Old guys like young dummies

Mark in Minneapolis asks me to stop trying to improve the U.S. education system.

As a 50-year-old, white, male engineer who speaks English excellently, I recently was hired for a full-time engineering job, at a good wage after 4 years of looking for full-time employment! My current employer was “willing to take the risk” on this 50-year-old because he finally began to realize that even the engineering graduates from the current colleges, although whizzes at the computer, had a certain lack of fundamentals.
I have a friend, 48 years old, machine designer, totally computer conversant, who has his own machine shop, and makes custom handguns. (Oh, what a Neanderthal!) He is getting tons of solicitations for new jobs because he can not only use the CAD systems, but he knows how to actually build things.

So suddenly, the “feel good” Generation X is beginning to create job security for us old guys. A few years ago, companies were throwing resumes away if you were over 40. For some of us, today’s dummies are our job security for tomorrow!

I used to feel that way sometimes when I had a high-paying newspaper job. (It seems high-paying from my current no-paying perspective.) The younger generation was no threat because they can’t write.

About Joanne


  1. I wouldn’t think this is a shock to anyone, as recent college grads don’t impress me at all (I got my associate’s in fall of 2002, but I have 21 years of work experience under my belt). A lot of the younger crowd lacks troubleshooting skills (i.e. the way to solve a computer problem is to reboot it – very true in windows regardless).

    I agree with the lack of writing and reading skills among recent college and high school grads (a few years ago, a professor friend of mine lamented the fact that she was teaching a graduate level course, and the students were complaining about having to write a 5 page paper).

    I routinely write more than that in a day, never mind for an assignment. I agree with Mark, that the Gen X’ers will wind up shifting the tide back to us old farts (35 and older) due to the fact that we actually received an education, and weren’t cheated by self-esteem mantra, feel-good claptrap, and social promotion. The end result is that I guess the ole timers will have to hold the reins in terms of knowledge).

  2. Actually, this is exactly the kind of Baby Boomer arrogance that opened gaps on both sides of your generation. Give me a break, and shame on you.

  3. There are a lot of people just out of school who are good, competent, enthusiastic workers; I’ve had the pleasure of running an organization including many such people.

    But there is a problem regarding “a certain lack of fundamentals,” and it’s been building for some time. Not only do we have engineers who’ve never built anything, we have MBAs in marketing who’ve never sold anything. The issue here, as in humanities, is an excessive focus on theory–and often on theory which is not even good theory in that it is not testable and not useable for predictions.

    We need more lab courses in the sciences, more use of primary sources in history, more *actuality* throughout the educational system.

  4. Well David, unless you get some changes across the board (real changes, not more feel good fluff), another generation of kids (which public tax dollars pays for) are going to be doomed to a mediocre education (and they deserve better), but we seem to have a mindset these days that it’s acceptable to demand LESS and LESS from students today (instead of holding students, teachers, and yes, parents, accountable for their actions, or inactions).

    To IB Bill, it’s NOT arrogance, it’s the complete LACK of knowledge in a LOT of cases (things I take for granted on a daily basis, some Gen X’ers (NOT ALL MIND YOU) don’t even know how to do), and I’m NOT talking rocket science here.

    I’ll give you an example I had the other night at a local eatery, I had a dinner bill for $15.41, and gave the waitress (about late teens early 20’s) a $100 bill as payment. What do I get back for change, a whopping $5.59 (did SHE even LOOK at the money I handed her, or just assumed it was a $20). She didn’t even realize it was a $100 until I pointed it out to her, and read her the serial # off the bill (I record these numbers on $100’s in case of these types of problems). When she went back to get me the rest of the change, I got back $60 instead of $80 (needless to say, I won’t be eating there again).

    Now, before I started working in I.T., I did retail clerking and fast food. Gone are the days where someone actually takes the time to COUNT back your change, to insure it’s right (I can’t tell you the NUMBER of times I’ve gotten shorted, or been paid back too much, by persons (YOUNG and OLD) just NOT being on the ball with money.

