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Japan — Trust Nobody Over 55!

How can the average age of a cabinet influence a nation’s economic performance?

March 21, 2001

How can the average age of a cabinet influence a nation's economic performance?

If fresh thinking is what is missing in Japan’s government, how about exploring the question of whether a country’s aging political leadership can affect its economic health?

The average age of Prime Minister Mori’s cabinet is 63 years. Under those circumstances, no wonder that Mr. Mori earlier proposed to raise the retirement age in Japan from 68 to 70. He was apparently paving the way for at least some of his cabinet to stay in power a few years longer — past the country’s retirement limit.

In sharp contrast, the 20 members of the Brussels-based European Commission are, on average, only 53 years old. A full ten years younger than their Japanese counterparts, they seem like a dynamic bunch.

In fact, there is only one EU Commissioner who is older than the average Japanese cabinet member. In line with the younger age composition of the EU Commission, the economies in the European Union this year are poised to grow stronger at a rate of 2.5% — significantly faster than Japan’s 1.1%.

And Europe is even forecast to grow stronger than the United States. There, the average age of the new cabinet appointed by U.S. President George W. Bush is 58 years. While still younger than Japan’s cabinet by a full five years, the Bush cabinet is one year older than that of Bush Senior — and a full five years older than President Clinton’s Cabinet.

Come to think of it, it was about the time that the Bush administration replaced the Clinton administration when the U.S. economy began to slow down.

Perhaps reflecting higher age of Mr. Bush’s cabinet members, this year’s forecast U.S. growth rate is only 1.6%. This compares to twice that, 3.4%, in the last year of the (much younger) Clinton Administration. If young thinkers are needed to steer the economy, the United States might be in for a rough time.

If this correlation of the age of the political leadership to economic growth holds up, then Japan may indeed be in trouble. Thus, in its desire to pull its economy out of recession, Japan might want to start with considering to remove not just the Prime Minister, but the entire current political leadership from office.

After all, the expected departure of Prime Minister Mori, himself 64, helps lower that average only very slightly. Evidently, a more fundamental change is needed. If the country truly wants to rejuvenate its economy, it might consider starting at the top.

Perhaps the measure to be adopted is to bar any person past the age of 55 from holding a cabinet position in the country. After all, the degree of collusion and lack of reform-mindedness among old-guard Japanese politicians may leave no other choice. Desperate times may call for desperate measures.

A final word of caution, though, lest we be charged with a blatant case of age discrimination. There are some older politicians who have much to offer. In fact, Japan’s finance minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, is a case in point. At 81 years of age, he is easily the most lucid cabinet member. Exceptions prove the rule, don’t they?