Beware the cult of youth

By Danielle van Dalen December 03, 2019

To get a vision of what society values, take a look at a magazine stand. Looking across the cover images and headlines it’s pretty clear that we value youth and novelty over age and wisdom. I think the recent announcement of seventeen-year-old William Wood as the new National Party candidate for Palmerston North continues this narrative, and the response shows how difficult it is to critique.

It’s pretty clear that we value youth and novelty over age and wisdom

While William Wood is an example here, my frustration isn’t with him, but rather with the “Ok Boomer” narrative that older people are by definition stale, stuck in their ways, and don’t care about younger generations, and that young leaders are fresh, exciting, and somehow preternaturally disposed to have the right ideas and answers.

Youth hasn’t always been prized as highly as it is in New Zealand today. In many cultures age the correlation between age and wisdom is recognised. The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero, for example, explains: “For there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings that.” Many Asian, Pacific, Māori, and other indigenous cultures continue to highlight the honour of age, with young people expected to respect and care for their parents and elders in their old age. Science has even found connections between wisdom and age. A 2014 study found “older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones, so retrieving it naturally takes longer. And the quality of the information in the older brain is more nuanced. […]these can form the basis for wise behaviour and decisions.” These examples are important, because hopefully, as we age, we learn that the world is a much more complicated place than we once thought, and that our part in it is much smaller than we may have once imagined.

Science has found connections between wisdom and age.

In contrast, our teens and early twenties are a season to try new things, take risks, make mistakes, experience failure, to be challenged with different perspectives, and experience that the world isn’t black and white. But we need to learn this in spaces that allow the freedom to fail. Parliament is not that space.

MPs are in an important position of leadership with high stakes. There’s no freedom to make mistakes and chalk it up to a learning experience. Mistakes in Parliament impact the lives of New Zealanders and the future of this country, and examples over the last few electoral cycles have shown that when you screw up in Parliament, it’s national news. While age can’t guarantee a lack of mistakes, we need leaders and MPs who have grappled with big questions, who know what it is to fail, and who aren’t getting their first experiences of work and life in such a pressured, exposed environment.

We need to learn this in spaces that allow the freedom to fail. Parliament is not that space.

This doesn’t mean twenty-year-olds could never make good politicians, it just means we shouldn’t make the mistake of elevating an exciting young leader because of their natural talent and ideas, rather than their proven character and track record.

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