Two Birds, One Stone

>> Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I read an interesting article on ageism on the NYT today and it struck a chord with me. On the one hand, it does because I have a good friend who has had a hard time finding a job after a lifetime of gainful employment, a fascinating mind, excellent reasoning ability and a truly exceptional photographic talent. But, he's at the awkward age (50's) where with his experience and know-how he vastly overqualified and is perceived as too expensive.

It also strikes a chord because I happen to work in an environment rather heavily populated with highly experienced folks and retirees. The chief engineer for the Texas supercollider (that was never completed) used to work just down the hall from me, for instance. In my company, experience and know-how are treasured and valued.

What I don't understand is why that isn't treasured elsewhere. When I first started working at NASA (for Lockheed Engineering and Science Company), I knew half a dozen people who had been working there since the Apollo days, mostly technicians (or ex-technicians) who had learned a whole slew of hard lessons the hard way. I loved to listen to them talk, to the stories they had, to the mistakes and successes. I knew, for whatever reason, that this was experience I would never have the chance to learn myself or, if I did, I could use it to my advantage.

They were seasoned and knew their worth. I never had to explain to any of them why the smaller the wire the greater the resistance (as I sadly had to do with a fresh out ELECTRICAL engineer). They were there for the duration. They knew the processes. They knew what worked and could help steer younger engineers who didn't have that kind of knowledge down the right path.

I rarely see those old Apollo days engineers any more except in my office and, once in a while, in a meeting where they're usually the lone voice reminding us that analysis alone can't take the place of testing or that dissimilar studies should be taken with a grain of salt.

What a freakin' shame more of us "younger folks" (and I use the term loosely) aren't listening, aren't soaking up as much of their experience as we can get while we still have a chance. Too soon, they'll be gone and we'll be forging along a path with none of the pioneers who took us there the first time - or any of what they learned along the way.

What a pity.

On a related note, two of the people I've learned so much from have things they want to sell. Given that a few people who come here are interested in photography (good photography, not the kind I do) and old memorabilia, I thought I'd plug 'em here.

The first are some calendars the wildly talented Roy is selling on lulu. If you have a hard-to-buy for friend who appreciates photography on your Christmas list, this might be just what you're looking for.

The other are some fan magazines from the old heyday of Hollywood sold by my superlative SF friend, Eleanor. Eleanor used to costumes, is an authority on most things old Hollywood, has written a wonderful book on Nelson Eddy (who I adore) and Jeanette MacDonald and has easily the best website on them. If you're interested in the fan magazines, she's selling them on eBay.


  • The Mother

    In medicine, or at least patient care medicine, being older is a selling point. Patients want Marcus Welby, not Dougie Howser.

    Hubby grew a beard and mustache in his second year of practice, because his patients kept asking him when he was going to get out of medical school. In his mid-thirties.

    (On a total tangent, it is absolutely NOT fair that men age so much more gracefully than women. Hubby still looks like he could be in his late thirties. That's just wrong. Surely there's someone we can complain to???)

  • Stephanie B

    Complain to me. I'll listen. I've even got a couple of gray hairs - I'll be 42 in November.

  • Relax Max

    Doesn't seem right to not take advantage of experience. But, as you say, it's expensive, I guess.

  • Roy

    Thank you, Steph! The plug means a lot!

    As for the age thing, I'm sorry to hear that the old veterans are disappearing from the general scene in your company. Unfortunately, we live in a society that obsesses on youth and no longer respects age and experience. It's all about everything being new, all bright and shiny. We can't allow even a little wear and tear; if the paint dulls even a little, it's time for a new car (or whatever).

    But I like old and worn. It's why I absolutely adore Marianne Faithfull now more than when she was still a kid singing "As Tears Go By". You can hear every year of her addiction, every bad marriage, every wrong decision in her raw, husky, powerful voice. That voice lends her message credibility, something a younger artist hasn't come close to establishing yet. When you hear Marianne Faithfull sing, you're hearing Wisdom trying to get your attention; you're hearing Marianne sitting across from you and saying "Listen; this is what the world's like, and you need to be ready for it." In the face of that, Miley Cyrus isn't even relevant.

    Okay, I'll step off the soapbox now. Heh, heh.

  • Jeff King

    (to me old is close to retirement 58-65)
    As long as the older people/veterans learn, adapt and grow then I will listen and learn. But for the most part old is old fashion. And the value of that technology is gone. And any value it may have had diminished... and obsolete.

    But I love to listen to older people and learn life lessons, those are the valuable lessons we need to learn and appreciate. Life lessons they can teach us so we can grow and learn to rise above our challenges. I really value what they did and how they grew and overcame obstacles in their life, so we can do it better and easier.

    I know I can learn a ton from older professionals and value there insight, but in my field you grow and lead or get out of the way. And I hate to say it the old way is the slow way...
    It is a shame, but that is life. You’re only as good as how much you can make your company…

  • Stephanie B

    Jeff, I think generalizations like that, broad-brush statements, that are the problem. Old dogs can't learn new tricks? - I beg to differ, but they often knows what doesn't work and why. I've seen tremendous waste as we walked the path of an abandoned solution before because no one could remember why it was abandoned only to say, after a loss of time and money, "Oh, that's why."

    But I admittedly have a problem with any statement where the "what" someone is (in this case old) is considered more important that "who" they are. In reality, those tendencies lead to the worst abuses.

    I'm firmly of the opinion experience is a valuable commodity, and respect for that experience is often the difference between a society with a future and one without. You can't make progress if you just cycle through the same mistakes.

  • Jeff King

    I did not say they could not learn new tricks, only that they refuse to. Most professionals I have meet engineers, architects, designers’, programmers and so on all have pioneered new ideas and the worst part is they fail to see the new pioneer coming up.
    There is always a better way to get something done. Does not mean we can’t use old information or technology just that a new ways and ideas must push forward if progress is to be made...
    Life always moves on.
    And I believe we can learn a great deal from them, but in turn they must be willing to learn themselves. Because I am a firm believer that I can learn from every person I meet…
    To me it’s all about respect, if you earn it I’ll give it.

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