I have come to the conclusion that, as a rule, executive and administrative leaders should retire by age 55 or 60. This conclusion is more than a Dylanesque paean to the youth revolution:
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
The times are definitely changing, although to my mind not “rapidly” enough, nor in the best direction. My own conclusion is based on what generations are, how they relate, and what the character of our lives amounts to across our lifespans. Those who are older than 55 should certainly still work as they are able (that includes me!). But we should leave administrative and executive functions aside — that is what aging leads us away from. Instead, the older among us should engage in the work of discernment — of prayer, study, listening, writing, and counsel. That’s what age prepares us for, and leads us towards.
Mine is a traditional claim. It falls into the long wisdom of most cultures, a wisdom that understands our lives are properly shaped by generational realities, both from within our internal frames and from without, as we relate externally to people around us. Jacques’ monologue, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, famously reflects this wisdom: “All the world’s a stage/… And one man in his time plays many parts,/His acts being seven ages.”
But we are living through some strange changes in the shape of human life and our interactions. One of them has to do with how generations relate to one another, the old and the young. Nowadays, this relationship is mostly discussed in terms of political economics. Because there has now been such a significant shift towards older people in our demographics — there are more and more older people in modern populations proportionate to younger people — the question of how we pay for it all, for health care and other social welfare programs, looms large. Likewise, who is doing the work to pay for it all?
But money isn’t the only, nor perhaps the most important issue of an aging population.
Francis Bacon, in his incomparable Essays, has a discussion of “Counsel” that bears reflection. Bacon’s piece is wonderfully pointed, but his attitudes are traditional, and hence reflect the bulk of human history’s experience. Basically, his claim is that younger folk are actors and older folk are counselors: that constitutes their respective generational gifts and callings. When this order is subverted, things fall apart. Bacon speaks of the disaster represented by “young counsel” in wrecking Israel after Solomon, for instance. But older people, though usually wiser, are also poor leaders when it comes to decision-making and execution. The contrasts that Bacon draws between the generations on the matter of execution and leadership is well-known: the young are strong, the old are weak; the young are more creative and focused, the old tend towards mediocrity and compromise.
Bacon was speaking to princes and monarchs, whose age was not in question one way or the other. The true ruler needs to employ the generations of the commonwealth reasonably, putting the young in charge of doing things, putting the old in positions of counsel, and putting both together in the proper order of mutual engagement. Overall the implications of Bacon’s traditional vision are clear for other forms of governance: those in charge should not be too old; but those in charge must rely on the advice of the old.
Turning to the present, it is obvious that we are becoming societies that cater to the young monetarily, but that are more and more weighted to the aged in terms of decision-making. This is probably leading us into a crisis of discernment.
We are used to engaging the issues of leadership in terms of gender. It is true that, while in developed countries, older men and women are proportionately the same in number, in developing areas, the ratio is almost 2 to 1 in in favor of older women over men. And this does raise interesting questions about the counsel of the aged, who is involved and how it happens. (Bacon, after all, was talking only about men.)
But the gender issue may not be the most fundamental challenge to face in contemporary leadership. Rather, what is most striking in contemporary society is the way that youth has been severed from the counsel of the wise and the aged almost altogether. The contemporary segregation of generations has made the connections and transitions through one’s lifespan increasingly impossible to navigate, and hence ruined altogether the proper relationship between action and wisdom. It is worth reminding ourselves of what is happening, because it is bearing down on our common life, including on our churches, in a threatening fashion.
Due to health and fertility transitions, the world has seen a revolution in generational order in the past 50 years. Wikipedia summarizes the issues in this way:
Among the countries currently classified by the United Nations as more developed (with a total population of 1.2 billion in 2005), the overall median age rose from 28 in 1950 to 40 in 2010, and is forecast to rise to 44 by 2050. The corresponding figures for the world as a whole are 24 in 1950, 29 in 2010, and 36 in 2050. For the less developed regions, the median age will go from 26 years in 2010 to 35 years in 2050.
Of the roughly 150,000 people who die each day across the globe, about two thirds — 100,000 per day — die of age-related causes. In industrialized nations, the proportion is much higher, reaching 90%.
