respecting the networks that have been created and working relationships that may help pass legislation, et cetera, it does seem to me though, if you are in power and you have not been thinking about things differently because you are set in your ways that you are not going to find solutions, that your default is going to be war or, like Putin, saber rattle the nuclear option. That is not creative thinking. That is not innovative thinking for 2024 and beyond. That is going back to old-school thinking.

In your piece you mention that Biden joined TikTok. That is not enough. I don’t know if you watched the hearings in the Senate and the House with the tech companies coming in and trying to explain stuff to these old leaders. It was embarrassing how little they knew about the technology that is overtaking the world. AI is just something nobody is thinking about, and that is going to explode, Bitcoin regulation, all of these things.

My worry is that there is a lack of innovative thinking and the default is war, closing the borders, and old-school thinking, oppressing women, oppressing minorities. I wonder what you are seeing in Asia with some of this older leadership. I know that is what we are seeing here, but is it the same in Indonesia where we have older leadership coming in?

Even in Japan, today we have the Japanese prime minister visiting Biden at the White House and a big state dinner, but he has so many problems back home. He is almost out. How do these old leaders keep going without new ideas? There is some kind of a disconnect that seems to me that we are going to reach a breaking point. Have you seen that in Asia?

JON EMONT: There aren’t really too many young leaders in Asia, so I guess I don’t see that there is a breaking point. I hear you. I hear your issues. I think that is a real concern as we have spoken about that these problems might require new solutions. If you look at the Taiwan Strait, you might think that maybe there would be more productive solutions if you had someone who wasn’t an old-guard communist leading China. Good luck. You could of course also argue that it would not really matter. Even a young person in China who somehow managed to make it to the top would have to have similar views.

In general, yes, I agree. I think younger people look at things differently, and there are so many new challenges. It does sometimes feel weird that leaders in the Senate and Congress and basically in all these countries are elderly and often much older, say, than even business leaders. So, yes, I hear you.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You have a quote here from Kevin Munger at Penn State that “We are in this for another ten to 15 years.” Was that the consensus with the people that you were talking about, that it is going to take another decade or more to see some significant change? I ask this because we have seen in some of the older billionaires—I am formerly of Forbesbillionaires list—some shifts there of wealth with older billionaires dying, and now we have this really super-young wealthy generation. Is that the ten to fifteen years for the politics?

JON EMONT: That is interesting. You would think that there was going to be a correlation. One of the advantages, as we have spoken about, of being an older leader is you have your old billionaire buddies who have known you and backed your years and know they can rely on you, but their kids, who are maybe in their 50s, say they are going to look to perhaps back people who are more in line with their thinking and probably are not going to want 70-year-olds. Yes, it could be that it starts with the billionaires and regeneration is beginning. I am not sure if that makes me feel optimistic or not about democracy. We will have to see.

With the United States obviously there have been young leaders who have popped up and who have managed to—like when Obama challenged Hillary Clinton in the primaries he was able to win and was able to develop his own networks quickly.

An older person might make a suggestion and say: “Well, what do you mean? If there are compelling young leaders, just get out there. Why couldn’t DeSantis beat Trump?” He got walloped. Is it inconceivable that there is a Republican who could provide a more compelling option to the Republican base than Trump? Maybe young people just have to get better and work harder.

TATIANA SERAFIN: On that note we will leave off and see what we can do for our young people in generational change on a global scale. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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