Of the Tension Between Eminence & Accomplishment

A quick scan through history to re-examine some of the most memorable feats of human endeavour reveal an interesting trend. The most epic moments of disruption and creativity are typically shared by “small groups of people”. And the most formidable groups tend to be made up predominantly young persons entrusted with great responsibility by a system in upheaval or transition. A few, by no means representative, examples:

1. Average age of the Beatles when they released Sergeant Pepper (universally acclaimed as their best work) – 25

2. Average age of the scientists who built the first atomic bomb in history as part of the Manhattan Project – 27

3. Average age of founders of top five social media networks – 28

4. Average age of CEOs of tech companies worth a $1 billion or more – 34

5. The average age of the Bolshevik veterans when they launched the movement that became the Russian revolution – 24 (Lenin himself though was 26 though).

It is history that judges such groups of people and the record of their impact as exceptional. When the choice is taken out of history’s hands and left with privileged committees, we observe the reverse in action.

1. Average Age of an Oscar Winner is 44 years (average age of members of the Academy itself is 63).

2. Average Age of a Nobel Laureate is 59 years (average age of members of the Norweigian committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize is 61).

3. Average age of members of the Mormon Church’s governing committee – 80.

Apart from showing that history tends to judge effort differently from elite gatekeepers, there is probably some merit also in pointing out that a sense of disruption sometimes induce a higher propensity for risk, thus instilling a climate that appears to favour youthful exuberance and radicalism. Left to cold, rational, calculation, elites err on the side of caution. Elites everywhere, in fact.

In that regard, the issue is probably one of social attitude (youthful-radical or conservative-ageist), rather than numerical age per se, I think. More deeper still, it is a question of whether Elites have any genuine anxiety of displacement in certain societies more than others (because when lacking an incentive, they cling to comfortable notions of merit).

Which is why, the average age of Ghana’s liberators deviates from the norm above. The average age of Big Six members was 41, for instance. And that of the Founders of the African National Congress also hovered in the mid-forties.

In Africa, it can be argued that settled elites tend to be comfortable in their ideological primacy even in moments of great upheaval.

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