<img src="https://certify.alexametrics.com/atrk.gif?account=43vOv1Y1Mn20Io" style="display:none" height="1" width="1" alt="">

Resolving the ancient question of age vs experience

You're never too old. Pic:
4 minute read
You're never too old. Pic: Shutterstock

David Shapton on how an understanding of the modern world can often need an appreciation of the ancient one from all of, oh, a few decades ago.

While you're reading this, you might have a reasonable expectation that I've written about something I understand. Sorry to disappoint you, but this week, I'm writing an entire article about something I don't understand at all. But stay with me, because I'm hoping by the end of the article, you won't understand it either.

Am I alone in thinking that the last few years - no, scratch that; the last few decades - have whizzed past almost unnoticed? It's not that nothing has happened in that time span; it's just that it's gone past so quickly. I'm not aware of a gold standard to measure this against, and it's undoubtedly subjective, but by the time you get to my age, there's a sense of "What happened? Where did all those years go?".

In a way, this is new. With longer lifespans thanks to antibiotics, vaccines, better sewage, etc., you're statistically likely to live longer after retirement and in good health and mobility. That's a huge benefit for individuals but a societal problem as the median age shifts towards higher numbers. Eventually, we get old, and then we need, on average, more help from others than we can give (although that's a complex equation).

I'm increasingly aware that I have friends who have reached their late 50s and early 60s who can't get jobs anymore. Many have worked hard for their entire lives but haven't built up a solid retirement income for diverse reasons. So they want to keep working. And my question is: why shouldn't they? After all, they come pre-loaded with massive experience.

The case for the opposition

So I'm going to play devil's advocate here. What might be the objections?

Paradigm change could be one of them, perhaps the biggest. There are multiple versions of this argument, but one might be that we're in a state of constant change. Whatever experience an older person comes with, it will be out of date.

First, if paradigm changes come so frequently, then the same could be said to apply to anyone over thirty (an arbitrary figure, but humour me). What if you've spent the last ten years learning how to operate professional editing suites based on tape-to-tape and an edit controller? Of course, I'm not talking about the present day. But this was an actual situation when non-linear editing came along. A 30-year-old who'd never used a computer before isn't much different from a 55-year-old who's never used a computer before, except that the more mature person would have been through several paradigm changes previously.

Some would say that younger people are likely to have had a more relevant education. But I don't think that's an argument that has much force. Many, if not most, in our industry didn't study anything relevant to their current jobs. Most of us learn as we go along, and older people will have spent more time learning as they went along.

There's a stereotype, perhaps even a prejudice, which says that older people don't understand new technology: that they're not so good at computers. To which I'd say, "look at the timeline". People much older than me not only understand computers, they invented them, for heaven's sake. It's true that desktop PCs - mass-market computers affordable by ordinary people (as opposed to those who worked in universities etc.) didn't come along until around thirty years after the first viable computers. But that was 40 years ago! People retiring now are very likely to have routinely shovelled a pile of thirty-two floppy disks into their computer while installing Microsoft Office.

Don't sneer. If that sounds primitive, don't be tempted to suggest that any skills acquired back then aren't helpful now simply because we don't have to do that anymore. It's easy to forget that computing back then was incredibly difficult, especially if it was anything to do with audio or video. PCs weren't media savvy in those days. Even editing a stereo audio track was a monumental technical and logistical challenge - not to mention a financial one. You'd have to install extra hardware into your computer at a time when "plug and play" wasn't even a rumour. You'd need to know the vagaries of early versions of SCSI, when the cables were as thick as a hosepipe. And to format a disk, you'd have to understand hard disk architecture in a way that's long been abstracted out of reach.

The original makers

If you could figure out how to do this stuff, you'd have no trouble with today's technology, which is typically easier to configure. But you would also bring decades of fault-finding and hands-on problem-solving experience to the table. It doesn't matter how advanced media tech has become; a bad cable is still a bad cable. Dropped samples or frames are still likely to be a clock issue. Even the most advanced network architectures aren't too hard to grasp, especially since anyone approaching conventional retirement is expected to have spent the last two decades at least helping other people fix their computer and network problems.

You can't just "become experienced" overnight. Older professionals have lived through so many changes (Valves/Tubes to transistors, transistors to Integrated Circuits (ICs), ICs to microprocessors and so on). Today, we're on the threshold of an AI-dominated creative workflow and, after that, quantum computing - and there's no reason why a younger person would find quantum computing more intuitive than an older person. They're all challenges; they're all disruptive. But it's easier to cope with this kind of change if you've been through changes of a similar magnitude before.

Experience is not just about knowing how to plug this into that. It's about taking a perspective on the current issues, being able to take a more expansive view of a company, and it's about the confidence to deal with whatever your professional life throws at you.

I'm not sure quite how it happened, but I spend some of my time giving advice and writing about the metaverse. I find that I sometimes literally know more about it than people working in the field (because I'm a generalist and not a specialist). But I wonder if it's because, for 40 years, I've been watching the antecedent technologies growing in capability and relevance. Without that historical perspective, and with a subject as significant, all-embracing and potentially disruptive as the metaverse, it's harder to understand the implications - and the practical measures needed to make it work - if you're entirely new to all of this.

I'm lucky, and happy with my work life. But so much talent is being washed down the drain because of an arbitrary perception of usefulness versus age.

Tags: Technology