Last summer, I told you about a challenging retreat that some of us at VOA attended. The subject was the “convergence” of many media in the world of journalism, and how we might keep up with it. No longer are the consumers of our information relying on traditional newspapers, radio, and television alone. Not only are you learning about the world around you — instantaneously — from your computers and handheld devices, but you’re interacting with each other, and with us, as never before.
Keeping pace with all this and meeting your increased expectations takes nimble journalists, able to work in today’s many media “platforms.”
That’s why I titled that blog “Ch-ch-change.”
And it is rarely easy. When the 20 or so of us met, our facilitator asked us to identify obstacles to change. I wasn’t the only one who was astonished to see that, by the time we were done, we’d come up with 168 different ones!
I want to reflect on one in particular, because it’s a phenomenon that’s more and more prevalent in workplaces across the nation: Tension between old and young workers.
Over our 69 years, VOA has had a veteran staff, by and large, as most of our staff pictures would attest. Many people had already compiled distinguished service in news organizations domestically and around the world.
And we tend to stay and stay and stay. We give out 20- and 25-year service pins like Band-aids at a blood bank. I know one service chief who’s been at his desk for 40 years.
But as we have rapidly moved more and more out of shortwave radio into television and “new media” such as this Web log, we have brought on board an armada of bright, talented, ambitious young writers, reporters, producers, and tech whizzes of all descriptions. They have done remarkable work and livened the place up. And these whippersnappers trip merrily among the various media with the greatest of ease and enthusiasm.
The same cannot always be said for us old salts, to whom change can be threatening and seem daunting. Remember the word “nimble” that I used when describing the journalist of today. Nimbleness, mental or physical, is not the first skill you’d attribute to many “seniors.”
Yet we of all people should know from experience that change is not that scary and quite often makes our work lives easier. When I was first shown computer writing programs, I hugged my typewriter and muttered that the new contraption would be the death of me. Now I relish the chance to move whole paragraphs around, make a word italic or boldface on command, and send the finished product anywhere in the world that I choose. The typewriter is now a historical curiosity, displayed at home next to an old ice box and a Victrola.
If you don’t know what a Victrola is, you’re in the “whippersnapper” category mentioned above. Of course, you don’t know what a “whippersnapper” is, either.
Fact is, there’s a growing generation gap in America. Not the one between kids and parents, but a chasm between young hotshots and aging geezers on the job.
According to report after report, an acute shortage of skilled labor is prompting employers to lure millions of older people back into the workplace after long, successful careers.
This is fascinating, since only a few years ago, human-resource journals were filled with articles about employers’ preference for young, cheap, pliable workers. According to a 2005 HR Magazine story, research “has suggested several reasons why employers might believe that older workers should be avoided”:
They have a shorter career potential. They lack energy. They are less flexible or adaptable. They have higher salary expectations. Their knowledge and skills are obsolete. There might be retirement plan issues. And older workers might sue [alleging age discrimination if they’re disciplined or don’t get promotions].
They’re a little “slow,” dexterously and mentally. In need of periodic naps. Generation ZZZ.
Younger workers, by contrast, were perceived to be “more flexible,” “more creative,” “willing to work longer hours,” and “up to date on technology.” They didn’t take as many sick days, didn’t need as much training, and had “more drive” than older workers who were “set in their ways.”
Now, all of a sudden, it’s not just super-stores looking for golden-age “greeters” that are gobbling up older workers. CNNmoney.com recently reported that the unemployment rate among 16-24 year-olds is a tick below 19 percent — about double the overall unemployment average, “primarily because of the many older and out-of-work professionals who are now taking hourly-wage jobs.”
Lo and behold, hiring older workers is now viewed as a “win-win situation.” They have lots of experience and a great work ethic, and they’ll work for the same low wages as kids fresh out of school, goes today’s thinking. Recent stories about the pitiful level of learning by many college students haven’t helped make young applicants any more appealing.
