Larry King described the Mormon faith as a “gerontocracy” (Hello–Pot? Kettle here). Being led by 15 men with a median age of 76 is a unique feature of our church. So, what are the side effects of being in a gerontocracy? How does it color our life experience and perspectives? How does it affect the image of the church?
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.
Some examples of political gerontocracies:
- In the Soviet Union, gerontocracy was the rule of thumb from the 1970s until March 1985, when a dynamic, young, ambitious leadership headed by Mikhail Gorbachev took power.
- Iran and other theocracies often promote gerontocracy for their highest ruling offices, but parliamentary members must be under age 75 as a balance (keeping that youth vote?).
- India’s Tamil Nadu state is ruled by an octogenarian oligarchy.
- Within the U.S. Senate, the oldest senators are typically assigned to chair committees; some later run for president.
- Catholicism. Due to the high number of aging Cardinals, Pope Paul VI removed the right for Cardinals to vote for a new Pope once they reach the age of 80.
- Wikipedia cites LDS as a Gerontocracy: “On the other hand, gerontocracy may emerge in an institution not initially known for it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith, Jr., a 24-year-old man [sic], who in 1835 constituted the first Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with members ranging in age from 23 to 35.” You may recall these were not all winners. “Once it was established 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, and until his death in 2008 the church was actively led by Gordon B. Hinckley, a man who remembered the day his father replaced the family horse-wagon with a Ford Model T.“
So, is Mormonism a Gerontocracy? The tradition of promoting the longest-serving member of the Quorum goes back to 1847, when Brigham Young replaced Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr., as the prophet. Such a method predisposes the Mormon Church to continually select men who have already lived long lives, leading some critics (and Larry King who is sort of a fanboy) of the church to refer to its leadership as a “gerontocracy.” Monson is 80, and the next most senior apostle, Boyd K. Packer, is 83.
– Faust in the First Presidency
– GBH in the First Presidency during ETB’s era
– Bednar (in the 12) is 55 years old. A mere kid.
– Alvin Dyer in the First Presidency (was never even a member of the 12)
- Mental Deterioration. The decreased faculties of the aged can potentially be a handicap in providing effective leadership. Eventually, the mortal body shuts down, and occasionally the mind precedes it.
- “Out of Touch.” Church members may feel the leadership are out of touch with their viewpoints, experiences, and needs, thereby leading them to marginalize their counsel.
- Resistance to Change. The elderly may have a difficult time relating to a quickly changing world. Some are not comfortable with technology. Some have worldviews set in cultural standards of the past.
- Living in the Past. It seems that everyone finds a certain era in their life they feel comfortable with and they never leave it (or quit buying new clothes after a certain era). This seems to be human nature. Fortunately for my kids, I’ve been mostly able to shake off the 80s.
- Ageism. Gerontophobics will be scared off. Ken Dychtwald identified seven assumptions of gerontophobia:
- If young is good, then old is bad
- If the young have it all, the old are losing it
- If the young are creative, the old are dull
- If the young are beautiful then the old are unattractive
- If the young are stimulating, then the old are boring
- If the young are full of passion, then the old are beyond caring
- If the children are tomorrow, the old represent yesterday
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 (emeritus status).
And what are the positives of a Gerontocracy?
- Stability. Gerontocracy’s stability is seen as its strength, which can be more appropriate for institutions that teach principles that do not vary over time.
- Resistance to Change. Elderly leaders are more likely to allow change more slowly rather than reacting to the whims of time and trend.
- Respect for Elders. Psychologically, it’s much easier to unquestioningly follow the commands of someone older than you. So the strict seniority-based promotion scale serves a practical purpose.
- Experience. These leaders have got many more years of life experience than the rest of us. With age, wisdom.
- Credibility by Imitation. For millions of people, the Pope is the representative of God on earth. Having a similarly-aged leader lends an air of “me too” credibility for those who are most comfortable with this image.
- God’s Really in Charge. He can kill off potential leaders before their time, at least according to the “lower decks” scuttlebutt I have heard. And God is the ultimate Geriatric!
So, what’s your opinion? Is the church a Gerontocracy? If so, why did it become one? Will it always be one or is this a temporary condition? How do others perceive this, both in and out of the church? Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Does the world really change all that much or is doctrinal stability more desirable?