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Title: Gerontocracy  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Adultism, Ageism, Gerontophobia, Legacy of Leonid Brezhnev, History of the Soviet Union (1964–82)
Collection: Ageing, Political Systems
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


A gerontocracy is a form of oligarchical rule in which an entity is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than most of the adult population. The ancient Greeks were among the first to believe in this idea of gerontocracies, as famously stated by Plato, "it is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit".[1] However, these beliefs are not unique to ancient Greece, as many cultures still subscribe to this way of thinking. Often these political structures are such that political power within the ruling class accumulates with age, making the oldest the holders of the most power. Those holding the most power may not be in formal leadership positions, but often dominate those who are. In a simplified definition, a gerontocracy is a society where leadership is reserved for elders.[2] The best example of this can be seen in the ancient Greek city state of Sparta, which was ruled by a Gerousia. A Gerousia was a council made up of members who were at least 60 years old and served for life.[3]


  • In various political systems 1
    • In the USSR 1.1
    • Elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc 1.2
    • Theocracy 1.3
    • Absolute monarchies 1.4
    • Stateless societies 1.5
    • Other countries 1.6
  • Organizational examples 2
  • Fiction 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5

In various political systems

Such a form of leadership is common in communist states in which the length of one's service to the party is held to be the main qualification for leadership. In the time of the Eight Immortals of Communist Party of China, it was quipped, "the 80-year-olds are calling meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire". For instance, Party leader Mao Zedong was 82 when he died, while Deng Xiaoping retained a powerful influence until he was nearly 90.

In the USSR

In the Soviet Union, gerontocracy became increasingly entrenched starting in the 1970s, at least until March 1985, when a more dynamic and younger, ambitious leadership headed by Mikhail Gorbachev took power.[4] Leonid Brezhnev, its foremost representative,[5] died in 1982 aged 75, but had suffered a heart attack in 1975, after which generalized arteriosclerosis set in, so that he was progressively infirm and had trouble speaking. During his last two years he was essentially a figurehead.[6]

In 1980, the average Politburo member was 70 years old (as opposed to 55 in 1952 and 61 in 1964), and by 1982, Brezhnev's Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, his Minister of Defense Dmitriy Ustinov and his Premier Nikolai Tikhonov were all in their mid-to-late seventies.[7] Yuri Andropov, Brezhnev's 68-year-old successor, was seriously ill with kidney disease when he took over,[8] and after his death fifteen months later, he was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, then 72, who lasted thirteen months before his death and replacement with Gorbachev.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc

Other Communist countries with leaders in their 70s or 80s have included Vasil Mzhavanadze was 70 when forced out, and his Lithuanian counterpart Antanas Sniečkus was 71 at death. Nowadays, Cuba has been characterized as a gerontocracy: "Although the population is now mainly black or mulatto and young, its rulers form a mainly white gerontocracy."[9]


Gerontocracy is also common in religious Iran, The Vatican and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which leadership is concentrated in the hands of religious elders. Despite the age of the senior religious leaders, however, parliamentary candidates in Iran must be under 75.

Absolute monarchies

Saudi Arabia can be considered to have a gerontocratic system reminiscent of various late communist countries. Power is held by the Saud family; the King and his most powerful relatives are in their eighties.[10]

Stateless societies

In Kenya, Samburu society is said to be a gerontocracy. The power of elders is linked to the belief in their curse, underpinning their monopoly over arranging marriages and taking on further wives. This is at the expense of unmarried younger men, whose development up to the age of thirty is in a state of social suspension, prolonging their adolescent status. The paradox of Samburu gerontocracy is that popular attention focuses on the glamour and deviant activities of these footloose bachelors, which extend to a form of gang warfare, widespread suspicions of adultery with the wives of older men, and theft of their stock.[11]

Other countries

The Roman Republic was originally an example; the word senate is related to the Latin word senex, meaning "old man". Cicero wrote:

They wouldn't make use of running or jumping or spears from afar or swords up close, but rather wisdom, reasoning, and thought, which, if they weren't in old men, our ancestors wouldn't have called the highest council the senate.[12]

Some U.S. senators are very old, and positions of power within the legislatures - such as chairmanships of various committees - are usually bestowed upon the more experienced, that is, older, members of the legislature. Strom Thurmond, a U.S. senator from South Carolina, left office at age 100 after almost half a century in the body, while Robert Byrd of West Virginia was born in 1917 and served in the Senate from 1959 to his death in 2010. Senators under the age of 40 are virtually unknown.

The minimum age for presidential candidacy of 35, could also be considered supportive of American gerontocracy, especially given that there is no maximum. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the youngest president to ever hold the office, was 42 when inaugurated. The youngest president elected, John F. Kennedy, was 43.

In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the government headed by M. Karunanidhi the state's chief minister who is 87 years old, is another real world example of gerontocracy. In another Indian state, West Bengal, Shri Jyoti Basu, was 86 years old when he stepped down from the office of chief minister of the state. But he continued to remain a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) until a few months before his death in January 2010 and was consulted on all matters related to governance by the Chief Minister and his Cabinet as well as his other party colleagues.

Historically, it could be argued that 1950s Ireland was a gerontocracy. Due to high levels of emigration of young adults, there was a disproportionately high amount of elderly people remaining in Ireland. The relatively social conservative nature of Irish politics (compared to other Western democracies) has been attributed to this lack of young adults at the time, along with politics being divided along Irish Civil War lines instead of between left-wing politics and right-wing politics.