Just as older workers were mocked as “fossils” who couldn’t keep up with progress a few years ago, many young ones are branded as “slackers” today. Now, we old folks “are more reliable,” “are more productive,” “have a stronger work ethic,” “take work more seriously,” bring “invaluable experiences” along with us, and “make good mentors.”
I can feel the wisdom fairly pulsating from my temples.
A Boston College study of the “elderly labor supply” found that it “is concentrated among the healthiest, wealthiest, and most educated individuals, and yet they earn very low wages.” They gladly accept these pittances in preference to lazy retirement, writes Nancy R. Lockwood in HR Magazine, because “work as a social outlet has become increasingly important. In the workplace, older workers have a sense of accomplishment and responsibility. Therefore, older Americans may be willing to continue working past traditional age.”
In fact, according to a report by David Stein and Tonette S. Rocco for an adult-education journal, “Retirement for future older workers is becoming an outdated notion.” Rather than being seen as a liability, they write, “the older worker is becoming an investment in continuing productivity.”
That should send chills down the spines of younger workers who’ve been waiting for years for the old warhorses in front of them to take their retirement plaques and watches and get out.
And not only won’t the old fogeys leave, but more of them are walking in the door!
And what do they find? Quite often, it’s colleagues and bosses young enough to be their children, or even grandchildren. It’s not long before the grumbling starts about these “pipsqueaks,” fresh out of business school, telling trusty old hands what to do, how to do it, and what new-fangled computer program to do it with.
Or for young workers and supervisors, full of bright ideas, at ease with the latest technologies and eager to work whatever hours it takes to get the job done, to bemoan the challenge of dealing with what they see as stubborn older workers, resistant to change, whose goals don’t always relate to the company’s mission or bottom line.
But are older workers, almost by definition, stubborn, jaded, cynical, and — dare I say it — “less mentally agile” than young workers? Maybe a little, writes Dave Rodenbaugh, a software developer who just turned 40, in his “Lessons of Failure” blog. But hear him out:
Aging does affect the brain, and it is measurable to show that older workers think somewhat more slowly than younger ones. But mental agility is only part of the equation. Thinking faster isn’t always better. What about judgment? There’s an old expression: “Good judgment comes from experience, experience from bad judgment.”
Lost mental agility is a poor excuse to not hire older software engineers, Rodenbaugh writes, “in light of the fact they’ve seen, done, and lived many more successes and failures than a younger developer. . . . Younger developers have new ideas which are important, but often untested and unproven. Having both perspectives on your team is of great value.”
And “both perspectives” is exactly what we have to an unprecedented degree at VOA, and, I deduce, at thousands of other workplaces as well.
But that leads to those generational tensions.
What’s to be done about them? Human-relations experts advise young managers to respect old folks’ experience, solicit their ideas, and give us lots of training to ease our fears about change. And they urge the Old Guard to view new ways as a chance to stay current and vital. They counsel patience — with old Harvey when he gets to rambling about the good-old days, and with brash young Betty when she shows off her multitasking. In the end, it’s hoped, there will be a meeting of minds that can transcend youth and old age.
A convergence of minds as well as media.
I got one of those random, unsolicited e-mails the other day that said, “This year July has 5 Fridays 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This apparently happens once every 823 years.” I don’t know about the 823-year part and haven’t the time to check. But the sender was right about the abundance of weekends coming in July. Makes me look forward to more summertime cookouts than usual, but I can only hope that ants and mosquitoes can’t read a calendar.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Daunting. Intimidating and discouraging, often filled with fear.
Old fogey. These words almost always appear together. There doesn’t appear to be such a thing as a “young fogey.” On old fogey is someone who’s hopelessly out of date, unfashionable, and quite set in his ways. (I say “his” because there don’t appear to be many female fogeys, either.)
Pipsqueak. A small, insignificant person. The origin of the word is debated. “Pips” are little things, and the word may relate to the sound given off by a weak baby bird.
Whippersnapper. A young, enthusiastic, tenacious person, often in an employment setting. The term is said to have originated in America’s Old West, where snapping a whip while herding cattle was one of the easiest tasks for a cowboy to learn. Thus it was given to eager newcomers in the saddle.