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What is a Gerontocracy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 July 2014
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A gerontocracy is a society which is dominated by elders. In a gerontocracy, people who are substantially older than the bulk of the population hold most of the political power, and they tend to dominate companies, institutions, and organizations as well. In some cases, a gerontocracy can be extremely stable, thanks to years of experience on the part of the nation's leaders, but when societies undergo rapid changes, gerontocracies often struggle to keep up, because this form of government tends to lack flexibility.

Historically, a number of governments have been gerontocracies, thanks to a cultivation of respect for the elderly. In the modern world, the most notable gerontocracies are the governments of communist nations, where one's influence and power is judged by the length of time spent in the Communist Party. As a result, power in these nations is heavily concentrated in the hands of the elderly.

It has been said that a gerontocracy is a society where “very old men are replaced by old men,” which is a rather apt description. Many gerontocracies have political and social systems where power increases with age, as in Communist societies, creating a situation where younger people cannot leapfrog into positions of power. This tends to discourage innovation and visionaries, who are thoroughly steeped in bureaucracy by the time they actually come to power.

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The elderly in a gerontocracy may not necessarily hold official leadership positions, but they definitely control the power in their nations. They may act as advisers to public officials, or work behind the scenes in more subtle ways, and their influence is usually very easy to see and feel. In a society where power is held by the very old, the very young are often heavily discriminated against.

One of the issues with a gerontocracy, aside from an unfair balance of power, is that older leaders tend to become very set in their way, and fixated on specific ways of doing and thinking about things. As a result, they are slow to act in response to emerging social trends, threats, and global issues. In some instances, this can make a society more stable, by ensuring that a government does not blow with the slightest wisp of wind, but it can also ultimately cause problems, as leaders become inflexible and unwilling to consider the weaknesses of their nations.

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