What 9 World Leaders Were Doing In Their 20s

Jun 2, 2015 | Elections, Elections - Presidential (2016), General Advice, History, Millennials, World Affairs

Published: Question of the Day (June 2, 2015)

These were really formative years. The 20-something years are often as sharply defined by the “something” aspect of that term than by their numerical designation. This is the decade in which so many of us struggle to find ourselves in our careers; for some, the path lies clearly in front of us, while for others it wind around and is covered in shadows.With that in mind, what were the world’s most powerful leaders of today doing in this formative decade of their lives?

The Ones With Clear Paths

Some of them had already gotten a head start on their eventual career paths. Former U.S. senator and secretary of state (and current 2016 Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton spent her 20s shedding the conservative political beliefs she had been taught as a child and embracing left-wing student activism. According to her biography, as an undergraduate at Wellesley College, she organized protests for causes ranging from civil rights to ending the Vietnam War. After graduating, she went to Yale Law School (where she met her future husband Bill Clinton), distinguishing herself there with a scholarly article on children’s rights that is still widely cited today.

In a similar vein, Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) attributes his catching the “political bug” to his childhood work in Boys Nation, a civic group run by the American Legion. By the time he was 25, he had managed to get elected to the Wisconsin legislature, putting him on the career track in state politics that would eventually take him to the governor’s mansion.

The Ones With Unexpected Turns

Not every future political leader had such a simple time discovering their destiny. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t become engaged in politics until the age of 35, when the fall of the Berlin Wall opened up a new world of political opportunities to East Germans such as herself. Before that historic event, Merkel had focused on earning her doctorate as a physical chemist, and whatever political aspirations she might have had were subsumed by the political restrictions that she had known for her entire life as an East German. It’s hard to imagine that she, or anyone else inhabiting the bleak repression of Communist Europe, could have conceived of how radically her life would change after the revolutions of 1989.

Unlike Merkel, President Barack Obama had displayed an interest in political and social issues during his 20s, although his own eventual desire to pursue a career in politics had not become fully evident to him at that time, according to his biography. After graduating from Columbia University with a degree in political science (specializing in international relations), Obama moved to Chicago and spent three years as a community organizer. While studying at Harvard Law School, he told Ebony Magazine that he was pursuing his JD because it would help him in his work as a community organizer. This was a period of considerable hardship for Obama — he barely scraped by with a decent living, worked grueling hours, and often felt that his various career goals were thwarted by those with more experience and pull than him.

The Ones Who Follow Their Fathers’ Paths

Despite representing opposite ends of the conservative spectrum, 2016 Republican presidential candidate and current Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and former Florida governor Jeb Bush are both notable for closely following the career paths of their prominent fathers, Ron Paul and George H.W. Bush. In Paul’s case, this entailed spending his undergraduate years at Baylor University as an anti-tax activist with a notorious independent streak, which he then followed by completing medical school and becoming a doctor (although he became an opthamologist even though his father was an obstetrician).

For Bush, this meant spending the years after his graduation trying his hand at various business ventures until he managed to make his own fortune; although he eventually succeeded, Bush was so broke when moved to Miami at the age of 27 that he had to use his American Express card to pay his MasterCard bill. “After Bush moved his young family to Miami, making money — lots of it — became a priority,” wrote Alecia Swasy and Robert Trigaux of the St. Petersburg Times. “Bush was raised in a wealthy household and wanted the same living standards for his family.”

A 26-Year-Old Barack Obama

KOGELO, KENYA – JANUARY 12: A family photograph of Barack Obama with his step-grandmother Sarah Obama on a 1987 visit to Kenya stands on a table in her house on January 12, 2008 in Kogelo, western Kenya. Barack Hussein Obama, father of US presidential candidate hopeful Obama, was born and raised in Kogelo. He died in a car accident in 1982. Senator Barack Obama’s parents separated when he was young. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Future Leaders of the World: How Millennials Think About Politics

The Ones Who Started In Business or the Military Sometimes the business world brought future political leaders together in surprising ways. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney worked at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group in 1976, where they became good friends. More importantly, despite having had drastically different life experiences beforehand — Romney had served as a Mormon missionary in France, studied business in college, and worked on his father’s presidential campaign, while Netanyahu mixed serving in the Israeli military with completing his higher education — both learned how to “employ similar methods in analyzing problems and coming up with solutions for them” (Netanyahu’s own words) during their time together at BCG.The last group to be included here are the politicians who spent their 20-something years defending their countries. Although Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold very different political ideologies, McCain came of age while serving in the Navy (he wasn’t captured and held as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam until his early 30s), while Putin spent his 20s rising through the ranks of the KGB. If there is any lesson to be learned from studying the early adulthoods of these men and women, it is that one can wind up having a successful career in politics through any number of routes. Sometimes a future politician already sensed that he or she was going to pursue a career as an elected official, whether through their own initiative (Clinton, Walker) or because they were following in their father’s footsteps (Bush, Paul). Others started out in completely different careers than the ones they had set out for themselves (Merkel, Obama), or entered politics through a sideways route such as business (Romney, Netanyahu) or service protecting their country (McCain, Putin). There is no single path that needs to be taken to become a national or world leader.