Sebastian Kurz and the Rise of the European Millennial

Head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz (L) and head of the Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache address the media after their first round of coalition talks in Vienna, Austria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger​

The 31-year-old likely Austrian prime minister will soon be the world’s youngest head of government.

While the United States is governed by its oldest-inaugurated president in history, many of its cousins in Europe seem to be charting a different course. Indeed, many of Trump’s would-be successors—Bernie Sanders, who is seventy-six years old, Joe Biden, who is seventy-four, Elizabeth Warren, who is sixty-eight, and even Hillary Clinton (who celebrates her seventieth birthday today)—seem to be joining in on the American trend of abandoning retirement altogether. Europe is different. The near-assured ascension of thirty-one-year-old Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz to his nation’s highest post would make him the world’s youngest leader, beating a contemporary in North Korea by a debated number of years.

Kurz is “slick and opportunistic, the polar opposite of Angela Merkel,” the German chancellor, in style and deed, says Clay Clemens, European politics professor at the College of William & Mary. “The anti-establishment mood is strong everywhere, but especially in Austria,” Clemens tells me, arguing that Kurz is “a young careerist” in the mold of the Jupiterian current president of France. “When party brass told him to wait his turn, he turned on its leadership and made full use of its unpopularity to fashion a Macron-style candidacy… His huge network of younger contacts was a huge asset.”

Emmanuel Macron, thirty-nine, is Kurz’s most prominent peer, but Alexis Tsipras, forty-three, of Greece and Spanish opposition politician Pablo Iglesias, thirty-nine, are other examples. If you have access to a time machine, beam the headline “Trump and Greek PM Alexis Tsipras hold joint White House press conference” from last week to our friends in 2014, who would be gobsmacked by the joint rise of the populist-right outsider and the radical left Greek (reportedly, the two actually got along swimmingly).

Not long ago, Britain was governed by the so-called Bullingdon Set, a group of top British politicians and aides, all under the age of fifty and educated at Oxford. In 2010, George Osborne, at age thirty-eight, became the youngest Chancellor of the Exchequer in modern times, no slouch position—treasurer in the world’s preeminent financial city.

What enabled their rise was, in part, a different European approach to politics: acceptance of politics as a vocation in and of itself. Osborne biographer Janan Ganesh writes in his 2012 book, The Austerity Chancellor: “Politics is a trade with its own skills and codes that can only be learned on the job. It is not an amateur vocation for talented people from other fields.” By American standards, the prime minister Osborne served, David Cameron, never had an honest job in his life: he started working for the Conservative Party straight out of school, not uncommon for Europols. By contrast, Donald Trump owes his residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in no small part to his reputation as a businessman and a complete outsider. At thirty-one years of age, Sebastian Kurz wouldn’t even be eligible for the U.S. presidency.

But another factor is at work in Kurz’s rise, one he shares with Trump: antipathy toward immigration—and the global rise of the city. Kurz is part of Austria’s long-reigning, center-right Austrian People’s Party, but many argue that he was only able to keep the establishment in power by cribbing much of the platform of his rival, the hardline Freedom Party. Earlier this week, Kurz invited them into government, a dramatic move for a political party once broadly viewed in the Austrian public as unacceptable.