    Lord help us all if all of the technology on the planet is eliminated or destroyed, as in my opinion, there won’t be enough people who can solve problems to help the ones who can’t think for themselves.

  5. I went to high school in California in the 70’s. All I had to do was show up and I graduated. My son’s high school is much more rigorous and difficult than mine was. He is taking physics and calculus and he has to take a test to graduate. It just might be that we are now in Utah (a much more traditional education state) but his high school leaves mine in the dust.

  6. Someone in their early 20’s is Gen Y, I think. Gen X is right behind the Boomers. I think ’66 is the cusp date between Boomers and X-ers I’ve seen most often.

    Bill, for pete’s sake. Old farts at 35? Let me have middle age, at least.

  7. “The younger generation was no threat because they can’t write.”

    But they can blog. And some can do it well … in English!

  8. It’s all relative, if you work in I.T. and are 40, you are considered an old fart (esp. someone like me, who has worked in it for 21 plus years)

    No insult intended, just reality as I see it 🙂

    I’m called things like ‘relic’, ‘dinosaur’, and kids always say ‘they had computers back then’ (they get shocked when I pull out a Vinyl LP record, since most of them have never seen a LP in their lives) 🙂

  9. Bill Leonard says:

    I find this an interesting but mostly naive thread. Look:

    For about 15 years, I had a career as a newspaper reporter. I went into PR, worked with/for various companies, was laid off at age 51-plus, and over the course of about three years, found that, in Silicon Valley, white men in their 50s are the lowest totems on the pole when it comes to hiring.
    (By the way, I havew a BA and the tested and achieved equivalent of a Master’s,).

    So for several years now, I have freelanced — i.e., been a consultant. That was good during some of the fat dot.com years; it has been execrable for the past three years. Fortunately, I now am an ego-saving 60, so I can (and likely I will) say, to hell with this. And I’ll get a job in a hardware store or a book store or something, and try to pick up a few meager few bucks freelancing magazine articles and pictures on the side.

    Yes, I can do all that. I do have some proficiency at the language, at nonfiction prose construction, and at photography, even though I amd am considered too old to ever been hired by a “progressive” company. And even though the freelance writng world, fiction and non-fiction, is the coal cellar of American journalism.

    But the bottom line is this: the companies in this country, aided and abetted by national policy, have traded off almost everything for short-term gains. The whoosh you hear is jobs going offshore, while the elected grandees in places like Sacramento do their best to give the “people” (frequently voters, but seldom serious taxpayers) more bread and circuses.

  10. A lot of it depends on the people. I went to public schools up through college, and got quite a bit of hands-on experience — not in classes, but in =jobs=, which is where one expects to get that kind of experience. My father, who was an electrical engineer, learned all of his practical knowledge by working at a radio station, working at Clemson’s computer center, and doing stuff on the job. My friends in the computer biz learned their stuff by administering student computer networks in high school and college. I’ve learned alot working as a computer consultant in college, recording textbooks for the blind as a volunteer job, and being a research assistant for physicists.

    Yes, it’s a problem when people don’t learn how to communicate effectively, which should be taught in school at all levels. Once the schools figure out how to get the whole communication/formal reasoning thing sorted out, perhaps we can put more apprentice-type programs in. However, jobs have always been the primary source of learning for adults. If HR people acknowledged this, and started preferring real job experience over credentialing through universities, there might not be such a problem.

  11. As a member of the “feel good” Gen X, I must remind you that the majority of the young folks were raised by the baby boomers. Thus, they were not disciplined or taught values! As I understand it, young folks in some ways are becoming more conservative (for example, more believe that there should be some restrictions on abortions) in reaction to the failed social experiments of the baby boomers.

    I truly appreciate my older (born in the depression) parents. The baby boomers, on the other hand, get on my nerves. Of course, they do so as a generation (hence the generalizations), not as individuals necessarily.

