In this original reflection, Ian Case Punnett shares what inspired him to co-author his groundbreaking interfaith leadership book, How Millennials Can Lead Us Out of the Mess We’re In. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Predicated on the 18th-century perception of what counted as “middle-aged,” the Founding Fathers established 35 years old as a minimal qualification to be elected president of the United States. On the day of their inauguration, U.S. presidents average 55 years old. John F. Kennedy remains the youngest president at 43; when Donald J. Trump took the oath in 2017, he was the most senior new president at 70, a record Joe Biden smashed after turning 78.
In 2024, the POTUS race could come down to an 82-year-old Biden and a 74-year-old, twice impeached, criminally indicated Donald Trump. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is refusing to rule out a Democratic primary challenge at age 83; this ridiculous trend toward would-be presidents-as-old-as-Mount Rushmore shows no sign of abating (to be totally accurate, Bernie is 53 days older than Mount Rushmore).
The near-doubling of U.S. life expectancy rates since colonial times should demand a reconsideration of whether a Constitutional maximum age for POTUS is in order, but it will never happen. This hope is less about age-discrimination as it is about the disparity in generational management styles between the leaders and the led. Trump is a Baby Boomer while Bernie and Biden are part of what demographers refer to as “the Silent Generation,” but all three politicians grew up in the heyday of the top-down “Command and Control”-style of leadership models most often associated with the military. By contrast, as generational markers go, Millennials, who will account for more than 50% of all American employees in just a few years, are idealists who prefer group success to zero-sum competition. These dissonant approaches are irreconcilable.
To be clear, Millennials do desire financial security, but contrary to older Americans, “winning” at all costs is discouraged—and certainly not winning at the cost of one’s soul. Millennials want careers that are not value-neutral; they want to make money while making a better world. Furthermore, Millennial values appear to be baked in. For example, this generation doesn’t have to “embrace diversity” because to them, diversity is second nature.
And it’s not just in the United States. The whole world appears caught in a similar polarizing period between a younger generation that prefers peaceful, cooperative problem resolution and an aging, old-fashioned tyrant-tolerant generation which seems content to look the other way on democratic participation in our republic as long as economic indicators remain high. In an article about leadership, Forbes Magazine once identified that the best leaders “share the harvest of their success to help build momentum for those around them.” This kind of servant leadership, too, comes more naturally to Millennials, but it is in rare supply with older, highly partisan U.S. lawmakers.
` Which is why, although no politician in Washington, D.C., would ever be so selfless to get behind a Constitutional maximum age for POTUS, a strong resistance to Baby Boomer-led government has bubbled up into the mainstream. Recently on Saturday Night Live, “Weekend Update” co-host Colin Jost suggested that a septuagenarian being elected to the White House is “the equivalent of a baseball team giving a four-year deal to (89-year-old) Willie Mays now.” But Jost isn’t the first.
One of the wisest men in the Holy Bible warned about the excesses of aging leaders who use their power to reaffirm their importance while they still can. As any of us get older, we may all feel the deafening footsteps of mortality catching up to us. Long-serving leaders have a tendency to hold on to the wheel tighter and tighter at a time when they should let younger people drive. Powerful seniors resist being seniors powerfully. As it was phrased in Ecclesiastes 3:16, “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.”
Unfortunately, older politicians will never have to live long with the consequences of their actions. Millennials and Gen Z’s deserve a chance to run the country in a manner that is consistent with their generational values just like Baby Boomers did.
It’s time for a national acknowledgement that more Grumpy Old Men sequels are doing a disservice to the American Experiment.
About the Authors
Ian Punnett is ordained to the Holy Order of the Diaconate in The Episcopal Church in America, and a professor of mass communication and journalism at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. He is author of How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God and Toward a Theory of True Crime Narratives.
Mordecai Schreiber is an ordained rabbi and is the Director of Education for B’nai B’rith International. Rabbi Schreiber has authored and marketed more than 50 books on history, religion, and linguistics in the United States and many foreign countries. He is also founder and main principal of Schreiber Translations, Inc.
Iqbal Unus has focused his professional career on the evolving Muslim presence in America, gaining distinctive insight into its growth. He is associated with the International Institute of Islamic Thought, and has served as secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), where he is currently member of the Board. Dr. Unus has published several articles in Islamic Horizons, a book chapter in The Muslims’ Place in the American Public Square, and two children’s books, as well as abridged Apostasy in Islam: An Historical and Scriptural Analysis, and edited Muslim American Life: Reflections and Perspectives. He served on the Research Committee for The US Mosque Survey 2011. He also serves on the board of directors of United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA).