Generation hand off in careers

Motivation for this post came from an article posted by AARP discussing the problem of age discrimination in the labor market.   The article attempted to justify its observation of age discrimination by signs of unfair evaluations or reduction in offered opportunities with promising futures.   I wasn’t convinced.

Reports show that unemployment rates are lowest among the older workers.   This may be biased because a larger population of older people drop out of the labor market if they no longer find sufficiently rewarding work.   But in terms of raw numbers there are still a lot of jobs locked up by older people where those jobs could be filled by the younger ones.

I do not know if age discrimination exists or if it is a problem.   From my personal experience, I haven’t noticed it.   Perhaps the reason I haven’t noticed it is because I interpret similar circumstances differently.

Early in my career I recall being impressed with a higher ranking senior member of the staff.  In his office were proudly framed copies of patents awarded in his name.   While there is good reason to be proud of patents (especially before the current era of seemingly ridiculous patent claims), I suspected these patents part of what earned him a respected position within the company.  That position was managerial in rank and pay but without a staff to manage.   I was impressed with his status until I saw the dates on the patents.   He earned those patents at the beginning of his career, when he was young.    The young man earned those patents, not the old one in front of me.

Later, I recall interviewing people who pointed to great achievements in their resumes.   I had no reason to doubt that they were telling the truth.   But some of those achievements occurred 10 or even 20 years earlier.   To be sure, there were progressively more responsible positions to fill in the interim periods, but he accomplished the more impressive achievements when he was much younger.

Recently, I have been reading up on recent technologies that I hadn’t a need to use previously.  I found video courses and written blogs covering the material in great detail and with both authority and enthusiasm.   More often than not the speaker or writer is young.  In my aged eyes, almost too young.   Young enough to make me wonder how such a young people could be such confident experts, but then I recall I was probably taught by PhD professors younger than them.

What appears to me to be young is not young at all.    A person in his late 20s is actually quite old and fully capable of being competitive to anyone at least in terms of application of technologies.    By the time someone reaches 40, they can be more than competitive for nearly any role.

As I approach my mid 50s, I don’t think of myself as being old.   I imagine myself working side by side with coworkers on the latest technologies without thinking age difference at all.   I do not fear being discriminated by age because currently I’m discriminated properly because of capability.

At least in my personal experience, the progress of my career left me in poor shape to compete against younger people.    I imagine my experience is not unique.

I think most of what people consider to be age discrimination occurs at a pivotal time when one assignment ends and the person has to compete for a transfer to a different assignment or perhaps to a different employer.   At that moment, he may notice younger people gaining the positions that he wanted.   He may have met the requirements for the position but the younger person still got the job.   I am guessing that it was probably because the younger person had an edge of being just that much deeper into the new skills and the culture surrounding those skills.

However, the older person may feel that experience, seniority, and past performance in excellence should have awarded him the position.   In essence, he expected to the age discrimination to be in his favor.   The claim of age discrimination may be a frustration that age discrimination did not occur in favor of seniority.

His record of performance reviews proves he is an achiever.   Those same reviews also prove he was able to achieve that performance when he was much younger.

I think a larger problem than age discrimination is the problem of the trajectory of a career.   I will illustrate using my personal experience.  I started with a project with an idea that I was enthusiastic about.   Hard work paid off in producing a highly valued solution.  That solution needed to be managed and it was reasonable to elevate my role to manage the project.   This particular project required me to do a lot of technical work to maintain and advance what I had earlier produced, but the management role added the burdens of managing staff.     Ten years elapsed during this period of managing an aging project.

During that time I was stuck in time with the ideas I had developed perhaps as many as 15 years prior.    I recall hearing the insistence of keeping skills current, but I also recall being overwhelmed with managing a project and keeping an old idea relevant to new challenges without an opportunity to completely replace it.    To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about the prospect of my later competitiveness.  My energies were absorbed in the project of meeting the contract of maintaining the existing but aging solution.

Eventually the project left me free to pursue other opportunities.   I found a world of new and exciting technologies that had they been as mature back when I started my project, my project would have been much easier.    As I study these new technologies, I recognize what the technologies are doing because that is what I had to do myself.   I immediate appreciate the value of the newer technologies.

But I notice that my teachers are younger than me.  In fact they are much younger.   Being my teachers, they know this stuff better than I do.  I may have a firm understanding of the underlying theory and concepts, but I am at a disadvantage in terms of the particulars.

I think of an interview scenario where a problem would be stated.  I think I would do well to describe what considerations are involved with the project.   However, I would be at a huge disadvantage when asked to demonstrate with the newer technologies how I would implement something to address those considerations.    At such a quiz level, it would be hard to compete with someone who had been actively using the latest technologies for the duration I was absorbed in my old project.    I feel comfortable in being able to quickly get to a point of being useful for the new technologies, but I doubt I will be more impressive than the younger worker.

There is more to the difference than just exposure to technology.   The younger person has spent his formative years connecting into a cultural network of similar technologies and like-minded experts.   While I deserve some blame for not spending more time to similarly connect with that community, I feel that I had much less opportunity to do that.  I was very busy with my particular project.  In addition, that project discouraged external technical exchanges for mission reasons.

I do think I am in the category of an older group who wants to enter the work force but has to compete with younger groups.   My past performance is at least respectable enough to qualify for a job.   But I’m competing with people who know the specifics better than I do and are much better connected with the culture surrounding that technology.    In such a competition, I’m likely to lose.    As I lose, I accept it is a fair result because I am not as well qualified as the younger competitors.

My only recourse to complaining about age discrimination is an assertion that the fact I have more work experience with good performance reviews should count for anything.   It doesn’t account for much.   I obtained that experience and earned those reviews when I was younger.   There is no reason to doubt that less experienced younger person will deliver similar performance especially as he shows enthusiasm and ambition.

I recognize some my age have managed to stay more up to date with the latest trends and are more competitive for these jobs.   I am only speaking for myself that I was not so prepared and thus I’m not begrudging the younger generation for being better qualified.

Even though I struggle to figure out where I will contribute next, I’m content to let the younger group take over.  I appreciate the difficulty of the project they are undertaking but also am glad that they will be better equipped to tackle even bigger challenges.

To me it is not age discrimination, but instead a natural cycle of life.   Many if not most of those young people may find themselves in a similar situation later in their lives.  Even if my career seems to have ended prematurely, I  hope they will be allowed to have their careers remain relevant at least as long as I had managed to last.    I hope they don’t find themselves where I am now but before they have reached the age of 40.

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