Posted On 28th May 2011

Linking the word sex to pretty much any dull, worthy, banal subject is likely to get some attention. Consider then the case of one Dr Elaine Byrne, politics lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and a semi-permanent panel guest on those ultra-serious and very aggressive current affairs programmes Ireland devours.

Dr Byrne’s specialism is the damage done by the ever present disease of corruption in Irish politics. On this she is unquestionably an expert. Ex-UN and a consultant to Transparency International, Dr Byrne combines knowledge with an utter lack of deference that emphasises how remote, arrogant and irrelevant many of Ireland’s leaders have become.

Anyway, last January she wrote an article in the Irish Times criticising the gerontocracy ruling her homeland and asking “perhaps political reform, like sex, is best left to the young”. It would be a gross simplification to say she suggested politicians should be kicked out of office about the same time their libido went on the fritz (Dr Byrne reckoned late ‘20s for men and ‘30s for women), but that was how it was interpreted.

Accusations of ageism, fascism and whatever followed until the 24 hour news cycle came to her rescue and Ireland started concentrating on its national bankruptcy again. At the least I guess it proved that money worries tend to crush thoughts of sex in any relationship.

As for countries, so for companies. Is change best left to the young?

There’s a vast literature on change management and as a rule it suggests the younger you are, the more adaptable you are likely to be. As practically every study on the subject starts from the premise that change is a good thing, so the radicalism of youth is praised.

This presumption, that change is by definition good and opposing it is a problem, saturates our business culture, politics and society. It stems from a fundamental dissatisfaction with the way life is organised. Too much is asked of us, too little delivered and far too many promises get broken. This dissatisfaction is particularly pronounced among the young because generally they want a lot more money than they have.

There is of course a link back to sex here as well. All other things being equal the richer you are the more attractive you become and the greater the choice of sexual partners you have. Human biology being what it is, sex drives are stronger while reproduction is most likely, as Dr Byrne pointed out.
So, the young are more in favour of change because it carries the hope both getting richer, and also of getting laid more often by hotter lovers.

But just because the young are keener on change, and for that matter sex, does that mean they are the people best placed to actually manage it?

What surprises me about this argument is it asks a simply appallingly biased and ill-conceived question. Even if, as seems likely, the younger you are, the more likely you are to support change, why on earth does the willingness to run a marathon mean you know the route? Change isn’t just about will. It’s about wisdom, tact, knowledge, confidence and quite probably the guts to quit when you’ve achieved as much as you are ever going to. The more complex a change that is being considered, the truer this becomes.

It’s just as ignorant to suggest these virtues are limited to those whose libido is in decline. If the knowledge required is about nascent technologies known to just a handful of people, they are as likely to be as young as old. The wrap, dear reader, is that the less we consider someone’s age and the more we consider actually meaningful attributes the better.

And as for sex? Back in the late ‘70s one of the very few shows I was allowed to stay up late to watch was the “West Wing” of its day, a thinly fictionalised tale of the Nixon Whitehouse called “Washington Behind Closed Doors”. Thirty years later I remember very little about it, but the Charlie Rich theme tune, if you know it, manages to combine realism and romanticism in a beautifully subtle way: “Oh, no-one knows what goes on behind closed doors”.

David Welsh (with apologies to Freud, Marx, Elaine Byrne and especially the late, great, Charlie Rich)

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