This is the time of year when new members of Congress and new Cabinet Secretaries take to their desks. One thing that most of these folks have in common is that they are pretty old. John Kerry, for example, was born 70 years ago (1943). Chuck Hagel was born 67 years ago (1946).
Old people are more cautious and presumably wise than young people. But they (“we”; I might as well include myself since I will be 50 this year) have some cognitive deficits and one of those is that America is the world’s greatest collection of smart people.
One example is a dinner party that I attended back in 2012 hosted by a couple whose average age was about 70. The husband is a Harvard graduate. The two were fretting about global warming. I said “Well at least we won’t have to worry about continued pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions, from cars. As soon as there is a good battery technology people will very quickly switch to electric cars and they will be a lot more efficient. It might take 10 years, of course.” (I wrote about electric cars in this 2008 posting.) They said “You’re an MIT graduate. Why don’t you design a better battery?”
Their confidence in my ability, simply due to having attended MIT, would have been touching if not for the fact that this was shortly after A123 Systems, the best-known MIT battery spinoff, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Boston Globe had been running articles about how they were going to their corporate grave with $400 million in tax dollars plus another $400 million in private capital.
Last year was also tough on Harvard’s reputation for unusual brilliance. The most direct spinoff of Harvard Business School is Monitor Group, whose job was to tell companies how to be more profitable using the unique genius that could only be found among Harvard Business School professors and graduates. Monitor went bankrupt in November 2012 (see this Forbes story).
Leaders who came of age during a period of American dominance have a track record of complacency that has led to whole industries dying. When Kerry and Hagel were in college, for example, RCA and Philco were world leaders in electronics. Samsung had not entered the market.
Maybe the answer is to continue appointing older managers in order to benefit from their wisdom but decorate their offices with photos of the latest products designed and built in the world’s rapidly growing economies and also photos that will remind them of American hubris and the consequences of complacency. (Reader suggestions for the photos would be welcome!)