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A gerontocracy is a form of oligarchical rule in which an entity is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than most of the adult population. The ancient Greeks were among the first to believe in this idea of gerontocracies; as famously stated by Plato "it is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit". However, these beliefs are not unique to ancient Greece, as many cultures still subscribe to this way of thinking. Often these political structures are such that political power within the ruling class accumulates with age, making the oldest the holders of the most power. Those holding the most power may not be in formal leadership positions, but often dominate those who are. In a simplified definition, a gerontocracy is a society where leadership is reserved for elders. The best example of this can be seen in the ancient Greek city state of Sparta, which was ruled by a Gerousia. A Gerousia was a council made up of members who were at least 60 years old and served for life.
In various political systems
In the time of the Eight Immortals of Communist Party of China, it was quipped, "the 80-year-olds are calling meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire". For instance, Party chairman Mao Zedong was 82 when he died, while Deng Xiaoping retained a powerful influence until he was nearly 90.
In the USSR
In the Soviet Union, gerontocracy became increasingly entrenched starting in the 1970s, at least until March 1985, when a more dynamic and younger, ambitious leadership headed by Mikhail Gorbachev took power. Leonid Brezhnev, its foremost representative, died in 1982 aged 75, but had suffered a heart attack in 1975, after which generalized arteriosclerosis set in, so that he was progressively infirm and had trouble speaking. During his last two years he was essentially a figurehead.
In 1980, the average Politburo member was 70 years old (as opposed to 55 in 1952 and 61 in 1964), and by 1982, Brezhnev's Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, his Minister of Defense Dmitriy Ustinov and his Premier Nikolai Tikhonov were all in their mid-to-late seventies. Yuri Andropov, Brezhnev's 68-year-old successor, was seriously ill with kidney disease when he took over, and after his death fifteen months later, he was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, then 72, who lasted thirteen months before his death and replacement with Gorbachev. Chernenko became the third Soviet leader to die in less than three years, and, upon being informed in the middle of the night of his death, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was seven months older than Chernenko and just over three years older than his predecessor Andropov, is reported to have remarked "How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?"
Elsewhere in communist states
Other Communist countries with leaders in their 70s or 80s have included Albania (First Secretary Enver Hoxha was 76 at death), Bulgaria (General Secretary Todor Zhivkov was 78 at his resignation), Czechoslovakia (President Gustáv Husák was 76 at his resignation), China (Chairman Mao Zedong was 82 at death), East Germany (General Secretary and head of state Erich Honecker was 77 when forced out), Hungary (General Secretary János Kádár was 75 when forced out), Laos (President Nouhak Phoumsavanh was 83 at retirement), North Korea (Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung was 82 at death), Romania (General Secretary and Conducător Nicolae Ceauşescu was 71 when he was killed), Vietnam (President Trường Chinh was 80 at retirement), Yugoslavia (President and Marshall Josip Broz Tito was 87 at death). On the sub-national level, Georgia's Party head Vasil Mzhavanadze was 70 when forced out, and his Lithuanian counterpart Antanas Sniečkus was 71 at death. Nowadays, Cuba has been characterized as a gerontocracy: "Although the population is now mainly black or mulatto and young, its rulers form a mainly white gerontocracy."
Gerontocracy is common in theocratic states and religious organizations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which leadership is concentrated in the hands of religious elders. Despite the age of the senior religious leaders, however, parliamentary candidates in Iran must be under 75. Nominally a theocratic monarchy, Saudi Arabia, likened to various late communist states, has been ruled by gerontocrats. Aged king Saud and his aged relatives held rule along with many elder clerics. They were in their eighties (born c. 1930). Recently, however, power has become concentrated by Mohammad bin Salman–31 years old when, by the king, he was appointed Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia (assuming 'office' June 21, 2017)–who has sidelined powerful, older members of the Saudi family.
In Kenya, Samburu society is said to be a gerontocracy. The power of elders is linked to the belief in their curse, underpinning their monopoly over arranging marriages and taking on further wives. This is at the expense of unmarried younger men, whose development up to the age of thirty is in a state of social suspension, prolonging their adolescent status. The paradox of Samburu gerontocracy is that popular attention focuses on the glamour and deviant activities of these footloose bachelors, which extend to a form of gang warfare, widespread suspicions of adultery with the wives of older men, and theft of their stock.
