Is age just a political number?

You know you’re getting older when those expressions you heard from your grandparents start to ring true and “A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows the corners,” is just such a phrase. It wasn’t so long ago that the new brooms were sweeping over the political stage, but the old brooms are back!

Tony Blair was only 43 when he became Prime Minister in 1997, and when David Cameron stepped into power in 2010 (also aged 43), he became the youngest British Prime Minister since 1812. It’s hard to remember the innocent curiosity with which the country watched his first press conference as PM, bromantically bantering with his new deputy Nick Clegg (yet another youthful 43 year old). On that sunny day it appeared as if the days of the Old Guard had been swept away for good.

Oldies were out and the Young Turks were running the place. Their polished dynamism seemed to reflect what was going on in society at large. They were a new breed of actual world leaders who could run the country and still cut it with the kids, whether it was Tony Blair hanging out with Noel Gallagher at No 10 or Barrack Obama (president at 46) slow jamming it on Saturday Night Live. However, after a while all that polished spin eroded trust, the youthful exuberance felt more like arrogance and the electorate craved a return to substance over style.

In the UK, the balance of power now tips between Theresa May (60) and Jeremy Corbyn (68), while it looks highly likely that the Lib Dems are going to elect the 74 year old Vince Cable as their new leader.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump was elected aged 71 and (69 year old Hillary aside) let’s not forget that the other wildcard who captured the imagination of the youth in last year’s US election was Bernie Sanders who is 75.

Are we to believe that 60 is the new 40 as often reported by the tabloids? Scientists have pointed to the benefits of healthier living as moving the goal posts on middle age, and the sight of grandparents in branded hoodies hanging out on dating sites and splashing their cash on ‘youthful pursuits’ is just norm these days. In light of this, do people see age as just a number for this new breed of old political leaders or is it just that those frenetic strokes to modernise the world by the ‘new brooms’ fell short of expectations?

The truth is probably a bit of both. Much as in business, when times are tough, we seek out the experienced who have been there before, either as a safe pair of hands (Mrs May was supposed to fulfil this role) or as a counter balancing force, complete with bona fide substance, as in the case of Mr Corbyn and Mr Sanders. An ageing population is obviously more comfortable with older politicians but age seems to be just a number too for the newly energised youth who rallied around Mr Corbyn (although that could be simply because if you’re young, anyone over the age of 40 is lumped in the same bracket!).

Of course the present exceptions to the political oldie trend are Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau (39 and 45 respectively), who are currently waving the youthful flag to great political effect. However both have recently taken over from the Old Guard, much in the same way that Tony Blair did in 1997, and only time will tell if they will fulfil the promise of youthful hope that accompanied their elections…

Luan de Burgh

July 2017

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.