Hard truths Wednesday

I am sitting here in Chicago, only able to get to my garage by walking through a waist-deep snow tunnel, not that getting there would do me any good since even my trusty Subaru couldn’t navigate the black diamond slope that is my alley.

So it’s time for what may become a semi-regular blog feature: Hard Truths Wednesday.

Hard Truth: Old guys need to just get out of the way.

I am 57. That’s not old-old, but I can see old from here. I spend far too much of my time on the phone with other 57 year-olds listening to them carp about how life sucks because they are unappreciated at work and the newspaper wants to cut their pay and make them work more hours and blah blah blah.

Here’s the hard truth. A 57 year-old is not worth as much as a 37 year-old. All that experience doesn’t make up for energy and enthusiasm and being in the moment.

Due to the wonders of modern chemistry, surgery and metallurgy, it is now possible for the old to impersonate the young better than ever—from Just for Men to Viagra to HGH to HRT to titanium knees. But a new paint job does not make a 1953 Chevrolet fast or safe.

Two quick examples.

Remember the kerfluffle when Favre left Green Bay? Losing all that experience, etc, etc. Anybody think GB would be in Dallas this week for the Superbowl if Brett “Creaky” Favre were still in GB?

And remember the crying and the rending of garments when Bobby Bowden was pushed out at FSU? So cruel, etc. Well, OK, except FSU is now back in bowls and today is national signing day, and FSU is projected to have the number one class in the nation. Think they would have all those kids if Bobby were still sitting across the couch from the recruit’s mom, dozing off between stories about his 1902 Rose Bowl team? (I know that’s hyperbole.)

What should happen is workers should get paid more up to a point, then as they age, pay should start to taper down commensurate with output. While theoretically sound, that system is too hard to implement, so instead we just let pay continue to climb even as we reach the point of diminishing returns in terms of contribution. So you end up with old guys hanging on to good jobs and constipating the system when their ability to contribute is more appropriate to working the counter of a 7-11 somewhere.

Whoever is changing Joe Pa’s diapers these days should read him this blog.

Hard Truth: The situation in Egypt should scare us shitless.

I remember where I was when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. I remember because I was tutoring an Iranian exchange student. I didn’t know him very well, but he seemed like a nice guy, very Westernized. We heard the news over the radio and he jumped up and shouted, “I can go home again.”

I asked him, “Good news, eh?”

And he smiled and said, “Absolutely, now we can get all them fucking bitches back to behaving like they supposed to, respecting men and not acting like whores.”

So much for being about freedom.

We know that the Republican neo-imperialists never met a crusade they didn’t like, and are not above using the situation in Egypt to try to scare us with threats of the Muslim Brotherhood stepping into a post-revolutionary power vacuum and creating an Islamic fascist state.

But we don’t know that they wrong. Americans love change, because we believe it will lead to good. But in many countries, change leads to bad. According to all of my Iranian friends, Iran is a much worse place in terms of personal freedom now than it ever was under the Shah.

We can also guess that somewhere, in some shitty little hole in Pakistan, Dr. Zawhiri is watching all this on TV and grinning. And that should bother us. Because we don’t understand this situation, but in general we know that any situation which makes assholes like Zawhiri happy isn’t good for us.

OK, tune in next week for more Hard Truths.

I will try to keep this on a serious plane and not let it degenerate into Random Rants, like why there should be a constitutional amendment to prohibit anyone under 5’10 from using the overhead bins on airplanes. (Your feet don’t even reach under the seat in from of you, people. Why don’t you put your crap there?)

11 replies »

  1. Crabby old farts who let themselves slide into obsolescence and do nothing but bitch about it – well, yes. Like anyone else, they shouldn’t be paid for value they’re not providing. Bodies and minds slow, eventually and inevitably… but that’s a pretty unconvincing pair of examples you’ve got there (yes, I know they were “quick”) if you’re trying to make a larger point. Field of endeavor matters. Individual incentive matters. And some people just start out great and age better.

