And yet, the solution is not youth politics either. In a new book on leadership, the former presidential adviser David Gergen is admirably frank in acknowledging that those born in the 1940s, like himself, should make room for new leaders. But he looks for them among the youngest Americans. “Millions of baby boomers and alumni of the Silent Generation are starting to leave the stage, to be replaced by millennials and Gen Zers,” he writes.
Maybe I take this personally, having just turned 45, but Mr. Gergen blithely skips over Americans born in the 1960s and ’70s. Maybe he can’t quite fathom middle-aged leadership. Yet middle-aged leadership may be exactly what we now require.
Many American institutions seem locked in battles between well-meaning but increasingly uncomprehending leaders in their 70s and a rising generation, in their 20s and early 30s, bent on culture war and politicization and seemingly unconcerned with institutional responsibilities. Our politics has the same problem — simultaneously overflowing with the vices of the young and the old, and so often falling into debates between people who behave as though the world will end tomorrow and those who think it started yesterday. The vacuum of middle-aged leadership is palpable.
There are some politicians of that middle generation — some members of Congress and governors, even our vice president. Yet they have not broken through as defining cultural figures and political forces. They have not made this moment their own, or found a way to loosen the grip of the postwar generation on the nation’s political imagination.
A middle-aged mentality traditionally has its own vices. It can lack urgency, and at its worst it can be maddeningly immune to both hope and fear, which are essential spurs to action. But if our lot is always to choose among vices, wouldn’t the temperate sins of midlife serve us well just now?
Generational analyses are unavoidably sweeping and crude, and no one is simply a product of a birth cohort. But in our frenzied era, it’s worth looking for potential sources of stability and considering not only what we have too much of in America and should want to demolish and be rid of but also what we do not have enough of and should want to build up.
We plainly lack grounded, levelheaded, future-oriented leaders. And like it or not, that means we need a more middle-aged politics and culture.
Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”