These figures, and many other related ones, come from one of the most stunning documents to have been published in the last few years, the UN’s 2013 “World Population Ageing Report: 1950-2050.” Among the most interesting graphs are the “population pyramids” according to age that can be compared from, say, 1970 and projected into 2050. Age groups, in their relative size, are stacked one on top of the other like horizontal bars, with the youngest on the bottom, and the oldest at the top. Less developed countries in 1970 look like most of human history in this light: a real “pyramid”, where the youngest are the largest group, and increasing age shortens the stacked bars moving up, forming truly a “pyramid” shape. But all this changes for less developed and more developed countries. By 2050, while there will still be far more people under age 60 than above it, those 60 to 65 will be among the largest single generational cohorts, vying with the 39-44 groups; and the “base” of the structure will actually be significantly smaller than the middle areas (due to drastic fertility drops), leaving the entire structure no longer a pyramid at all, than a growing pear-shaped tower, closer to the profile of a middle-aged man or woman who doesn’t exercise.
The issue isn’t that younger generations are disappearing; those under 60 will still represent over 2/3 of the population of most countries by 2050. But the change will be dramatic nonetheless. In most of human history, those under 60 years of age represented over 90% of the population. It is true that older people today still need to work, and often cannot, while younger persons get jobs more frequently than do older people. Hence, older generations suffer higher rates of poverty than younger people. Having said that, those with the highest unemployment rates almost everywhere are in the youngest segment of the working population, namely, young adults in their 20s: around 60% in Greece, Spain, and Bosnia; 20% in the UK, and almost 16% in the U.S.
Yet older people continue to run things. Look at the two main Democratic Presidential candidates in the US: Clinton is 68 and Sanders is 74. For all the struggles to get younger people into positions of leadership and decision-making, some institutions remain inherently age-weighted, and will stay that way. The average age of American CEOs in 2014, some consulting databases claim (cf. Alvarez and Marsal), is 56. (The youngest CEOs as a group – 52 and 54 respectively – are, not surprisingly, in telecommunications and information technology.)
This is true especially in the church. The average age of US Catholic bishops is 65, and of course, many of these won’t retire until they are 75. The bishops mirror the demographics (in race and background) of their generation — those 60 and older — rather than the population they serve. The reported average age of diocesan bishops in the Church of England was around 61 in 2012. In the Episcopal Church, the median age of ordination now is about 50, whereas in the ’60s it was closer to 30. This means, obviously, that clergy and bishops on the whole tend to be significantly older today than in the past (and women clergy tend to be older yet). In this, the leadership reflects the demographics of the larger church, whose membership is increasingly old. At the same time, an increasing divide, almost a chasm, between old and young in matters religious has emerged.
Secular and religious institutions are the same in all this: we are being led by old people, men and women both. And the result is not necessarily a lack of wisdom, but a dreadful lack of decision and courage. Wisdom and action must work together, but all of human experience tells us that they are rarely to be found in the same person, for the simple reason that they are generational gifts, not individual talents. To some extent, this challenge is a recurring one. But now the problem has been systemically injected into national and even global orders.
When I was a young priest in Burundi in the early 1980s, I preached regularly in the parish church. I struggled enormously with the local language, and my sermons were labored attempts at simply getting the right words and pronunciation in order. One Sunday, the text was 1 Samuel 3, the “call of Samuel,” the young temple servant of the aged priest, Eli. I knew I was treading onto tricky ground, something that went far beyond linguistic challenge. At this point in Burundi’s history, we were 10 years out from a horrific civil war. Only the old were left as leaders, even as, after the war, the ranks of the young had swelled more disproportionately than usual in underdeveloped countries. It is like this after most wars with high death-tolls: more babies are born, who must find a way in broken societies now led by the old people who laid the groundwork for the initial conflicts. In the Anglican Church in Burundi, all the pastors were over 60; in the school I worked at young ordinands were being trained for the first time in a decade.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to try hard to say anything in the sermon. The Scriptures spoke for themselves: the old (Eli) lead the young (the boy Samuel) to the voice of God, and the young hear it and act. Both are needed. But only in a certain order. Although Burundi in 1982 was different from Shiloh of the Israelites 3000 years before, the challenge of generational relations had not altered: having shown the way, the old must let go of the reins, for though they are wise, they are corrupt. That is what age does to us, by definition. As for the young? They must listen, and act. We can’t afford to have old people running things; we can’t afford to have young people construct their lives — and worlds — apart from the counsel of the aged.
Even the Apostle John reflects some of this, in his own generational lens for discussing the Gospel: the old — “fathers” — have come to “know” something more important than anything else; and the “young” have, from what they have learned from their elders, acted accordingly. That is the order.
I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one […] I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:13-14, RSV).
I am hardly announcing my retirement. But I am pretty sure of the role I am expected to play at this time in my life. All administrative leaders should retire by age 55 or 60. Those who are older than this should engage in the work of discernment — of prayer, study, listening, writing, and counsel. God help us each play our part on the stage.