    I won’t argue with you – you might drift off in mid-debate – but I’ll offer a counter-example: my mother. At 64 (sorry, Mom), she’s a better thinker, planner, organizer and buttkicker than any dozen forty-year-olds, and she’s got twenty more years of extremely well-developed people savvy. People weep when she leaves a job. Mid-level government bureaucrats return her calls. Prices magically drop when she starts to talk… well, you get the picture. Any lessening of her “value” is strictly due to a set of someone else’s presumptions.

    So I’m not saying you don’t have a point, just that it’s limited in scope and variable in applicability. I said VARIABLE IN APPLICABILITY. Maybe you need to find a different group of fifty-somethings to hang with. Chill with. Whatever – hey, I’m 41. I don’t know how the youngsters rap these days.

  2. As far as I’m concerned, here is another “hard truth”: The Egyptian revolution isn’t ABOUT us; it’s about the Egyptian people. Change leads to bad? I believe if you ask the average Egyptian who is out on the street why they are demonstrating, you’d hear (and I have often heard, watching the coverage of this event), it is because they want the 30-year dictator, the puppet of the US, out. The change they want is actual democracy, not the thin veneer of a “democracy” in which Mubarak’s security apparatus can pull anyone off the street torture or disappear them. It’s apparently an area of expertise: One of the charming uses the US has had for Mubarak’s government was as a stop for our secret renditions. When sending a prisoner off, certain countries are good for torture. Mubarak’s Egypt was well known for taking a prisoner and ensuring he or she woud never be seen again. A real charmer that Mubarak.

    So, really, I think I’ll trust the Egyptians to decide what they want. The Egyptian people don’t really give a damn what the US wants and I certainly don’t blame them. And I’m sure they will see the results – whatever they are – as an inprovement.

  3. Ann–Of course there are 57 (or 64) year old individuals better than 37 year old individuals. In my last Ironman, I finished ahead of 1200 people younger than I was–half the field. However, it’s not true on average. The cliche that “one doesn’t get older but better,” is simply empirically untrue past the age of 40. The only reason anyone might ever actually believe the cliche is because deterioration is gradual and vision and memory deteriorate with age.

    Rick Mac–Not quite sure I follow you, but if your point is the Egyptians have a right to any government they choose and it is none of our business. that is true to a point. The point being where the resulting state behaves in harmful and egregious behavior, e.g., genocide, state-sponsored terrorism, etc. Mubarak is an odious thug, one of dozens we have propped up over the years in the name of “stability,” and he does not deserve to stay in power. Still, the result of regime change, even democratically inspired regime change, might still be worse for both us and the Egyptian people. Ask the Iranians or the Iraquis or the Kampucheans or the Angolans.

    • This debate isn’t going anywhere on anecdotal evidence and while I suspect it’s an issue that could be studied, I’d hate to be the guy having to sit in front of a dissertation committee to defend the design.

      It strikes me, past the expected variation in individual cases, that the key words are “it depends.” In things athletic it tends to be all downhill once you get past the 26-30 range, with some exceptions. Many of your greatest soccer goalies are well into their 30s. Female gymnasts tend to be over the hill by the time they’re eight. Tennis players seem to peak a little earlier than athletes in some sports. Etc.

      In realms where it’s more about mental capabilities, energy often matters a great deal, but I bet that most of the time we’d wind up looking at the trade-off between energy and intelligence. In my world (the thrill-a-minute extravaganza of marketing) it’s even more complicated by the fact that it’s an industry where brains often get in the way. Smarts help you develop fantastic ideas, but they really hurt you in the social game, because it’s hard to explain smart to the not-so-smart. At my last regular client-side job I used to say that I had to leave 95% of my brain at home to get anything done at work, and it was true – it literally took just about zero effort to do things that company leaders thought were fantastic. It was like being in first grade again – the biggest challenge was in not dying of boredom.

      So you could probably argue that a company like that could replace me with someone younger, and you may be right because the standards are SO damned low.

      But in a situation where brains and experience and expertise and insight matter? No way in hell. I’m better with each passing day because in addition to everything else, I continue to learn how my own mind works and am therefore even more capable of maximizing its performance.

      In the end, there’s no way your proposition yields an answer. Once you figure out how to carve it up into meaningfully discrete pieces there might be a solid answer for each one, though. And what the heck – you get me the funding and I’ll run the study. Using my insanely honed delegation skills….

