Legacy of COVID Could be More Young Voters and Leaders | Opinion

Talk of diversity in politics is usually focused on race, gender, or class. But age matters, too. Among the other rifts the pandemic is creating, COVID-19 is opening up a chasm between the generations, particularly in young people's education, careers, life choices and personal liberties, often dictated by politicians who are far older than them.

In turn, one major impact of the pandemic could be politically active young voters, who will demand representatives closer to their own age and cognizant of their needs. Much hinges on President Joe Biden's ability to convince these voters (who do support him) that his age is not a barrier to connecting with their priorities.

Americans over the age of 65 dominate political and economic power, and inevitably craft policies based on themselves.

Since 1965, the Older Americans Act in the U.S. guaranteed resources for older citizens. In the U.K., the Care Act guarantees in-home assistance for the elderly who need help preparing meals, dressing and bathing. These same lawmakers have been more resistant to, for example, cancel student debt.

Young people, already disillusioned by our interpretation of democracy, may not have an empathetic audience in Congress: The average age of the Democratic House leadership is 72, whereas in the Republican House it is 48.

Now led by the oldest U.S. president in history, an entire politically emergent generation may start to ask if the government is prioritizing their interests in both the control of the pandemic and the recovery.

They may feel that younger leaders—in New Zealand, Finland and Qatar for example—have been more willing to embrace the new normal and show adaptive thinking. And perhaps the promise of a brighter future is more credible from a leader who will be around to experience it. It is this combination of swift adaptations to current circumstances and a convincing long-term plan that all citizens—but particularly young ones—need.

Donald Trump's key failing in the coronavirus response, as was typical among several older politicians, was an inability to allow new information to affect his policy. Cognitive flexibility, or adopting new information and thinking in novel ways, declines as we age—and we can see this in policy. It's not about him—this is a species challenge.

Older leaders, regardless of their political persuasion, are vulnerable to applying tired solutions to new problems. For example, Trump's emphasis on re-vitalizing the Rust Belt smacked of a desire to return the country to the production heydays of the previous century. Such a project ignored current global conditions: the rise of China, automation and changing demographics.

In the U.K., 71-year-old Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Labour Party, sought to return Britain to the pre-Thatcher days of old Labour, with a Bernie Sanders-esque emphasis on public spending and mass nationalization. And although the 79-year-old Saunders spoke of a "forward-thinking" vision for America while seeking the Democratic presidential ticket, his manifesto seemed bereft of novel political ideas. With age comes experience, but it can come at the cost of imagination.

Future voter sticker
"Fearless Girl", a bronze sculpture by Kristen Visbal, is seen with a voting sticker on November 4, 2020, in New York. KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

For new ideas, we need to look to new adults. This is not because of what they think, but partly how they think. Younger politicians may be less burdened with the political habits and memories of their older counterparts. Researchers at the University Roma Tre and Sheffield Hallam University, among other places, have found that younger people are more likely to exhibit the neuroplasticity and mental dexterity required to explore new ideas.

Younger leaders do offer meaningful innovation and a different ambition. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been instrumental in committing to a carbon neutral goal by 2025 and dismantling the dogma of GDP. In a recognition that economic output may not directly equate to the welfare of citizens, she wants to replace this outdated economic measure with a Happiness Index.

This focus has budgetary implications on education, regulation, public services and law and order. In fact, it touches upon everything in much the same way that GDP continues to do. Yet it will also likely resonate with a newly energized young voter base, who learned during the pandemic of the significant power of politicians and bureaucrats, and how drastically their decisions affect our lives.

The Happiness Index policy was not conceived by Ardern. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck took the throne of Bhutan in 1972, he recognized the pressure to modernize the remote, Himalayan country. He too rejected GDP as a measure of national success, and insisted instead on measuring Bhutan's Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Laughed at by modern politicians and economists, most of whom were several times his age, Wangchuck implemented this radical approach at the tender age of 16. Notwithstanding several criticisms, especially the ethnic cleansing of non-Buddhist people, Wangchuck's concept has now gained currency and has been an important factor in Bhutan being regularly ranked amongst the world's happiest countries—a triumph for any policy.

The "happiness not productivity" approach is just one example of how young people can bring innovative ideas to the forefront. Younger people are more likely to be comfortable with the effects of automation, benefits of AI and a whole lot more which my mother hasn't the foggiest about.

But for any of this to matter, young people need to take more ownership of their state. Perhaps one of the legacies of the pandemic will be the activation of a generation who have seen one too many a politician from an earlier generation, or even two, run the government and its response to COVID into a mess.

The current state of affairs could have been avoided with more avant-garde, unrestrained thinking. And by that, it's not just about having intellectual knowledge of the vast technological landscape compared to 1990, but real, visceral knowledge too.

Dr. Saqib Qureshi is author of "The Broken Contract" and "Reconstructing Strategy." He has advised successive governments and is currently a visiting fellow of the London School of Economics (LSE).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.