BY KIM BELLARD
OK, how many of you had on your women-in-power bingo cards that, in 2022, Sheryl Sandberg would be out at Facebook but Queen Elizabeth II would still be Queen? It’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, marking seventy years on the throne. She’s getting a lot of love for that tenure, but it makes me think, geez, some people just don’t know when to step away.
Perhaps what sparked my cynicism about the Queen was an op-ed by Yuval Levin, Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old? Dr. Levin is, of course, referring to the U.S., and he’s spot-on about our governance problem. But I think the problem goes further: we have too many old people running our companies and major institutions as well.
Whether it is, say, healthcare, education, or the military, we’re so busy protecting the past that we’re not really getting ready for the future.
To Dr. Levine’s point, the President, Speaker Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and our most recent former President are all members of the Silent Generation, as are the House Majority Leader and Majority Whip. Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer at least is a Baby Boomer. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of House Members is 58.4 years, of Senators is 64.3; both numbers are trending up.
As Dr. Levin points out, “Our politics has been largely in the hands of people born in the 1940s or early ’50s for a generation.”
But the private sector, you might object knowingly! OK, about that: Statista tracked average age at hire of CEOs from 2005 to 2018, and the average age of CEOs rose from 45.9 to 54.1 during that period (making them solidly Baby Boomers). Fortune confirms that the average age of Fortune 500 CEOs is 57; again, Baby Boomer territory.
Sure, there’s a Jon Ossoff (35) in the Senate and a Mark Zuckerberg (38) running a Fortune 500 company, but let’s not pretend that power is not still concentrated in the hands of Baby Boomers and the remarkably old, as Dr. Levin charges.
The Senate and corporate boardrooms are alike in another unfortunate way: they’re still the provenance of white men. Twenty-four Senators are women (compared to about 29% of House members), but only 3 African-Americans are in the Senate. Less than 10% of Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO, but there are only 6 African-American Fortune 500 company CEOs. Not 6%, mind you – just actually only 6 people.
And, of course, members of Congress are much richer than most Americans; according to OpenSecrets, “The median net worth of members of Congress who filed disclosures last year is just over $1 million.” Many count their wealth in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions. In the private sector, of course, CEOs are paid 351 times the average worker, and CEO pay has increased 1322% since 1978, both according to the Economic Policy Institute.
If you’re not a Baby Boomer or some other “remarkably old” person, and certainly if you’re not a white male, and you think that either our political leaders or our corporate leaders understand, much less are acting in, your interests, well, think again.
Dr. Levin argues: “It’s often said that Americans now lack a unifying narrative. But maybe we actually have such a narrative, only it’s organized around the life arc of the older baby boomers, and it just isn’t serving us well anymore.”
Baby Boomers and our elders are focused on preserving their wealth (including Social Security, pensions, 401k/IRA) and health insurance (especially Medicare). Social justice, climate change, voting rights, gun control – these are the things many of us say we’re for, but they’re not necessarily the things we’re voting for, not if that’s going to risk what we have.
When leaders, be they political or corporate, have been in power for 10 or 20 years (much less 70!), if they don’t have clear, already capable successors at the ready, that’s a failure of leadership. That’s a culture of “me;” that’s a culture of “now.” Those leaders are not leading towards the future; they’re protecting the past. Dr. Levin nails it again: “And our politics is implicitly directed toward recapturing some part of the magic of the mid-20th-century America of boomer youth.”
To be leading towards the future, we have to be willing to not only build upon the past, but sometimes to tear down what the past has built. The Democrats revere the New Deal and the Great Society programs, but we need to recognize that both were deeply flawed and brought, at best, uneven results.
No one designing a social retirement program in 2022 would structure it like Social Security; no one designing a health insurance program for seniors now would come up with anything that looked like Medicare; no one would who actually cared about disadvantaged people would ever purposely design something like Medicaid.
Yet here we are. We’re stuck with these cultural institutions; talk about MedicareForAll or Baby Bonds or even capping prescription drug prices might as well be talking about things in the Metaverse.
I’m not ready for a Senate with Jon Ossoff, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Krysten Sinema (the four youngest Senators), not a House ruled by AOC and Madison Cawthorn (the two youngest Representatives). He may be really remarkably old, but I’d still trust Warren Buffet over Mark Zuckerberg. We should want younger and somewhat more reckless, but there are limits.
Dr. Levine proposes more “middle-aged leadership,” but he admits:
Yet they have not broken through as defining cultural figures and political forces. They have not made this moment their own, or found a way to loosen the grip of the postwar generation on the nation’s political imagination.
What people love about the British monarchy is that it stands for the history and traditions of England. The cost of that, though, is that it is also bound by them. The test of a true leader, be they a monarch, a President, a Senator, or a CEO, is that they know when it is time for new traditions and for forging a new path in history – and when it is time to step aside for new leaders to achieve those.
But, as Dr. Levine laments, “We plainly lack grounded, levelheaded, future-oriented leaders.” Where are they? And who needs to step aside for them?
Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.