  4. Having worked in an ad agency and many, many marketing departments, you are right that we should throw that example out. I once described an ad agency as an opportunity to spend all day with those vapid assholes you hated in high school. I’ve known a dozen or so really smart people that blundered their way into marketing departments over the years, and most have immediately gone, “Uh oh.”

    I’d like to believe your argument for increased acumen with age, but I am not sure it’s true. Mathemeticians have a notoriously short shelf life. Off the top of my head, I’d say that most writers, novelists and musicians produce their greatest work early or mid-career. And in business, the major advantage I see for older executives is they have more relationships and more finely honed political skills, but in terms of intellectual horsepower and work intensity, it’s the young guns who carry the load. I certainly can no longer do square roots in my head, or any serious arithmetic or mathematics for that matter. I just can’t hold the focus like I could twenty years ago. And I still have a pretty intense job and work at pretty high levels, so I am not drooling yet. I am just not a 37 year old.

    One anecdote. A few years ago we moved, and in clearing out a file cabinet I came across an old term paper from my sophomore year. I sat down to read it, preparing to cringe. I was blown away. It was crisp, insightful, well structured and the wordsmithing was beautiful. I have not produced anything that good that has ever been published. It made me realize just how much deterioration has taken place over time.

    I realize that this personal response makes me liable to some more digs of being a senile, cantankerous old fart, but I really think it’s true. I think we need to give the young the respect they deserve.

    • I think you’re drawing some erroneous conclusions here. Take the musicians/novelists/etc. thing. One should never mistake quality for hype. You know that I write about music a lot. And I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been told that “the early stuff was better.” Sometimes the early stuff was better, but more often than not you’re hearing people projecting their own coolness. They imprinted on the early stuff and developed a measure of investment and ownership. The later stuff was when all the hipsters showed up and ruined it, etc.

      Another thing that happens is that the ability doesn’t change, but the context does. Take Springsteen. His best work (with the exception of The Ghost of Tom Joad) happened earlier in his career. You’d have a hard time arguing that his work since Born in the USA was anywhere near as good as his work before. So this supports your argument, right? Except that Bruce’s quality hit the skids right about the time he found the love of his life and started a family. Earlier in his career he was “just about starving to death,” but now he had money and happiness. No more hunger.

      So that isn’t really about ability or talent at all, is it? I think I’m a better case as an artist (not that I’m especially famous). My writing gets better with each passing day. Early stuff? I’m embarrassed to show it to people.

      Another issue – how badly your brain has deteriorated over time, compared to that brilliant sophomore paper. Fine, except that you wrote that paper in a context of serious mental training and now you don’t challenge your brain that way. My brain doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it did 15 years ago. So I’m losing it, right? No, 15 years ago I was in a PhD program and was subjecting my brain to the most rigorous daily exercise of its life. I was doing the mental version of training for the Olympics. Now I work in marketing, where too much thinking gets in the way. So the fact that my brain is flabby now isn’t about losing it due to age, it’s about the fact that I’m not training at altitude, as it were. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that if I dove back into the kind of intellectual routine I lived in 15 years ago I’d be back to that level and beyond in a matter of a year or two.

  5. Sweeping pronouncements are always completely, utterly wrong.

    But seriously, more often than not, “it depends” is key. Didn’t someone say “limited in scope and variable in applicability?” Sounds like a snobby way to say just about the same thing. As far as giving the young credit? Preaching to the choir. That’s why I teach.

    So again, I’m perfectly willing to concede that in many ways, most people are on the long downhill slide to senescence and death after forty (wait, that’s not really a concession, is it? it’s what I originally said); it’s just that there’s a lot of “it depends” in play.

    Nice casual mention of the Ironman, by the way. 😉

  6. Many years ago our local hippie in Athens, Georgia, went to a Kissinger speech and stepped up to the mike to debate Henry. Henry Cuisine-Arted him. Ed the Hippie was right, but he just couldn’t withstand the logic and processing speed of the Dark Prince of Diplomacy.

    Now I know how Ed felt. I think you’re wrong, but it’s such an elegant and well-structured argument that I can’t think of a way to challenge it.

    But twenty years ago I could have taken you down. I could have been a contender.