Why are we so obsessed with success early in life?
When 27-year-old novelist Sally Rooney became the youngest-ever winner of the Costa Book Prize last week, it was to deafening cheers of critical acclaim that have characterised her brief career. Rooney has already been heralded as “the first great millennial novelist”, and a “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”. And these Snapchatting millennials have since been overwhelming booksellers in the rush to read their author, prompting shops to advertise that they still have copies of her novel, Normal People, in stock. Yet, for all her obvious talent, the fanfare around Rooney’s award made this millennial’s heart sink slightly.
The slightly frenzied reaction to Rooney seems to be symptomatic of the way we now react to achievements by young people. Last year, another 27-year-old author, Daisy Johnson, became the youngest person to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for her debut novel, Everything Under. Likewise, some of 17-year-old Autumn de Forest’s expressionist paintings have been valued at $7m (£5.5m), poet Ocean Vuong was only 28 when he won the TS Eliot prize for his debut collection in 2017, and Christopher Paolini published the first of his bestselling Inheritance series when he was in his teens. It seems we increasingly celebrate youthfulness as a marker of success in and of itself; Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21 list began in 2017. This year’s cohort includes 11-year-old designer Kheris Rogers and seven-year-old “activist” Havana Chapman-Edwards.
Rooney, Johnson and their contemporaries’ acclaim might be well-deserved, but our obsession with publicising youthful achievement has consequences. Anne Helen Petersen’s article on millennial burnoutwent viral last week for its critique of how the precarious economic environment has led to what she describes as “errand paralysis” in millennials; the pressures to succeed at work and in our personal lives – perhaps with stories of 20-something geniuses at the backs of our minds – leave us unable to undertake even the simplest of tasks.
The focus on prodigies also means that older artists don’t always get their due. For instance, one of the best albums of 2018 came from 68-year-old bluesman Lonnie Holley. Traded for a bottle of whisky as a child and one of 26 siblings, he uses his gravelly baritone to sing of the injustices of his bewildering life and powerful musical resurrection. Similarly, singer Charles Bradley had to make his living as a James Brown impersonator for most of his career, only releasing his own music at the age of 63 with 2011’s No Time for Dreaming. He released two more records before dying in 2017 at the age of 68. In the art world, the painter Rose Wylie only began being given major solo exhibitions in her 70s.
The moral of these examples is out of kilter with the times, and hugely inspiring. It’s not “if you’re lucky enough you’ll be born brilliant”, but “keep plugging away and you’ll eventually find the success you deserve”.
The effects of the fetishisation of youth aren’t just felt by onlookers. For the prodigies themselves, the blaze of publicity isn’t always benign. The traumas of child stars such as Michael Jackson have been well documented, but last year we were reminded of Lauryn Hill, whose critically acclaimed debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released 20 years earlier, when she was 23. It was her only solo album. And after the enormous success of his debut in 1987 at 25 years old, Terence Trent D’Arby claimed recently he has been left with PTSD .
I’m not saying we should discourage youthful achievement – but perhaps we ought not to capitalise on it so aggressively when it occurs. The “race to success” is not always worth winning. We should listen to Rose Wylie: “It shouldn’t be about age or gender or anything, it should just be about the quality” – of the work, the life lived, the quieter moments.
• Ammar Kalia is a Guardian journalist and holder of a Scott Trust bursary
‘The fanfare around Sally Rooney’s award made this millennial’s heart sink slightly.’ Photograph: Patrick Bolger for The Guardian
‘Poet Ocean Vuong was only 28 when he wonthe TS Eliot prize for his debut collection in2017.’ Photograph: Adrian Pope