Saturday July 20, 2024

Hand the baton to the young

By I Hussain
July 21, 2023

When discussing Pakistan, we often focus on the income gap and gender gap, but one critical issue remains unaddressed: the age gap. I’m not referring to the common practice of older men marrying much younger women, but rather the stark contrast in average age between our current cohort of septuagenarian political leaders and the country’s youthful population, where about 60 per cent are under the age of 30.

In countries like the United States or those in the West in general, politicians are generally considered past their prime after reaching the age of 65. These nations prioritize youthfulness, as demonstrated by leaders such as Sanna Marin of Finland, who assumed the prime minister’s office at the age of 34, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, who became prime minister at 37, and Justin Trudeau, who was elevated to Canada’s prime ministerial position at the relatively young age of 43.

Conversely, advanced age is seen as a handicap in politics there. Even within US President Biden’s own party, a majority of Democrats believe that he should not seek re-election due to concerns about his age.

A recent poll conducted by the Associated Press/NORC revealed that 52 per cent of self-identified Democratic respondents would prefer Biden to make way for a younger candidate.

But why should age be an issue? Firstly, we must consider the biological realities of aging. Physical decay accompanies advancing age, leading to various health problems and a gradual decline in mental sharpness.

As Ruth Peters of the Imperial College London Faculty of Medicine explains in a 2006 article published under the auspices of the US’ National Institutes of Health, the volume and weight of the brain decline at a rate of around five per cent per decade after the age of 40, with the rate possibly increasing further after the age of 70

This decline in brain function is precisely why scientists and mathematicians tend to produce their best work when they are relatively young and in the prime of life.

Although accolades and prizes in these fields may come later in life, the groundbreaking research and discoveries that they commemorate are typically accomplished years earlier, during the sprightly years of the award winners in their twenties and thirties.

Also, research in the business world suggests that executives reach their peak performance in their forties, after which they often coast on their reputation, particularly if they have reached the upper echelons of their organization.

But what about the argument that older individuals accumulate wisdom and experience? While this may hold true for some, advancing age does not automatically make a person wise.

Wisdom can indeed accompany age, but it ultimately depends on whether a person possesses a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’. Psychologist Carol Dweck coined these terms, with a growth mindset viewing intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort, while a fixed mindset sees these traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time.

When faced with novel situations, those with a fixed mindset are ill-suited to rise to the challenge because they believe their intelligence or skills are fixed, rendering any attempt to address the problem futile and potentially humiliating.

On the other hand, those with a growth mindset treat challenging situations as learning opportunities, maintaining a ‘can do’ attitude. They adapt, try new strategies, seek feedback, and understand that failure is not a personal flaw but an opportunity for growth.

A shining example of a political statement reflecting a growth mindset was made by US President John F Kennedy when he announced the moon mission in 1962. In a speech at Rice University, he declared, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” People with growth mindsets are unafraid of venturing down the road less traveled.

Additionally, we must consider the pitfalls of self-delusion and overconfidence, which can seriously impair decision-making.

In the film ‘Titanic’, the character Brock Lovett, a treasure hunter, blames the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, for the disaster, stating: “26 years of experience working against him. He figures anything big enough to sink the ship they’re gonna see in time to turn. The ship’s too big with too small a rudder. It doesn’t corner worth a damn. Everything he knows is wrong”.

Captain Smith was considered one of the most capable sea captains of his time. However, his experience bred overconfidence, which ultimately proved disastrous for the ship’s passengers and crew.

Official inquiries into the disaster revealed that six messages had been relayed to the Titanic’s radio operators from other passing ships, warning about drifting ice along the ship’s route earlier on the fateful day. These warnings were disregarded, and the ship continued at top speed, failing to slow down and allowing insufficient time to turn and avoid colliding with an iceberg.

Lovett’s assessment of Captain Smith’s experience rings true. The captain’s experience worked against him, fostering overconfidence and recklessness in disregarding warnings. Additionally, Smith failed to fully comprehend the technical and engineering capabilities of the Titanic, falsely believing it to be ‘unsinkable’.

As Pakistan prepares for its general election, the ‘old guard’ is once again positioning itself for power. Unfortunately, the people of Pakistan are left with the same cast of characters who have been involved in running the country for the past three decades or more, including the Musharraf era.

Can we realistically expect anything different this time from the very individuals responsible for Pakistan’s current status as a country plagued with economic problems? Can a leopard change its spots?

The arguments put forth in election campaigns will likely follow the pattern of political parties blaming each other for all the challenges facing the country while conveniently ignoring their own role in adding to the issues.

Poor policy decisions such as granting too much financial leeway to independent power generation projects, encouraging foreign investment in service sectors, using borrowed funds for current expenditures, boosting consumerism, keeping artificially low exchange rates, and taking short-term commercial loans for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will likely be glossed over.

Indeed, the litany of blunders by power hungry and self-seeking leaders is coming back to haunt us.

While the elite of Pakistan have their ‘lifeboats’ prepared for a quick getaway to cities like London, New York, or Dubai if the need arises, the majority of the country’s population – much like the poor passengers in steerage (third class) on the Titanic – have limited options and must take perilous routes to seek opportunities abroad, despite the inherent risks involved.

This situation will persist because staying behind is also an intolerable choice for a significant portion of Pakistanis. Simply cracking down on human traffickers is a stop-gap measure at best and is unlikely to succeed, much like the ill-fated ‘war on drugs’. Merely addressing the symptoms will not solve the underlying problem

It is high time Pakistan acknowledged the age gap in its political leadership and recognized the need for fresh perspectives and youthful energy. The country’s future depends on embracing a new generation of leaders who possess the resilience, adaptability, and growth mindset necessary to tackle the immense challenges ahead. Only then can we hope to navigate the turbulent waters and steer Pakistan toward a brighter, more prosperous future.

The writer is a group director at the Jang Group. He can be reached at: