Where ageists dare | Sunday Observer

Where ageists dare

11 June, 2023

Major issues such as racial polarisations and language policies and so on bedevil societies. But then there are other issues such as the age of the chief executive of State. We have had our share of Presidents from unlikely backgrounds, along with some relatively aged Presidents such as the late J.R. Jayewardene.

The issues of age, physical fitness and so on of leaders are generally not front and centre. Any concerns about these issues it can be said, are matters dependent on political culture. But even so, matters of political culture are sometimes more important that the big-ticket issues that involve, say, race, or even the economy, and much more.

Despite relatively little coverage in terms of serious attention from academics and so on, issues of political culture so called may decide the fate of a nation at elections for instance.

Such an issue is being brought into focus in at least sections of the media in the U.S. for instance. That issue is the age of the current U.S. President who has declared he is running for office again, seeking a second term. It’s not so much the number of birthdays he has counted per se that has brought the matter of the President’s chronological age smack into the focus in certain quarters in media.

It’s the fact that the President seems at times to be showing his age, with certain momentary memory lapses, and physical stumbles.

Of course there are two views in the US media that’s divided on the issue. Most of the conventional media seems to think it’s fine that the President has had a few stumbles.

But certain right-wing conventional media and of course social media though also not in its entirety, has questioned the President’s recent physical issues including falling on stage after delivering speeches, or handing out awards.


What’s happening in the U.S. can be called the last resort debate about age. It’s only after President Biden has had a few physically challenging circumstances to deal with that the issue of age came up in at least a reasonably significant way in the public discourse, whether it was media triggered or not.

Things have been quite different in Sri Lanka. There were shrill calls particularly during certain specific phases, for ‘youth-leadership’ and these calls were definitely ageist. In certain sections of social media the call was for youth leadership to replace the national leadership. Youth frustration in the way things turned out in this country particularly during the economic meltdown can be understood.

But does society have an appetite for youth leaders only, and an added appetite to condemn all other leaders as somehow aged and spent? The facts don’t seem to bear that out in the slightest.

There aren’t any leaders of any significance in the youth age bracket at all, and the point is that if the people wanted them badly enough they would have had them. If people point to the ages of say the President of this country and the Prime Minister, what has to be said is that none of the other significant leaders are far behind.


Sajith Premadasa, the SJB leader is 56, and the NPP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake is 54. Of course 56 it can be said in today’s context is not much of an age at all, but the fact is that until recently that was past the retirement age for Government servants. Also, it’s a mere 18 behind the age of the President for instance, which at least puts everyone in the same age bracket more or less because none of the key party leaders are in their30s to be sure.

The vast mass of the population it seems prefers experience over callow youth, even though the youngsters after a fashion seem to clamour for one of their own.

There is no such apparent ageism even among the young in the US and it’s noted that Joe Biden’s age issue has come up in earnest only because he is having all these physically challenging stumbles right in front of the cameras.

Turkey’s Erdogan whom the people elected for the third time — he has ruled for over two decades already — is just short of 70.

When JR Jayewardene was in power very few people brought up his age because he was clearly several steps ahead of the game in terms of political savvy, than many of the youngsters in Parliament.

Age should disappear altogether as a factor as the years go by due to the medical advances that make life expectancy longer.

Besides all that there is no evidence to show that youth leadership so called anywhere in the world delivered spectacular results. One of the youngest leaders of Europe Sanna Marin at 37 was defeated this year because even though she presided over her country’s entry into NATO and had much foreign policy success giving her great visibility as a globally recognised leader, she was ultimately defeated because the Finns were more worried about issues that were of greater immediate concern to them such as cost of living and perceived lack of attention to vital issues such as education.


There has been more concern globally about gender-representation and gender quotas and that’s because gender based discrimination has been more marked than ageism or the reverse of it.

At the present time in this country it’s not known where potential leaders may emerge from. Two former, recent presidents were not the frontline candidates of their parties before they were picked as common candidates.

Does age become a issue when people age in office? This is a rare phenomenon and though it seems to be a concern at the moment the U.S. in neighbouring India for instance the Prime Minister seems to become more relevant it seems the older he gets.

All of this doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a young demographic that was in a hurry in this country. Perhaps the internet memes about age which are for the most part ageist, stem from youth who were so politically sensitised traditionally that they got involved in essentially two youth movements.

These movements that morphed into armed campaigns caused tragic convulsions in society — i.e. the two JVP rebellions and the LTTE separatist movement under Prabhakaran’s leadership.

Velupillai Prabhakaran however was no longer a spring chicken at the time of his death at a fairly ripe 54, but Rohana Wijeweera was still relatively young at 46 at the time of his demise.

But it’s seen that the problem with youth movements is that they are not exactly led by youth either and if they were, well, the youth leaders also age with time as was the case with Prabhakaran.


Perhaps the real reason there is some element of ageism among the youth demographic — or at least some of them — is that they feel betrayed by the likes of Prabhakaran and Wijeweera who purported to show a shining path but only led young people to their destruction. But there is nowhere in the world where there is a youth cohort that leads ‘as of right’, not even in Cuba. You could even say especially not in Cuba where the then new leader Raul Castro for instance officially took over as President at the ripe old age of 77.

Those who idolise revolutionary zeal would know that if that is Cuba there is no place on earth where youth is valued over experience. That doesn’t mean that leaders should be geriatric and that’s why from time to time there are questions about old leaders who are in power such as Joe Biden.

But even his opponent in the Republican field ex-President Trump, is no spring chicken and is just a few years behind him at 76.

The correct quality of leadership depends on many things but it certainly doesn’t depend on age, and this is why despite the memes we find that there is no political party in this country which is led by anyone under 50. This includes parties which clamour the loudest for system change.