Don't Act Your Age!
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Don't Act Your Age! by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine June 2002

I can almost remember my first job out of school as if it was yesterday. Unfortunately, it's not. I am now one of the oldest people in my company, even though I have been an Industrial Engineer for ‘only' twenty-one years. When I think back, I can remember how I viewed those that were much older than me in my first workplace. I really did not know what they did for the company, and some of them actually intimidated me. I can't imagine anyone however choosing to see me that way now … or can I.

I have been with my current employer for a year now. The greatest learning to-date that I have received from working in our small, eighty-six person bottling plant is that we (those of us over forty) really need to stop acting our age. Daily I get the privilege of working with several highly motivated people who are still in their twenties. Each day these people remind me of the career limiting skill deficiencies and work behaviors that I have adopted both consciously or subconsciously over the past twenty plus years.

Twenty years ago we did not have video games other than Pong, let alone a proliferation of personal computers (and in turn information) in the workplace. We also did not have a generation of employees that had grown up in a completely different type of world than us ‘over forty' engineers did. How many of you have used punch cards to run computer programs? How fast can you type? We have even chosen to tab the generation after Generation X as the ‘Net Generation.'

Cultural anthropologist Jennifer James points out two important downsides of continuing to act out age. She states that both Generation Xers and the Net Generation have developed two key thinking skills that us Baby Boomers (and even beyond) have yet to adopt en masse. These two key thinking skills are multitasking and context switching. Possessing these skills enables one to do more work in less time and more importantly, gain a greater appreciation for the systems that he or she interacts with each day.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of multitasking, but people from these two ‘new' generations can both handle more tasks at the same time on average than we can and they can process them more quickly. We are less familiar with the concept of context switching, which is the ability to change rapidly between two or more vastly different subjects. For example, imagine having five windows open on your computer at one time AND effectively doing work interactively with each of these five windows.

It is my belief that technology shifts, and computers in particular, are providing us with people who possess a vastly enhanced set of skills for driving workplace improvement, if we from the older generations can appreciate and embrace these skills. While one can argue that having an ‘instant gratification' mindset can lead to impatience and haphazard behavior, the counterpoint should also be examined. These two newer generations have a low tolerance for non-value added activities (impatience?) and they want to see results (instant gratification?).

When viewed from the alternative perspective, the four attributes of these two new generations seem to offer a lot of promise. They made sense to me logically very soon after I was exposed to them, but they also definitely ran against the grain of what I had seen practiced in the business world over the last twenty years. Don't most projects take six or months to complete? Don't we have to have meeting after meeting to make sure that all of the bases are covered? Don't we have to make sure that the proper channels are always followed as we develop and install an improvement? Isn't it naturals that big decisions take time to be made?

Results are what counts, and these people get results. They are not only out for themselves -- they want to do a good job, and they spend a lot of time thinking about how things work and how they can help to make then better. True, they do get frustrated with the lack of progress that takes place from day to day, but I am coming to realize more each day that a lot of this frustration is warranted. When we older people act our age, especially from a business sense, we do tend to waste a lot of time.

Jennifer James goes on to point out that like or not, there are five year olds out there who possess a more comprehensive set of computer skills then some of us ‘forty plus' people do. These same five year olds are also rapidly developing their ability to multitask and context switch. If we are beginning to see the dramatic influence of these two new generations in the workplace now, what are we in store for in the coming years? If we plan on working for at least ten more years, what types of personal learning and change do we need to plan for in order to keep making consistent, value added contributions to the workplace?

My perspective on the potential of our youth was first shifted eight years ago when an eleven year old girl beat me in a 5K race, even though I finished in the top five percent of the field myself. My perspective on the true power of our youth has only begun to be formed. If you take time to listen to them, these people make a lot of sense. If you take the time to reflect on your own practices at the same time (i.e. multitask), you will really begin to question the obsolete nature of many of your own skills and ways of thinking.

When we continue to type at a snail's pace of twenty words a minute, take hours to make a decision that could really be made in minutes, or continue to use manual systems instead of converting them into digital ones, we are acting our age. Similarly, we are doing the same when we close our minds to the potential, intelligence, and creativity of our youth simply because they remind of us of our own children. Appreciating diversity in today's workplace is not limited to issues of race, gender, or ethnicity – it is now also one of age appreciation.

Don't get me wrong -- each generation has something teach to the other. At the same time however, I feel that since the influence of technology will only continue to increase in the workplace and in our lives, those of us that are older stand to learn the most. Are you acting your age?

Reference: “Thinking in the Future Tense”, Jennifer James, Touchstone Books, 1997.

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