Back when I used to go out a lot, I sometimes ended up in conversations with random guys in clubs and bars. I won’t pretend that all of those were great conversations and that I did not excuse myself early on more often than not. However, sometimes you end up talking with someone who gives you a new perspective on things. These days, I have random conversations on airports, on planes, or at conferences because otherwise I only see the same old people day in and day out in my professional life and if I spoke openly about my views with them, I would ruffle a few feathers.
I was just minding my business, having arrived early at my airport terminal, when an older gentleman sat down beside me. Me reading technical reports seemed to have piqued his interest and he struck up a conversation. It turned out that we are alumni of the same university, which is always an excellent ice breaker. You move from being a random dude to someone who has walked part of the same path as you. He then opened up and told me about his life, which was quite interesting to listen to. He told me about his career, his family (he’s divorced), and his teenage son who shows little to no respect for him. There are plenty of guys like this around. You just don’t often end up talking to them.
On talking about the interests of his son, he asked me about my opinion about the field I work in, before he segued into junior’s potential career choices. We quickly arrived at a point where, if I had known this guy very well, I would have been blunt to the point of being insulting. Instead, I nodded and listened. He told me that for him, life has been one long and almost effortless success story. This is my summary. He was a very modest guy who liked downplaying his achievement. He’s basically from the generation that got a job by giving a firm handshake and making strong eye-contact, boomer-style.
In the post-World War II years, there was indeed a lot of growth and opportunities were aplenty. Nobody of his peers “was ever without a job if they did not want to”, he exclaimed. Meanwhile, in our generation, there is significant competition. In many fields unpaid internships after graduation are the norm. You know, you gain “experience” while they get free labor. Even in technical fields you may only get fixed-term contracts instead of permanent ones. The working world has gotten a lot tougher. Sure, that guy’s son will have money and connections. Yet, that does not mean that you should not guide your son’s choices.
Here is where the problem of the boomer mentality manifested itself: instead of looking at reality as it is, he has a rather rose-tinted view of it. In his words, the only advice for his son was that he should “follow his passions” and that if he “only worked hard enough, success would inevitably come”. It was that cliched. His son is sadly a slacker who did not bother to put in the work to do well in the serious subjects in school, so his career choices will be limited. Our boomer father is not alarmed. To him, there is not even a shred of doubt that everything will work out just fine.
I found this conversation to be a great warning sign to not let my own beliefs guide me blindly. Instead, always survey the land first. In the same vein, one takeaway is that the well-meaning advice of the old may be genuinely harmful. That is a lesson that surely many of the poorly qualified students of our time will eventually learn. I do think there is great value in life experience. However, only some parts of life are constants. Others are in constant flux.
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