With Rishi Sunak rising to power as Britain’s prime minister at age 42, the question of whether individuals in their 40s are best placed to provide leadership to their countries comes up again. With politicians in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s being the rule in recent years, the era of political leaders taking charge in their 40s has almost been a forgotten phase of history.
With Sunak’s entry into 10 Downing Street, it is perhaps pertinent to go into a bit of reflection on how the 40s, in terms of the age of political leaders, might assume significance. Sunak’s predecessors David Cameron and Liz Truss were both in their 40s when they became Britain’s Prime Ministers. And so was Tony Blair when he trounced the Conservatives in 1997.
There is little gainsaying that even in the general pacing out of life, the 40s are an exciting time for people. In politics, the 40s bring something of the magical with them. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 42 when he defeated Richard Milhous Nixon, who himself was 47, at the US presidential election in November 1960. In India, Indira Gandhi was all of 48 when she was elected to succeed Lal Bahadur Shastri in January 1966.
In Bangladesh’s politics, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a month away from 46 when he announced his Six Points in Lahore in February 1966. Tajuddin Ahmad formed the Mujibnagar government at age 45. Likewise, Syed Nazrul Islam was in his 40s when he took over as Acting President of Bangladesh in 1971. A survey of Bangladesh’s history reveals the place of the 40s in the fortunes of the next generation of its political leaders. Khaleda Zia became Prime Minister at 45 in 1991; and in 1996 Sheikh Hasina took charge of Bangladesh at age 48.
In Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto succeeded General Yahya Khan as President in December 1971 at the age of 43. Bill Clinton was 45 when he was elected President of the United States in 1991. Pierre Elliot Trudeau was elected Canadian Prime Minister in 1968 at the age of 48, while his son Justin Trudeau assumed office as Prime Minister in 2015 at age 44. French President Emmanuel Macron was a few months short of 40 when he entered upon office in 2017.
The 40s are a moment to savour in politics. Ministers, ministers of state, deputy ministers and parliamentarians making their mark on politics in their 40s have been aplenty. In the 40s something of a spiritedness comes into politics. There is indeed a spring in their steps, as the energetic Rajiv Gandhi was to demonstrate in his years in power.
He succeeded his assassinated mother when he was 40; when he was himself murdered in 1991, he was a few months removed from his 47th birthday. Lord Mountbatten was 47 when he was appointed Britain’s last Viceroy in India in 1947, to preside over the country’s partition before taking over as independent India’s first Governor General.
Jimmy Carter’s Democratic rival for the presidential nomination in 1980, Edward Moore Kennedy, was 48 at the time. Robert Francis Kennedy, who had served in his elder brother’s administration as Attorney General, was 42 when he was assassinated while campaigning for the presidency in 1968. The socialist Felipe Gonzalez, elected Spain’s Prime Minister in 1982 at age 40, would be in office for fourteen years.
In political history, the 40s have been symbolic of energy in those who have sought high office. Energy, drive and verve have almost always defined the acts of politicians in power or those who have aspired to power. Ideas have by and large sprouted in political leaders in the age region of the 40s, as a glance at history so amply projects.
Idealism has been a principle in the 40s for politicians. The 40s have been the best of times in their careers and in a shaping of policies and perspectives for their nations.
Add to that the thought that in their 40s politicians nearly everywhere have brought a grown-up attitude to their work, with that dash of charisma and glamour cementing their place in history.
Think of Barack Obama, elected President of the United States at age 47 in 2008.