  12. Actually it was Joanne’s line about the younger generation’s inability to write that I thought was flat-out ignorant. As another commenter mentioned, if they can’t write, why are there so many good blogs?

    There it is.

  13. Walter Wallis says:

    Be nice!

  14. if they can’t write, why are there so many good blogs?

    Well, all the ones supposedly by teenage girls are written by 40 year old perverts.


  15. I’m in my thirties, and while I’ll readily admit that there are a lot of people my age and younger who can’t communicate, reason, etc., it’s important to realize that this isn’t necessarily a generational issue.

    Many of the incompetents who wanted to be engineers, journalists, pastry chefs, etc. when they graduated from high school in 1966 are now not pastry chefs, engineers, or journalists because they tried those things and failed. Maybe they’re sweeping floors somewhere now.

    Younger idiots are more likely to still be in the process of being filtered out of their chosen but ill-suited lines of work.

    The real risk to older workers’ job security isn’t young competence, anyway, but young cheapness. A company that can hire a 25-year-old engineer for $50,000 or a 50-year-old engineer for $100,000 is going to hire the young guy. The 50-year-old can’t work for $50,000 because he’s got expenses that the 25-year-old doesn’t: college tuition for his kids, house payments, baldness drugs, etc. The 25-year-old drives a Civic and sleeps on a futon and can work for less money.

    That the old fart might be twice as competent, productive, and valuable as the recent graduate isn’t going to be particularly important. The 25-year-old only has the job until they can farm the work out to someone in India who’s even cheaper anyway.

  16. I saw the seeds of this phenomenon germinating as far back as 10 years ago, and my current job lets me keep my ear to the ground in the high-tech industry. This is a real phenomenon, one which started to really pick up steam after the dot-bomb created a huge pool of young adults whose only job skill was HTML scripting.

    High tech companies are desperate for qualified employees, and by that they mean such fundamentals as a work ethic, showing up for work on time, reasonable fluency in the English language, and analytical thinking.

    Employers are complaining that they cannot find college grads with sufficient technical skills to do more than just talk and theorize. People like my father, a 65-year-old retired mechanical engineer, would be in great demand if he decided to go back to work. He knows how to design and build machines in a machine shop, create prototypes, and has a solid career history of actual, physical inventions that made the world a better place.

    The age of an applicant is no longer a big concern for a lot of companies. They just want to know if you can do the job.

  17. Tino,
    While I’m sure there are companies that are penny-wise, pound foolish in the manner you’ve described, what I’ve seen in former places of work is some 50-year-old guys who demand $100k are no more productive than the younger cheaper ones.

    Where I work we are more than happy to pay a lot of money to people who have skills that cannot be easily reproduced, but age and family are not factors, and they shouldn’t be.

  18. Jeffrey: I haven’t been frequently those blogs, have you :)!

    What really bent my nose out of shape about Joanne’s comment is I’ve been the boss of about half-dozen accomplished professional journalists in their late 40s and 50s. I’m 40 now. These guys were no more skilled than the younger writers I’ve mentored — in fact, many of them had fairly pedestrian writing styles combined unfortunately with a false sense of their own writing abilities. Many of these high-powered folks apparently had relied on high-quality editors their whole lives to salvage their prose.

  19. frequenting, not frequently …

  20. Obviously, there are hack writers of all ages and good writers of all ages. But I noticed with alarm when I was working as an op-ed editor that most young people who think they can write a commentary can’t write. Older writers may be pedestrian; younger writers were just bad. An amazingly high percentage of journalism grads are lousy writers. I discussed this with my baby-boomer colleagues, who agreed that we did not have to fear competition from the rising generation.

  21. …but we seem to have a mindset these days that it’s acceptable to demand LESS and LESS from students today…

    Well Bill, this GenXer (32!) knows EXACTLY what the answer is to that: Ramp up, AND I MEAN RAMP UP, offshoring to India/China/Phillipines to the point in which US per capita income and median salaries go down significantly (at least 30-40%).

