Most research has found either a negligible or inconsistent relationship between age and leadership
Economics 101: How do young leaders differ from the old guard?
Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, 31, has become the world’s youngest national leader.
He joins a contemporary phalanx of unusually youthful global policymakers that includes Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman (32), France’s Emmanuel Macron (39) and Canada’s Justin Trudeau (45), not to mention business leaders such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg (33), Tesla's Elon Musk (46) and Google's Larry Page (44). What does research suggest about the relationship between age and leadership?
Before exploring what the academic literature has found, it is worth noting that youth segments of society have been demanding for some time a greater role for newer generations in government, especially at the top of the political pyramid. If you search the internet for articles on baby boomers - the generation that was born in the 20 years that followed the conclusion of the Second World War - you will find many “rants” scribed by people currently in their 20s and 30s, complaining that baby boomers are stubbornly clinging on to important jobs and selecting policies that reinforce boomers’ worldview, and marginalise youth’s potential contribution.
A popular view is that young leaders are necessary for radical change because they bring vigour and disruption. Moreover, incumbents’ persistent inability to tackle major global problems such as inequality, terrorism, and discrimination, confirms the need for revolutionary approaches, which the young are best placed to deliver.
Viewed through this prism, the ascent of the aforementioned youthful leaders has been welcomed by newer generations seeing it as an opportunity to jettison some of the ossified policy maxims favored by the old guard.
Does research on leadership justify the excitement that many young people feel about the likes of Mr Macron and Mr Trudeau being at the helm? In a 2013 paper published in the journal The Leadership Quarterly, the University of Groningen economists Frank Walter and Susanne Scheibe summarise the scholarship linking age to leadership.
For the most part, across multiple dimensions of behaviour and outcomes, researchers have found either a negligible or inconsistent relationship between age and leadership. However, supporters of the Austrian starlet Mr Kurz will be pleased to know that younger leaders tend to outperform their older counterparts when it comes to task execution. What accounts for this?
One possible reason is the finding that younger leaders tend to be superior in the domain of change-oriented behaviour - the expression for activities that facilitate change in organisations. Consonant with the view among laypeople that younger leaders are necessary for fundamental transformations, scholars have found that younger leaders tend to take greater risks and place a higher emphasis on innovation, sometimes reflected in a greater allocation of resources to research and development. Older managers also exhibit a greater propensity to engage in “passive leadership”, which is the antithesis of micromanagement; accordingly, younger managers’ relative preference for hands-on leadership may be a contributing factor to their being more effective organisational transformers. A complementary finding is that older leaders are more likely to both consult with - and adopt the advice of - their advisers, while younger leaders tend to be more single-minded.
It is worth reiterating, however, that these broad, empirical relationships should not be confused with hard-and-fast leadership criteria. In particular, a leader’s track record is far more informative about their future likelihood of success, and their style, than their age. This confirms that using age as a primary criterion for choosing between competing prospective leadership candidates would be an act of statistical folly.
Why, then, do the young continue to demand younger leaders, with an emphasis on their youth? Perhaps they are unaware of the conclusions of the scholarly literature; alternatively, in some contexts, it could reflect the shrewd uncovering of a conflict of interest.
Global warming is a good illustration: a 2014 survey by Pew found that 31 per cent of people aged 65 and over regarded climate change as being the result of human activity, compared to 60 per cent of people aged 18 to 29. These views are used to justify differing policy stances: the old tend to oppose stringent environmental regulations, while the young are often zealously in favour of policies that tackle climate change.
An innocent reading would ascribe the divergence of views to differences in the reading of the scientific evidence. In contrast, a cynic might focus on the fact that “selfish” baby boomers realise that they are unlikely to live long enough to suffer the consequences of human mismanagement of the environment, reinforcing their desire to pollute and deplete today at the expense of future generations.
A similar conflict of interest between young and old arises in pensions policy, and in decisions that relate to the issuance of public debt that will be due 30 years down the line. Tomorrow’s adults may - paraphrasing Sir Isaac Newton in 1675 - be intellectually standing on the shoulders of giants but, like the mythical Greek figure Atlas, their own shoulders may be bearing the financial weight of their ancestors. In essence, therefore, youth attraction to young leaders could be due to their higher credibility in representing the interests of younger generations, rather than their being more likely to possess certain leadership attributes.
Omar Al-Ubaydli is the program director for International and Geo-Political studies at Derasat, Bahrain. We welcome economics questions from our readers via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet (@omareconomics).