Present-day Italy is often considered a gerontocracy,[13] even in the internal Italian debate.[14][15] The Monti government had the highest average age in the western world (64 years), with its youngest members being 57. Former Italian prime minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi were 89 and 86 respectively. In 2013, the youngest among the candidates for prime minister (Pier Luigi Bersani) was 62, the others being 70 and 78. The current average age of Italian university professors is 63, of bank directors and CEOs 67, of members of parliament 56, of labor union representatives 59.[13][14][15][16]

Organizational examples

Outside the political sphere, gerontocracy may be observed in other institutional hierarchies of various kinds. Generally the mark of a gerontocracy is the presence of a substantial number of septuagenarian or octogenarian leaders—those younger than this are too young for the label to be appropriate, while those older than this have generally been too few to dominate the leadership in numbers. The rare centenarian who has retained a position of power is generally by far the oldest in the hierarchy.

Gerontocracy generally occurs as a phase in the development of an entity, rather than being part of it throughout its existence. Opposition to gerontocracy may cause weakening or elimination of this characteristic by instituting things like term limits or mandatory retirement ages.

Judges of the United States courts, for example, serve for life, but a system of incentives to retire at full pay after a given age and disqualification from leadership for those who fail to do so has been instituted. The International Olympic Committee instituted a mandatory retirement age in 1965, and Pope Paul VI removed the right of Roman Catholic Cardinals to vote for a new Pope once they reached the age of 80 (which was to limit the number of Cardinals that would vote for the new Pope, due to the proliferation of Cardinals that was occurring at the time and is continuing to occur.).

On the other hand, gerontocracy may emerge in an institution not initially known for it. The Latter Day Saint movement founded by Joseph Smith, a 24-year-old man, who in 1835 constituted the first Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with members ranging in age from 23 to 35. After the death of Smith, it was established in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) that succession to the church presidency derived from longest tenure in an office held for life, the hierarchy aged markedly, and with the growth of the church the age at which officials were named to the highest bodies continued to rise. Six church presidents have held office past the age of 90.


The science fiction novel Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling deals with a future society in which life expectancy has been expanded to more than two centuries by means of medicine and technology (see transhumanism); the "gerontocrats" wield almost all capital and political power. Adolescents and young (and by modern standards middle-aged) adults live as outsiders with virtually no access to wealth or power.

In the fantasy series The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Kin, a group of women that at some point failed to become Aes Sedai, do not hold any value in the strength of someone in the One Power, as opposed to Aes Sedai, and only defer to age (a subject that is completely taboo amongst the Aes Sedai).

In the TV series Logan's Run, the city is under the control of the "cabal of elderly citizens", a council made up of elite citizens of the city who have been given the privilege to live beyond the age of 30.

In the Frederik Pohl novel Search the Sky, the main character, Ross, encounters a planet with a gerontocracy masquerading as a democracy. It uses phrases such as "Old Heads Are Wisest" and gives the population the right to choose who is oldest.

In the opening chapter of the science fiction novel Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks the main character, a spy called Bora Horza Gobuchul, is being ritually executed by the 'Gerontocracy of Sorpen' for impersonating one of their ministers. The character is a Changer, able to alter his outward appearance at will.

In the biblical figure, they control most of the economic and political activities of the planet. Several Meths play a major role in the first novel, Altered Carbon.

In the computer game Sword of the Stars, the dolphin-like Liir are ruled by Elders, who have lived for over 300 years and have grown to whale-like size.

See also


  1. ^ Bytheway, B. (1995). Ageism (p. 45). Buckingham: Open University Press.
  2. ^ Maddox, G. L. (1987). The Encyclopedia of aging (p. 284). New York: Springer Pub. Co..
  3. ^ Palmore, E. B. (1999). Ageism: negative and positive (2nd ed., p. 39). New York: Springer Pub.
  4. ^ Zwass, Adam. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, p. 127. M. E. Sharpe, 1989, ISBN 0-87332-496-X.
  5. ^ Gerner, Kristian and Hedlund, Stefan. Ideology and Rationality in the Soviet Model, p. 346. Routledge, 1989, ISBN 0-415-02142-1.
  6. ^ Post, Jerrold M. Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World, p. 96. Cornell University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8014-4169-2.
  7. ^ Kort, Michael. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, p. 335. M. E. Sharpe, 2006, ISBN 0-7656-1454-5.
  8. ^ Post, p. 97.
  9. ^ "The Cuban revolution at 50 - Heroic myth and prosaic failure". The Economist. Dec 30, 2008. 
  10. ^ Al Jazeera English - Saudi Arabia's old regime grows older
  11. ^ Paul Spencer, The Samburu: a Study of Gerontocracy in a Nomadic Tribe, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London,1965|ISBN=0-415-31725-8, 9780415317252
  12. ^ Nec enim excursione nec saltu nec eminus hastis aut comminus gladiis uteretur, sed consilio, ratione, sententia; quae nisi essent in senibus, non summum consilium maiores nostri appellassent senatum. De Senectute, I.16
  13. ^ a b Gunilla von Hall (2012-02-28). "Ung ilska mot Italiens politiska dinosaurier | Utrikes | SvD" (in Svenska). Retrieved 2014-01-05. 
  14. ^ a b "Il Parlamento italiano? Maschio e di mezza età" (in Italiano). Retrieved 2014-01-05. 
  15. ^ a b "La Stampa - Abbiamo i potenti più vecchi d'EuropaPolitici e manager sfiorano i 60 anni" (in Italiano). 2012-05-17. Retrieved 2014-01-05. 
  16. ^ "Distribuzione dei Senatori per fasce di età e per sesso" (in Italiano). Retrieved 2014-01-05. 
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