When Senator John McCain takes the stage at the Republican National Convention this week in Minneapolis, he will be become the oldest candidate ever to accept his party's nomination for a first-term president. McCain, who will be 72 when he accepts the nod, has sought to turn his advanced years into an attribute and a counterpoint to the message being championed by his 47-year-old boomer rival, Senator Barack Obama. This election, at least on one level, is a national referendum on change vs. experience.
A similar dynamic is at work in business.
Older people have a historical perspective, as well as impressive contacts built up over a lifetime. They can be adept at weighing risks and spotting opportunities. These are useful attributes at a time of epic upheaval in industry after industry where rapid-fire change is putting executives to the test. Many companies also find themselves lacking institutional knowledge, partly a result of the incessant job-hopping of today's generation of managers.
Finally, age confers on its wearer a certain immunity to internal politics. These folks can get away with saying things their younger colleagues would never dare. "One colossal advantage of being in extra innings is you can tell it like it is, say what you think, and largely eschew political caution," says 76-year-old Robert Lutz, vice-chairman of General Motors. Lutz has become a kind of Provocateur at GM. He was the only executive willing to push for an electric car despite GM's debacle the first time around. "I often ask, rhetorically, if they don't like it, what are they going to do? Send me into early retirement?"