African societies such as this are known for their gerontocratic hierarchies. The Yoruba people, for example, are led by titled elders known as Obas and Oloyes. Although not an explicit requirement, most of them are decidedly elderly due to a variety of factors.
- They wouldn't make use of running or jumping or spears from afar or swords up close, but rather wisdom, reasoning, and thought, which, if they weren't in old men, our ancestors wouldn't have called the highest council the senate.
Some U.S. senators are very old, and positions of power within the legislatures - such as chairmanships of various committees - are usually bestowed upon the more experienced, that is, older, members of the legislature. Strom Thurmond, a U.S. senator from South Carolina, left office at age 100 after almost half a century in the body, while Robert Byrd of West Virginia was born in 1917 and served in the Senate from 1959 to his death in 2010. Senators under the age of 40 are virtually unknown.
In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the government headed by M. Karunanidhi the state's chief minister who is 87 years old, is another real-world example of gerontocracy. In another Indian state, West Bengal, Shri Jyoti Basu, was 86 years old when he stepped down from the office of chief minister of the state. But he continued to remain a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) until a few months before his death in January 2010 and was consulted on all matters related to governance by the Chief Minister and his Cabinet as well as his other party colleagues.
Present-day Italy is often considered a gerontocracy, even in the internal Italian debate. The Monti government had the highest average age in the western world (64 years), with its youngest members being 57. Former Italian prime minister Mario Monti was 70 when he left office, his immediate predecessor Silvio Berlusconi was 75 at the time of resignation (2011), the previous head of the government Romano Prodi was 70 when he stepped down (2008). The Italian president Sergio Mattarella is 75, while his predecessors Giorgio Napolitano and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi were 89 and 86 respectively. In 2013, the youngest among the candidates for prime minister (Pier Luigi Bersani) was 62, the others being 70 and 78. The current average age of Italian university professors is 63, of bank directors and CEOs 67, of members of parliament 56, of labor union representatives 59.
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Outside the political sphere, gerontocracy may be observed in other institutional hierarchies of various kinds. Generally the mark of a gerontocracy is the presence of a substantial number of septuagenarian or octogenarian leaders—those younger than this are too young for the label to be appropriate, while those older than this have generally been too few to dominate the leadership in numbers. The rare centenarian who has retained a position of power is generally by far the oldest in the hierarchy.
Gerontocracy generally occurs as a phase in the development of an entity, rather than being part of it throughout its existence. Opposition to gerontocracy may cause weakening or elimination of this characteristic by instituting things like term limits or mandatory retirement ages.
Judges of the United States courts, for example, serve for life, but a system of incentives to retire at full pay after a given age and disqualification from leadership has been instituted. The International Olympic Committee instituted a mandatory retirement age in 1965, and Pope Paul VI removed the right of cardinals to vote for a new pope once they reached the age of 80, which was to limit the number of cardinals that would vote for the new Pope, due to the proliferation of cardinals that was occurring at the time and is continuing to occur.
On the other hand, gerontocracy may emerge in an institution not initially known for it, for instance the Latter Day Saint movement founded by Joseph Smith, a 24-year-old man, who in 1835 constituted the first Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with members ranging in age from 23 to 35: After the death of Smith, it was established in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) that succession to the church presidency derived from longest tenure in an office held for life, the hierarchy aged markedly, and with the growth of the church the age at which officials were named to the highest bodies continued to rise. Eight church presidents have held office past the age of 90 (two not succeeding to that office until age 93).
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- Post, p. 97.
- Maureen Dowd, "Where's the Rest of Him?" New York Times, 18 November 1990.
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- Paul Spencer, The Samburu: a Study of Gerontocracy in a Nomadic Tribe, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1965 ISBN 978-0-415-31725-2
- Nec enim excursione nec saltu nec eminus hastis aut comminus gladiis uteretur, sed consilio, ratione, sententia; quae nisi essent in senibus, non summum consilium maiores nostri appellassent senatum. De Senectute, I.16
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