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Energetic Americans

Posted in Journalism with tags on June 2, 2011 by bridbeast

Gillian Tett’s column in the FT Weekend magazine is always worth a read. This week she writes about the trend of American high achievers continuing to take on major new projects, even develop new careers, into their 60s and beyond.

“The other night, I was seated at a dinner next to Henry Louis Gates Jr, a black literary professor at Harvard University, who has forged a brilliant career as a public intellectual…

“Cheerfully, Gates described the dizzy whirlwind of his current life: he is making documentaries about blacks in Latin America, writing books, editing a website and sitting on assorted boards. Oh, and performing his “day job” – running a department at Harvard. So far, so normal, by the standards of America’s hyperactive east coast power elite.”

I’m not so much interested in the age issue (at least not yet, anyway), but rather how on earth do these people manage to do so much? I feel the same mix of envy and exhaustion when I read about Victorian Britons like Dickens or Gladstone.

How do they get it all done? Some theories:

  1. They don’t piss around on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Particularly true for Gladstone and Dickens.
  2. They don’t sleep very much. But when I try this I get ill after about a week. Are these people suffering a permanent cold?
  3. They don’t do much fun stuff. I suspect this is probably true. They just work. Maybe Mr Gates has swapped hanging out with his mates for editing his documentary or his website.
  4. They’re not very good at what they do. Unlikely, but possible. We’ve all met people in senior positions whose grasp of the details isn’t that great. They rely on their assistants, and who’s to say the east coast power elite don’t have a bunch of interns and lackeys preparing briefs and doing the time-consuming leg-work of research.
  5. They have domestic servants. So whilst I and the rest of the harassed middle classes are doing the washing up and going to Sainsbury’s, our highly paid power elites are busy on their projects, which will give them that good elitey stuff like cultural influence, power or cold hard cash. Meanwhile Renata from Mexico City is cleaning the bathroom.


This last point my explain Ms Tett’s “subtle divide” between the US and Europe, where people tend to retire in their 60s. I’ve no stats to hand, but I imagine there are more domestic workers in the US, and that they are more affordable. (If someone could prove or disprove this for me I’d really appreciate that.) It would also explain our energetic Victorian forebears – there were always plenty of household servants or wives, freeing the man up to be energetic.

Alas, not an option open to most of us. I think I’m going to buy a big pack of paper plates.