We Need Youth At the Top: Taking a Leaf Out of the Italian Book

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A non-descript announcement in a morning news bulletin of the (re-) appointment of 11 Coordinators to “advance European transport infrastructure projects over the next four years”.

So who are getting these posts? Millennium-trained engineers and MBAs at ease with the jargon, logistics and perspectives of 21st century technology and citizens’ needs, with the professional perspective to see these projects to the end, and take responsibility for their outcome?

Well, no. The posts have  been exclusively allocated to politicians and officials –  ex-MEPs, retired national Transport Ministers, a former World Bank VP – not a private sector name in sight and, without checking CVs , most are well into their second half-century – one will be over 80 year old when his mandate finishes.

OK, the task is unpaid – well, sort of … Actually there is a monthly flat-rate allowance of 1,500€ to cover “on-going expenses”, plus work expenses. So 18,000€ p/a, plus expenses for a part-time coordination job with on-site visits. In these days of high unemployment I am sure plenty of work-seeking, professional 40 year-olds would be happy to fill their free time applying their expertise to this task for this kind of money – and would hope to still be around to see the projects completed.

The same is true of politics: the three main European political groups have now announced their candidates for the next President of the European Commission. This person must, at best, drive through a reform of the European Union to make it fit for purpose for the next generations or, at worst, damage-limit the fall-out of the break up the European project. It will require character, charisma, grit, intelligence and, above all, energy. So who do we have? The old chestnuts of Junker, Verhofstadt and Schulz. They have all been around the EU block for years and the youngest of them is 58. Do they really understand how the next generations of European citizens think, aspire and want to live their lives?

Ironically, Italy, which is renowned for its ancient age profile in politics, has appointed its youngest ever Prime Minister. At 39, Matteo Renzi takes the reins of the Eurozone’s third largest economy, and his Cabinet, with an average age of 47.8 years, is also the most youthful in recent Italian history and probably in the history of the EU. OK, so there are lots of mutterings about inexperience but how experienced are the old guard in the challenges of the 21st century? Bemused by new technology, new communications, the new power and influence of the flattened, citizen-led forces at work… even Renzi will feel old alongside the tech millionaires and investors who will shape the economies and market places of the future.

Whilst maturity, age and long experience have great value for their wisdom and scepticism, they should not be the sine qua non in the job description for those who will shape our future economies and politics. New talent, new perspectives, youth, energy and commitment are crucial: people with experience beyond professional politics, citizens with a sense of public service, business people on the cutting edge of the hyper-competitive global economies, in touch with the ideas of the articulate, communicating youth who will live in the worlds they build, work in its businesses, pay the taxes which will invest in the future societies and vote for future governments. You do not find them in the top-down old order – we must seek them out from the citizen-led new world.

Unless our new leaders can identify with the rising generations and are respected by them, our societies will not be the ones they want to live in… and so they will not work.

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