    After all, if we’re poorer, it stands to reason we’ll be hungrier. And if we’re hungrier, we’ll be more literate/better educated/more skilled than if we’re not.

    What was it that Irving Kristol said about nothing in this country being so wrong that another Great Depression could not cure? Why do I not see any hands up to go this route? Bill? David Foster? Anyone?

  22. Brad,

    Do you also suggest a ‘World War’ after the depression?

  23. John from OK says:

    I’m a 41 year old computer programmer. My experience is that you either have talent in the field or you don’t. A good programmer can easily be 10 times more productive than a mediocre one. Earning a degree does not require this talent. So there will always by thousands of young people who hold an IT degree but can’t hold a good IT job, or get a job but cannot hold onto it. I know some of them personaly.

    This “talent requirement” was less relevent in the old days. Programs were simpler; the languages were FORTRAN and COBOL and there was a lot of grunt work to do. Other mediocre programmers were shielded by working for military contractors. When the Cold War ended, and 4th generation languages evolved, some of these programmers were weeded out. They were older, and I knew a few of them. To the man who was layed off, it appeared that the company prefered younger workers. To his co-workers, he appeared untalented.

    I won’t touch the free-trade argument.

  24. Joanne:

    Good points, but you touched on a key issue that shows we may not disagree quite as much as it initially looked. It’s the issue of hiring journalism majors.

    My former company used to stick to hiring English majors — though the occasional journalism major would wow us from time to time. We found the same weaknesses in journalism students that you’ve mentioned. We found English majors (in general) to have stronger backgrounds.

  25. “The 50-year-old can’t work for $50,000 because he’s got expenses that the 25-year-old doesn’t: college tuition for his kids, house payments, baldness drugs, etc. The 25-year-old drives a Civic and sleeps on a futon and can work for less money.”

    1) Why hasn’t he got that mortgage paid off already? I’ve done that three times, less than 10 years each time.

    2) College tuition: in a few years the kids will have graduated or flunked out.

    3) Baldness treatment: Oh come on now, the young whippersnapper (early 30’s) in the next cubicle already has a chrome-dome.

  26. I once ran a computer intern program for a large company. We hired college students and let them work alongside our analysts and technicians. The selection process was quite rigorous, and we were able to choose some outstanding young people.

    However, no matter how brilliant or dedicated they were, almost all of them shared one glaring shortcoming. They could not put together two coherent sentences in a written report.

    That’s when I learned how far the overall writing skills of Americans had fallen.

    It was downright depressing!

  27. I’d be more worried if somebody with forty years of experience was *not* better than somebody with one or two years.

  28. No, Bill, I am not suggesting a “World War,” or a depression for that matter.

    What I’m suggesting is that all the hand-wringing about how the GenXers/GenYers aren’t learning the stuff the BabyBoomers allegedly learned is a direct result of how good we have it now. Despite all the changes in the economy, people before us have placed us in a position where we would not have to do too much (in terms of dog-eat-dog striving) to advance. It is a very natural phenomenon in that once a person has reached the summit, the hard edge gets softened.

    If you want the kiddies to get more educated/more competitive/tougher, you have to make things tougher for them. Again, despite all the changes and despite having all corners of the globe directly competing with us, we are not even close to having whole generations be in a worse position than the previous generation.

  29. Interesting discussion on Boomers and GenXers.
    I am 44. Not quite the Boomer, not quite the GenXer.
    I missed the feel good education at the sharp end of nun’s black board pointer.
    I have a BA and an MFA.
    I have worked for companies and been self-employed.
    What I have seen in the last 15 years is a slew of companies plucking college students before they even graduate [as if they were wunderkinds] to work at the company for $$ that seemed unimaginable for a 20 something. These college kids knew how to make things spin on a computer. They knew how to write the code. They weren’t AFRAID to push the buttons. They just didn’t know how to think about the content. They hadn’t lived long enough to have the experience that teaches that.
    Now who hired them? Who fooled themselves into thinking that technology alone makes the work flow and keeps it- ‘a job done well’?
    Who came up with the company slogans of employees as ‘associates’ or even ‘just like family’? I doubt that those in their 30’s could claim responsibility.

