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The New Glass Elevator: You're Too Young

Thursday, 2 Apr 2009 | 4:53 PM ET

How old is the old media?

Apparently old enough to think this article in the New York Times "Obama's Man on the Budget: Just 40 and Going Like 60" is a story.

Peter Orszag is only 40 years old and he's Obama's director of the OMB.

Only 40!?

Mozart had been dead for 5 years by the time he would've been 40. Al Capone was boss of Chicago before he turned 30, about the same amount of time it took Alexander the Great to conquer half of the known world in his day.

The idea that 40 is young to be in a position of power points to one of the things that I hate the most about how our culture treats age and work. Outside of the arts and sports, it's virtually unheard of for someone to be incredibly successful and truly young at the same time.

Now there are plenty of good reasons for this, in general. But you'd think there would be more outliers, more young people—truly young—who are successful in business and politics than there are.

The fact is, there are enormous barriers to upward mobility for younger workers.

Call it a glass elevator. You have to pay your dues and wait your turn. That's the institutional attitude at most businesses. And since most people who are ensconced in positions of authority are what I consider old, since everybody came up having to pay their dues, the system keeps going strong.

There's not really much we can do to make things more meritocratic for younger people. My fury here is totally impotent. But I think it's worth pointing out something so glaringly absurd, that 40 is considered young in political circles. It really reveals what we're up against.

As an aside, the sad thing about the collapse of Wall Street, from my point of view at least, is that, at the very least, it seemed like one of the few places where you could get ahead regardless of your age. It's all about the numbers as in how much money you could make for the firm, not the number of years you've been working.

Things are a lot more meritocratic for the population as a whole today than they were a hundred or a thousand years ago. But relatively speaking, it's probably the worst time to be young unless you're a great athlete or musician or have terrific connections.

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