Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls

Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls
by Bernard Murphy on 11-25-2015 at 12:00 pm

We boomers thought we would continue to innovate and live forever. We put men on the moon, we created rock and roll, we invented practical computers and personal computers, we did it all. And we lived the high  life, especially in tech – big houses, fancy cars, great vacations. Then unexpectedly we got old (nobody warned us), and now newer generations are pushing us aside.

On which note, Business Insider recently published a piece on ageism in tech. The main thesis is that for boomers it’s difficult to hang onto a job and even more difficult to be respected. It’s a good piece and I agree with many of the conclusions, but there’s one thing that irks me. The easy take-away is that ageism is a problem; I believe that ageism is a symptom and a narrowly-targeted response will not address the underlying problem.

VCs fund young people in startups because young people, unburdened by experience, will try anything and will take big risks, which is what VCs need to see the possibility of big payoffs. Some people (mostly young people) argue that young people are also smarter, but I doubt it. If you place a lot of risky bets, a few pay off, but the vast majority fail; young people are just more willing to gamble what little they have. Young people will work for less as long as they have an equity stake and we all like to work with people our own age. Take these factors together and you have a bias in tech toward younger workers and away from older workers.

The real problem is that boomers still in the workforce have to keep working, with no clear retirement in sight. Back in the day, you worked until you were 55 then retired on a pension. The big tech companies like IBM, HP, and TI all had pension plans which would allow you to live comfortably if not lavishly. New tech never worked that way. You have 401k’s and equity (which mostly doesn’t return anywhere near your expectations), then add wage stagnation, a recession and a >50% divorce rate (a big hit to anyone’s retirement plans). The lifestyle we expect and our practical retirement options have become severely misaligned.

OK, so maybe some of us didn’t plan very well, but there is a much more important point. This generation is or will soon be eligible for Social Security and Medicare. And there will be more of us drawing on those plans than there are younger people paying into the system. You may feel entitlement programs need to be scaled back to fix this, to which I say (a) good luck with that and (b) tell me how you feel when your turn comes. So both to keep people of my generation afloat and to keep social Security afloat, we need to keep older people in the workforce longer, paying into the system.

This can’t be underwritten by yet another entitlement program. Paying companies to hire older workers or imposing quotas would be economically pointless. Older workers need to add positively to the economy for this be effective. One of the most important ways they can do this is to build a broader base of skills which will help them remain relevant. To the extent government can or should help, they perhaps could do so by encouraging development of and easy access to career counseling and retraining programs. But I’m also a big believer that, individually, we need to take charge of our future.

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn suggested that each of us needs to be an entrepreneur of our own career. We need to keep reinventing ourselves, we need to keep developing new skills, and we need to keep our network active and growing. In my career, I never wanted to be the very best I could possibly be at one thing. I changed my objective many times – starting in R&D, switching to strategic sales support, then sales, then services, then back to R&D and technical marketing, then strategic planning, blogging, training and more. When I look back, I wonder how I would have turned out if I had just focused on R&D. I got to be both a VP of engineering and a CTO, so I don’t think I missed out on titles. But more importantly I got a broad insight into most aspects of tech business and I developed a broad base of contacts in the industry. If I ever need to look for another job, I feel happier about the path I took than I might if I had remained purely an R&D expert.

I encourage thinking as far outside the box as you can. Writing articles is pretty far removed from software engineering and not something I had done in any meaningful way since high school. But it satisfies my creative needs and gives me a chance to look more broadly at the industry than I had been able to before. Am I as good a writer as I was a product developer? I very much doubt it but my writing skills are in higher demand than my product development skills and I’m always working on improving.

In short, perhaps that tolling bell need not be for thee, if you are willing to adapt what you do to what customers or businesses want to buy.

Here’s the Business Insider piece and the Reid Hoffman TED talk.


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