    As a culture evermore tied to ‘perception’ of things and the theories that bolster perception as the bottom line, why are we surprised that not only CAN’T we taste the difference between steak and hamburger, we don’t even care. Just so long as it appears to be a steak.

    Building things; the actual making of things; has little value – only the technology that is used to produce it.
    Hence, website designers aren’t all coming directly from a graphic design background. The programs in ‘multi-media design’ are barely touching on this field.
    New media is, at minimum, three distinct fields that have proven standards.

    And yes, when the electricity goes out, what’s going to happen?
    I detect a general anger in the population. Older folks can tap into why. 20 somethings don’t seem to have a clue as to why.
    Depression? Hunger? Change is coming. It’s only a quesiton of how it will manifest itself in the long run.

    The industrial age brought people off the farm and into the cities. The technological age may reverse that trend. Maybe we’ll learn how to can tomatoes again. 🙂

  30. “if they can’t write, why are there so many good blogs?”

    Because the few that can write, do write.

  31. John from OK:

    This “talent requirement” was less relevent in the old days. Programs were simpler; the languages were FORTRAN and COBOL and there was a lot of grunt work to do.

    I’ll have to take your word for that. I’m 32, and having been in a situation where I had to dig around in a VAX that was programmed in DIBOL, I have an enormous amount of respect for anyone who can make head or tails of it, COBOL, or FORTRAN. 🙂

    I think I’m a little too old to be a GenXer. My parents were born in 1937 and 1940, so not Baby Boomers. I was also educated in Oak Ridge TN in the 1970’s, which is a government town with an unusually high ratio of scientists in the population. The result was a fairly traditional educational method, such as phonics, and arithmetic based on getting the right answer.

    My parents insisted that I speak correctly from the time I was a baby. Baby talk was not encouraged, and I was always corrected when I made a mistake. My mother always said, “People judge you by how you speak”, and that’s true in writing as well as in person.

    I suck at math. I admit this. But I blame the deficiency mostly on myself and not my education. It’s not an area where I’m gifted and I have to concentrate a great deal to get into the mindset. Languages come more naturally.

    But I still see no excuse for people not being able to write coherently. I see kids complaining about having to write a 5 page paper. Bah! My classes were about 25 page papers and those weren’t even specialized lit classes. A 5 page paper was something we had to write spontaneously in a blue book during a test, not a take-home project.

    And not only were there minimum length requirements, but my teachers insisted that the paper 1) be correct mechanically, 2) have a coherent thesis, 3) be clearly reasoned with clearly explained examples.

    Maybe this is why I’m the one my company makes write the procedure documentation. 😛

  32. Anne, you are Gen X.

  33. There are differences between Gen X’ers with Boomer parents and those with WWII parents. Biggest difference I see is greater discipline, higher expectations, and a more traditional work ethic.

    BTW, I’m a late Boomer (1957) with one pre-WWII (1929) parent and one WWI/Depression (1914) parent, and I’m raising a daughter that is Gen-whatever the kids that come after Gen Y are called (she’s 8).

  34. Hi,
    Just to give you the down under perspective, I’m 50 years old and have ridden the roller coaster of IT booms and busts since 1990. The job market in Australia is taking an interesting turn. Despite large increases in outsourcing to Chennai, Bangalore the job market is booming. I put this down to the fact that despite the governments desperate attempts to keep them working, boomers are retiring in larger numbers year by year. We seem to be verging on the “Workers Paradise” where if you can spell IT you are in work, can pick and choose conditions etc. Not the healthiest prospect I admit but beats unemployment and the beating down in real wages that accompanied the dot bust.


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