I read a lot in various tech blogs how the young–for me, that’s Millennials and younger–have an advantage over anyone older because they’re more tech-savvy. You know what? They’re right. My mom and dad use their computers for email and checking the news, that’s about it. My dad refuses to buy a smart phone. I myself have mental blocks about InDesign, Siri, humanoid robots, and several online chat programs.
However, unlike Mr. Reagan, I can and will take advantage of younger people’s youth and inexperience. I need any advantage I can get. And the single most important advantage an older person has is simply more time on this Earth to do more things. Electronically, younger people might have larger networks than me and no doubt can call on the “hive mind” of the internet to answer any question they see fit. That doesn’t mean I avoid the electrons (unlike the guy in the Dilbert cartoon below), but my electrons plus my in-person experiences can help me get quicker results than electrons alone.
In this case, the older person’s advantage is simply face-to-face experience working with other professionals in my chosen field. Yes, someone younger might be able to email Eminent Subject Matter Expert X with a request and they might or might not get a response. My advantage might be something as minor as having met the Eminent Subject Matter and hanging out with them at several industry-related events. Example: when I first started writing articles about space as a regular habit, I had zero connections; today I can call upon multiple professionals whom I’ve worked with in some capacity to get the information (or quotations) I need to round out the article.
The clip from The Hunt for Red October below is actually a reverse situation where the younger professional shuts down an older one, but it gets the point across. The longer you’ve been around, the more people you’ve had the opportunity to meet; and if you’ve met someone, you might have more credibility than someone who’s just a LinkedIn connection simply because you know them.
Not all of this is a given, nor is it entirely rational. Human beings are interesting folk, and depending on your reputation, sometimes face-to-face experience isn’t the best advantage (corollary of being older–you’ve had more time to make enemies as well as friends).
However, I think it’s a mistake to discount the inputs of someone older than you. Respect for the wisdom of age is not always a common practice in the tech sector culture, where young minds and fresh ideas predominate. However, an experienced professional’s relationships have something a younger person’s might not: leverage. One of my employers, Zero Point Frontiers, does draw on the wisdom of a couple of Apollo-era veterans to develop their aerospace engineering products. These gentlemen (“graybeards” in NASA parlance) know what’s been done before, know how the system works within specific organizations, know whom to call to get an answer or decision quickly, and have the stature to get people to listen to them. That’s a combination of abilities and experience that’s hard to top.
So here are my final thoughts on age in the workplace: if you get the opportunity to pick the brain of or be mentored by a senior professional in your field, take it. Will they have wrongheaded or backwards ideas about this or that technology? Possibly, though if you explain its use in practical terms they’ll get it soon enough. Might you disagree with them about politics? Certainly, but you’re there to work, not vote, right? What that eminent older person might offer you, though, are the insights and connections to improve your own standing and network. Those are lessons well worth learning.