The biggest technology story of this past year involves a fraud perpetrated by a boy. Or so the press would have us believe.
Just months before Sam Bankman-Fried’s unraveling, Fortune Magazine referred to the billionaire as a “trading wunderkind” a latter-day Warren Buffett only with a “goofy facade” and a penchant for fidget spinners. Even after his downfall and subsequent arrest in the Bahamas, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Axios all referred to Bankman-Fried, or SBF, as a disgraced “crypto wunderkind.”
Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times illustrated his boyishness best when interviewing him at the Times’ DealBook Summit last November. “When you read the stories,” Sorkin said, “it sounds like a bunch of kids who were all on Adderall having a sleepover party.”
SBF’s fate will now be decided by the Southern District of New York, but his media charade of aw-shucks interviews and congressional testimony laced with brogrammer idioms built a public persona that we’ve largely come to accept: SBF is just a kid. Indeed, he’s so young that his law school professor parents were involved in his business and political dealings. (In this, they embody the helicopter style of child-rearing favored by nearly the entire Boomer elite.)
The reality, of course, is that SBF is a grown-ass, 30-year-old man. He is twelve years older than many of the men and women we sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Twelve years older than the adults we encourage to swallow hundreds of thousands of dollars in college debt before even declaring a major. And, if we’re serious about the math, SBF is a mere eight years away from the half-life of the average adult American man, who boasts a provisional life expectancy of only 76 years, according to the CDC. At 38, SBF would have already lived most of his life on Earth.
Perhaps you’ve given little thought to SBF or FTX beyond: WTF!? In which case I applaud your rich social life and sense of restraint.
But the reason this iteration of the time-tested financial fraud plotline matters so much is not because SBF is an exception to the rule of how our culture infantilizes millennials. It’s that he is the rule.
The tens of millions of Americans that are, like me, millennials or members of the generation just younger, Gen Z, have been treated as hapless children our entire lives. We have been coded as “young” in business, in politics, and in culture. All of which is why we shouldn’t be surprised that millennials are the most childless and least home-owning generation in modern American history. One can’t play house with a spouse or have their own children when they’ve moved back into mom’s, as 17 percent of millennials have.
Aside from the technology sector—which prizes outliers, disagreeableness, creativity and encourages people in their twenties to take on the founder title and to build things that they own—most other sectors of American life are geriatric.
The question is why.
There are many theories—and many would-be culprits. Some believe it’s the fault of the Boomers, who have relentlessly coddled their children, perhaps subconsciously, because they don’t want to pass the baton. Others put the blame on the young, who are either too lazy, too demoralized or too neurotic to have beaten down the doors of power to demand their turn.
Then again, life expectancy is growing among the healthy and elite in industrialized nations, so perhaps this is all just progress and 70 is the new 40. But one can take little solace in the growing life expectancy of the last 200 years when comparing ourselves to more productive generations that didn’t waste decades on extended adolescence.
Every Independence Day, we’re reminded that on July 4, 1776, the most famous founders of this country were in their early 20s (Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr) and early 30s (Thomas Jefferson). Even grandfatherly George Washington was a mere 44. These days much of our political class, from Bill Clinton (elected president 30 years ago at age 46) to financial leaders like Warren Buffett (92), and Bill Gates (67) who launched Microsoft 48 years ago, are still dominant three and four decades after seizing the reins of power. CEOs of companies listed on the S&P 500 are getting older and staying in their jobs longer, with the average CEO now 58 years old and staying in his or her role 10.8 years versus 7.2 a decade ago. And our political culture looks even more gray: Twenty-five percent of Congress is now over the age of 70 giving us the oldest Congress of any in American history.
The Boomer ascendancy in America and industrialized nations has left us with a global gerontocracy and a languishing generation waiting in the wings. Not only does extended adolescence—what psychologist Erik Erikson first referred to as a “psychosocial moratorium” or the interim years between childhood and adulthood— affect the public life of younger generations, but their private lives as well.
In 1990, the average age of first marriage in the U.S. was 23 for women and 26 for men, up from 20 for women and 22 for men in 1960. By 2021, that number had risen to 28.6 years for women and 30.4 years for men, according to the Census Bureau, with 44 percent of U.S. women between the ages of 25 and 44 expected to be single in 2030. Delayed adulthood has had disastrous consequences for procreation in industrialized nations and is at the root of declining fertility and all-but-certain population collapse in dozens of countries, many of which expect the halving of their populations by the end of the century.
“Twenty-five is the new 18,” said The Scientific American in 2017, pointing to research that extended adolescence is a byproduct of affluence and progress in society. Which is why the finiteness of a mid-thirties half-life is such a surprise to those in their 20s and 30s. It runs counter to every meme and piece of advice young people receive about building a career, a family, a company and in turn, a country.
The prevailing wisdom in Western nations is that the ages of 18-29 are a time for extreme exploration—the collecting of memories, friends, partners and most importantly, self-identity. A full twelve years of you! Self-discovery aided by platforms built for broadcasting photos of artisanal cocktails and brunch. And with no expectation for leadership because there will be time for that, a generation can absolve oneself of responsibility for their actions. (Tragically, that was never true for half of the population, which is why we have a generation of extremely accomplished older women, who weren’t really aware how difficult it is to become pregnant at 39.)
The charitable view of extended adolescence is that it emerged as a dominant feature of 21st century life because there were no real alternatives to it. The Great Recession and a cataclysmic real-estate bubble made it impossible for young people to follow their parents’ trajectory of marriage by 30, children, and home ownership. Even worse for the highly-credentialed, those well-paying careers promised to the ever-growing managerial class didn’t materialize as widely as promised, resulting in a dearth of real economic power that set back this cohort by a decade.
Rather than holding leaders accountable for poor political and economic policies, the culture compensated with some particularly potent memes: indulge in experiences, go to grad school, or perhaps see the world with increasingly cheap air travel. The price of air travel declined by more than 50 percent from 1980 to 2019, and the number of passport holders in the U.S. shot up from 16 percent of total population to 42 percent in the last two decades, democratizing jet setting and experiential spending in ways previous generations couldn’t fathom. All the while the substantial things in life that compound with time—family formation and homeownership—declined at a rapid pace in the 2010s.
In many ways, the emergence of extended adolescence was designed both to coddle the young and to conceal an obvious fact: that the usual leadership turnover across institutions is no longer happening. That the old are quite happy to continue delaying aging and the finality it brings, while the young dither away their prime years with convenient excuses and even better TikTok videos.
So in 2023, here we are: in a tri-polar geopolitical order led by septuagenarians and octogenarians. Xi Jinping, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have little in common, but all three are entering their 70s and 80s, orchestrating the final acts of their political careers and frankly, their lives. That we are beholden to the decisions of leaders whose worldviews were shaped by the wars, famines, and innovations of a bygone world, pre-Internet and before widespread mass education, is in part why our political culture feels so stale. That the gerontocracy is a global phenomenon and not just an American quirk should concern us: younger generations who are native to technological strength, modern science and emerging cultural ailments are still sidelined and pursuing status markers they should have achieved a decade ago.
Will we see the American public demand a passing of the torch? Or will we arrive at the opposite conclusion? That we need real experts for these precarious times. That leadership must come from the seasoned and the gray. Anthony Fauci (82) isn’t retiring, he says. Age is relative, don’t you know. And the sins of SBF will lead to even more extreme skepticism of ambitious young founders and leaders, who will be lumped in with a fraudster because of their age. Rather than blame the man for his maleficence, we’ll hear experts clamor for more “adults in the room.”
If you still believe you’re a child at 30, there may be a hot crypto exchange in the Bahamas looking for a buyer.