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Former highly controversial American diplomat

Age Limit for Politicians: Experience vs. Expertise

Aged politicians mixing up their words on stage, youth representation, the advantages of expertise over experience, and other reasons why we need to set a mandatory retirement age for our modern-day politicians

Dec 11, 2023

Former highly controversial American diplomat Henry Kissinger passed away at 100 years old a few days ago. But not without making statements about the military crises around the globe, and several media publicizing his inputs as official analyses of the conflicts. It would be a fair question to ask how the opinion of a 100-year-old retiree, even if ex-politician, can make any valuable contribution to any conversation about contemporary politics.
This is part of a larger problem within many political systems world-wide, which have no age limits for governmental representatives. The argument against putting age limits in place is usually that with age one acquires experience with politics and international relations that you cannot acquire otherwise. However, we must consider what politics are about and whether expertise is not the more important quality a politician should have.
We are conditioned to think about politics in terms of making policies to address current issues, or simply overseeing the proper implementation of legal codes. That forces us into, first of all, following outdated structures of policy-making that do not implement any innovation into their conception and, second, thinking that the present is independent of the past and the future. The second notion has proven to be quite dangerous, since such thinking leads to repeating past mistakes (when it comes to politics, on a global scale) and to leading reactionary politics instead of preventative and restorative politics. We do not consider the consequences the policies made today will have on our tomorrow.
This is key to the argument for introducing age limits for politicians and introducing more youth participation in decision-making. It is a particularly heated debate in the United States because of several situations involving politicians in very high positions in the Congress, Senate and even the Presidential cabinet. One of the most recent incidents was senator Mitch McConnell freezing up midsentence during a press conference for the second time. The 81-year-old politician’s health status has been kept under wraps, but it is quite obvious that it is deteriorating. New York Times reveals that the senator had a concussion due to a fall in March 2023 and has since then experienced several other fall accidents. After McConnell’s freeze up, the Internet was quick to dig up videos of President Joe Biden losing his balance while descending stairs and mixing up his words during speeches. Of course, it was primarily for the meme culture, but there were also quite a few people who expressed genuine concern about the ability of these politicians to perform their duties.
The opposition to the age limit argument is rooted in the concept of ageism as a sub-phenomenon of ableism. People who do not support the introduction of a mandatory retirement age for politicians consider the idea disrespectful, as hinting that people of a certain age are not able to contribute to society anymore. While that can be true, why is that same rhetoric not applied to any other profession? Further, why is ageism not called out when it comes to minimum age requirements, which already exist for positions in government in many countries?
In democratic states and organizations, representation of diverse voices is key. While there is no system that has actually fully achieved this goal, with far too many communities still being marginalized and actively excluded from decision making processes, there should at least be an honest attempt to reach this point. Yes, the representation of elderly people is important, but so is the representation of the youth. By not placing age limits on participation in government, many politicians stay in the same positions for decades, thus keeping seats occupied that could otherwise be opened to younger generations of policy-makers. The usual argument for their long tenures is that over the course of their personal and professional lives, these politicians have acquired experience that youths do not possess. However, in the modern age, with the lightspeed development of technology, one could argue that experience expires as soon as a new iPhone model is introduced. It is rather expertise that should be valued more because it is a quality based on knowledge, skill and practice, not just years of exercising one’s power. And expertise can be acquired by anybody who has access to formal or informal education, apprenticeships, and even just all these opportunities that the elderly senators gatekeep by elongating their runs time and time again. Expertise is sometimes equated with experience and the wisdom that comes with age, but that is not necessarily true. While it does require a certain amount of years of dedication and exercise, it is not tied to age because it is also about being proficient in the latest discoveries in one’s field.
Politics is also not just about reactionary action to currently developing situations. It is supposed to be about creating a visionary path for future development. These plans should also be long-term, some 10, 20, maybe even 50 years ahead of their time. We should reflect on the capacity of elderly politicians to care about the future. I am not arguing that we should suddenly replace every current representative with a fresh college graduate. But the statistics are staggering with a global mean of only 10% of government representatives being 35 and under and over 60% being 45 and above. This is far from the equal representation that the European and American democracies promise.
Going back to Kissinger, it is simply curious that the opinions of a highly controversial ex-politician are more sought after and still considered more credible than the ones of the youth who are at the forefront of currently developing social movements. So much so that even on his deathbed he was invited to analyze political situations and, in no official capacity, advise current governmental officials. Perhaps it is time to reflect on the age limit debate from a different perspective, one that defines what modern politics should stand for and not what it once was.
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