Question of age and leadership tend to evoke strong reactions

Tuesday April 23 2019

Samuel Baligidde

Samuel Baligidde 

By Samuel Baligidde

With the 2020 (USA) and 2021 (Uganda) elections in sight, the question whether people in their ‘70s and above can be effective political leaders, evokes strong reactions.

According to Robert Kaiser, former managing editor of The Washington Post and author or co-author of several books, including Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t, the prototype presidential “geezer” was Ronald Reagan, the only American politician (until Trump came along) ever to celebrate his 71st birthday in the White House.

Mr Kaiser’s contemporaries, half a dozen of them gerontologists, opined that when undertaking the hardest job in any country, 50 is a better age than 76 for the presidential job. Experts, none of them as old as the renowned journalist, supported the suggestion that people in their late 70s can be effective presidents. Some studies have shown that on every scale of intellectual capacity, septguarians have less to offer than younger generations. Parallel studies on old people reportedly concluded that between 16 per cent and 23 per cent of American citizens over 65 experience some form of cognitive impairment.

In studies carried out by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that older people performed worse than others on tasks involving working on memory; the ability to remember information while at the same time manipulating it, and that they became impaired when working on tasks that present with increasing complexity.

Older adults, they said, experience difficulties with tasks that require dividing or switching attention. Tests on reasoning, memory and cognitive speed, the average scores for adults in their early 70s were found to approximate the 20th percentile of the study population. Whereas the average adult performance with people in their early 20s approached the 75th percentile, a Mayo Clinic study of 161 cognitively normal adults between 62 and 100 years of age showed significant declines in learning ability; embarking on a PhD, for example, is an intellectually demanding enterprise.

Yet, older doctoral students over 65 have pursued and obtained PhDs, haven’t they?
Anyhow, presidents do not need to engage in intellectual gymnastics or to master concept formation and intellectual abstraction involving deconstruction of complex phenomena, do they? Some scholars argue that the older the better.

Older leaders (Nikita Khrushchev) tend to be more balanced, think and make rational decisions more concretely, especially during times of national catastrophe (1961 Cuban Missile Crisis) than younger adults (John Fitzgerald Kennedy). It is obvious that impaired executive functioning (Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Robert Mugabe) is not the sort of torture either the Americans or Ugandans would want their presidents to suffer.

In some countries, political discrimination against people because of the number of birthdays they have celebrated is forbidden by law; proscribed by tradition and political correctness.
Unwillingness to discuss age-related decline bothers gerontologists because the trajectory of human metamorphosis shows that nobody stays at the apex of their capacity forever. Medical science confirms that people become less energetic as they age.

Harry Moody, a 74-year-old gerontologist, director of the lobby for older Americans and author of Aging: Concepts and Controversies’ laments the silence on how age affects politics and politicians. “You find lots of discussions about gender, ethnicity, class, race, trying to explain what’s going on with white nationalism, but you never find any discussion of age”, he complains.

I concur with University of Texas’ 67 year-old Psychologist and founder of the Centre for Vital Longevity Denise Park’s professional view that age per se should not disqualify a presidential candidate. After all, aren’t older brains packed with knowledge and experiences that constitute wisdom and help presidents perform well in Office?

She additionally maintains that age attracts certain costs, such as challenged capacity for quick processing of new information and remembering details. If talking about someone’s age is a taboo and those who talk are guilty of ‘ageism’, then that closes sine die this particular opinion.

Mr Baligidde teaches at Uganda Martyrs