Old Folks Need to Grow Up

Posted by on 05.04.2009 in civics, media

If I wasn’t turning 31 in a few weeks I might be inclined to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Actually, come to think of it, don’t trust me — don’t trust anyone under 30 either — because everybody is wrong sometimes, and everything is wrong eventually. 

Fortunately we don’t have to trust people and organizations implicitly as was once required.

Because, for example, if you’re reading this online then you’re only a few clicks away from doing your own research, checking up on me and forming your own opinions (and trying them in conversation, in forums, on your own blog, or in the comments thread below). The only thing in your way is your own (un)willingness to learn.

That’s of course assuming you aren’t already taking responsibility for your own thinking. All the credit to you if you are — but I keep reading and hearing people who won’t (or can’t, unfortunately) adopt the new tools and attitudes.

Granted, plenty of people are using the new tools to state their opinions — but without actually trying them in a conversational way, open to forming more effective opinions in the process — e.g. “Here’s what I think and the rest of you are wrong… Now bugger off.”

That’s the sense I got from some of the pseudonymous comments on James Reaney’s blog referencing my post about using blogs to recognize cultural accomplishments. 

Speaking of heritage, the comments like those by the “thoroughly confused print customer” are pretty good artifacts of an attitude that is fast becoming obsolete — virtually caricaturing what has been written-off by the emerging conventional wisdom (e.g. the zero-sum notion that news sites shouldn’t refer readers away to other outlets, etc).

Apparently the commenter(s?) is not well informed about new media (just as I’m not well informed about the London Heritage Council — which is precisely why I suggested organizations like that should embrace new media to engage larger demographic so people like me have more opportunities to be better informed). The comments are hardly worth addressing in-themselves but my concern is they represent a persistent, widespread attitude that needs to be reconciled with new realities.

Obviously there are generational gaps that need to be bridged… Now who’s responsible for bridging them? — young? old? both? — or do in-betweensters like me, who are neither analog traditionalists nor digital natives, need to pick up most of the slack?… 

These gaps aren’t like the inter-generational cultural dissonance in the 1960′s and 70′s. Today’s youth isn’t just consciously rejecting traditional norms, today’s youth doesn’t even understand — or care to understand — what all of those norms are. A lot of us can hardly imagine doing something like submitting a formal proposal to the Heritage Council’s secretary (as the commenter advised); the way those kinds of institutions work is alien to us.

Beyond that, it isn’t just how they work; the whole purpose for their existence is alien. Traditionalists who sit around waiting for us to outgrow our gadgets and conform with the past, feeling entitled to an authority-role, are likely to be disappointed to learn we went right past you without even noticing you were there.

Like I said at the start, you don’t have to trust me (and I should note, it isn’t my intention to insult; I can appreciate these remarks might be unwelcome — but no less welcome than the realities they describe). Much of this was articulated for me by Tammy Erickson, who researches intergenerational management issues. Here’s a sample from a recent post on her HBR blog:

Getting together. Boomers and X’ers are planners and schedulers; Gen Y’s are coordinators. When faced with a need to meet, Gen Y’s are likely to ascertain each other’s immediate coordinates, and then home in on each other. Older colleagues would almost certainly prefer to rely on pre-planned schedules — and may be very annoyed by younger team members’ seemingly seat-of-the-pants approach. To Y’s, the extent of scheduling that goes on in most workplaces today seems stultifying and inefficient.

Finding information or learning new things. Boomers and Traditionalists are linear learners — most are inclined to attend training classes, read manuals, and absorb the requisite information before beginning the task at hand. Gen Y’s are largely “on demand” learners — they figure things out as they go, reaching out to personal contacts with relevant expertise for information or referrals, as needed. Y’s are likely to be bored and turned off by a project that begins with a lengthy training phase. X’ers and Boomers may be annoyed by Y’s’ frequent questions and requests for input.

In many cases it isn’t even a matter of disagreement; we often can’t even conceive why something would be done differently: the 21 year-old who has never known life without mobile devices and instant messaging may be stunned senseless by formal protocols, likewise a 61 year-old who still addresses seniors as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” may feel scandalized by casual approaches and mentions by un-acquainted juniors.

In theory I appreciate that traditions ought to be preserved in some way so that new ways of doing things can grow out of them more effectively — building on our inherited social, cultural, intellectual, and economic capital rather than destroying most of it. I can appreciate that something is lost when we lose deference to authority and protocol… But in practice I have nothing vested in traditional institutions; if it comes down to a rigid conflict between old and new I have no problem watching any of the old stuff disappear.

If you want to save something from getting washed away by new technologies and social norms, that’s your problem — your responsibility — not exclusively, but if the old-guard doesn’t actively try to lead the process of conciliation then the young aren’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Some of us are trying to bridge the gaps (even if for now we aren’t able to do much more than point out where the gaps are — as I’m doing now) but sneering and grumbling about the changes helps nobody — least of all one’s own interests.

As I was writing this, Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?) posted something perfectly relevant. I’ll close with with his words rather than repeat the same argument in my own:

To me, the lesson of our current turmoil is that change is inevitable – indeed, I argued here and here that it is millennial shift we are experiencing, our passage to a new age – and that resisting that change, trying to delay or protect against it, is what is leading to the death of great swaths of the newspaper, music, auto, and retail industries and their imminent replacements by new players who understood, embraced, and exploited change. There’s the difference. There’s the war. Rather than complaining about and resisting change, the wise course seems clear:

1. Recognize the inevitability of this change.
2. Try to understand it. (That’s why I wrote the book and think another may be in order.)
3. Rush toward the change; seek it out, embrace it.
4. Find the opportunities in the change and exploit them.
5. Recognize, too, the turmoil, uncertainty, and risk of the change and try to soften the impact but don’t let that stop you from 1-4.