Had Shakespeare been alive and the opportunity to visit Bangladesh, he would have withdrawn his poem, “Crabbed Age and Youth.” Instead, seeing Bangladesh's politicians, he would have written a new poem, “Shining Age and Subdued Youth.” Rabindranath too would disown his poem, “Expedition of the Youth (Taruner Abhijan).” Bangladesh has entered a new era where too many senior citizens are everywhere—in power, politics, in all professions, policymaking and what not! Without being a developed country, Bangladesh, as far as politics is concerned, now looks like Japan—a country with a rapidly aging population. This severely impedes the growth of a new-generation of leaders.
Young people bring innovative and modern ideas but this is not being made use of in our major parties where seniors are engaged in every policymaking decision. The present government now incorporates a few young ministers, but they are state ministers—controlled by older ministers in all portfolios and, hence, enjoy very little liberty to do anything innovative on their own authority. We have forgotten that young leaders have more ideas and greater energy to bring changes to the landscape of the economy.
Bangabandhu and Gandhi—the two great leaders of this continent—ventured brave philosophies when they were young. And so did Martin Luther King Jr in America. John F Kennedy dreamed of landing on the moon, and another young president, Barack Obama, rescued the world's leading economy from a financial tsunami. Their young age, innovative thinking and unflinching determination, coupled with boundless energy, made their dreams come true, vindicating again that age matters. Time magazine recently announced the 100 most influential people of the year where our PM's name was included. The editor, however, didn't forget to mention that 45 people out of the 100 were under the age of 40. If we make a similar list for Bangladesh, at least 80 percent of the people will be more than 60 years old. We need to revert this trend to make our society more dynamic.
We live in a country where politicians almost daily brag about the “demographic dividend”, but we see no reflection of that when it comes to nominations or institutional leadership. The median age of population in both Bangladesh and India are almost the same—28 years—but the average age of Indian MPs is 55, whereas it is close to 70 in Bangladesh, ridiculously higher than the global average age of 53. A 2012 UNDP report showed that only 28 percent of MPs in the world are 60 years old or more, but in Bangladesh it is more than 60 percent, warranting a reform in MP nominations by the major parties.
Life expectancy in Japan is around 20 years more than that in Bangladesh, but the average age of our MPs is about 15 years more than Japan's. In 2015, the British parliament saw more MPs in their 30s or 40s. Bangladesh seems to face a serious vacuum in leadership. Our youth have long been held back from holding responsible positions, fairly tactfully.
Public universities have ominously stopped forming elected student bodies and that vacuum has spawned the growth of mastans and given rise to the unhealthy “tender business”. We have forgotten our history. There was a time when we had great leaders, including Bangabandhu, who were the products of public universities and who had the guts to fight for change due to their youth and vigour. The current AL secretary was a known student leader in the 1980s. Do we know any young leaders of that stature right now?
Top leaders in a party are expected to be old. That's not a problem as long as they are young in spirit and farsighted in their planning. That was the case with the great Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who was at the heart of defining the China that we see today. Our Prime Minister has demonstrated enormous energy in building a modern Bangladesh. But are we courageous enough to bring about the necessary changes for inclusive growth that would ensure faster employment? Aren't we killing the competitive spirit of our young generation? What have we left for them to do? Have we left them with enough jobs or leadership positions?
Young people are needed to spur business. While India moved up 30 steps in the “doing business index”—from 130 to 100—in a short time, we have been lurking in the range of the170th position for years. It is not because we lack the ability, but because our demographic potentials have been bottled and suppressed. We need young change-makers to transform Bangladesh.
We need young game-changers particularly in the financial industry, which must go through massive transformations that are sure to displease many influential quarters. The fact that the United Kingdom didn't hesitate to hire a young Canadian economist, Mark Carney, to run its central bank, shows how desperate a regime can be to infuse new blood into it. The same was true for India when it hired Raghuram Rajan at RBI (now a possible candidate to head the Bank of England). Young policymakers have the energy and brain to bring the radical changes that our economy needs the most right now. And it is time to let them shine, not their grandparents.
Biru Paksha Paul is associate professor of economics at an American university.