How old is too old?

Wednesday, 10 July 2024 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When humans get older, they decay both physically and mentally. This unavoidable reality has necessitated the imposition of a retirement age for many professions/vocations in the world, except few, notably politics. The absence of a specified age to leave the political field has given rise to arguments about the time at which public representatives should disappear from the spotlight.

Currently, many leaders of the world’s most powerful countries are in their seventies or eighties. Governing a country requires a considerable amount of physical and mental stamina. Frailties associated with old age could significantly weaken the performance and decision-making of State leaders. The recent presidential debate between the US President Joe Biden and Donald Trump clearly exposed that old age has caught up with the former and there are widespread calls within the Democratic Party for Biden to withdraw from the race to the White House.  

During the debate, the octogenarian demonstrated confused rambling, abrupt loss of concentration halfway of a sentence, and loss of memory. This feeble behaviour has ignited a strong argument within America about his capacity to be Commander-in-chief. Prominent medical practitioners in the US have called on Biden to undergo detailed cognitive and neurological testing and share the results with the public in response to apprehensions about his cognitive capacity.

Nevertheless, the age is just a number. Although Biden might not be up to the task, there are many septuagenarian or octogenarian political leaders who execute their tasks diligently by defying the limitations of getting old. Mahathir Mohamad became Premier of Malaysia at 93 in 2018 for the seventh time and even though only one year away from being a centenarian, the nonagenarian still maintains a public life and he is sharp in terms of memory and attention. In the neighbouring India, Narendra Modi, who is 74, has high energy levels to work long hours due to a lifestyle based on vegetarianism, yoga, and avoidance of liquor and tobacco. 

Even beyond politics, there are exceptional individuals who perform their tasks admirably by overcoming the restrictions of ageing. Warren Buffet and Rupert Murdoch, two iconic business leaders who are in their early 90s, are actively involved in managing their business ventures. Amitabh Bachchan – the octogenarian king of Bollywood – continues his trade and fans worldwide flock to theatres to watch his movies.

Ironically, in Sri Lanka, a strong narrative is currently being driven by social media pundits that the responsibility of leading the State needs to be handed over to a group of young and middle-aged individuals while emphasising oldies need to be chased out. The proponents of this belief frequently espouse that septuagenarians are absent-minded to the extent that when people leave their homes, they do not even give the key to them. Recently, the NPP frontliner K.D. Lalkantha publicly remarked that people like him who are above 60 are no longer needed and the next parliament needs to be dominated by the youth. If sexagenarians are so feeble according to Lalkantha’s doctrine, why has his party nominated Anura Kumara Dissanayake for presidency, who will reach 60 four years from now?

Having a youthful or middle-aged political leader does not necessarily guarantee impressive governance as evident by the tenure of Liz Truss – whose policy blunders resulted in her becoming the shortest-serving Prime Minister of Britain in its history – after having attained the post in 2022 at the age of 47. 

The age must not become a barrier for political leaders who implement progressive policies and action plans to improve the livelihoods of citizenry, provided they are mentally and physically fit to execute the tasks associated with their roles. The indecent disparagement of senior citizens by few in the country needs to be condemned as the empirical evidence around the globe repudiates the naïve argument that elderly citizens have nothing to contribute towards the advancement of the society.