Management: wasted on the youth

In 1938, Ed Sullivan wrote in one of his newspaper columns that “youth is wasted on the very young“. He was paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, who once said: “Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world — and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”

What does this have to do with management? Several years ago, I got quite angry when an older, more experienced friend, declared to me during the course of a conversation that “people under forty are unfit for management positions“. He was over 50, wealthy and quite accomplished. I was in my early 30s and had already become a director at age 25. I had done a great job in that position — not that I was saying it; people in executive management had said it of me, repeatedly, during my appointment. So I thought my anger was justified. I asked him to clarify and he said something to the effect of, “there are certain things you can only understand, directly related to the management of people and organizations, after you pass a certain age“. Well, that didn’t make sense to me, but I chose to let it go. There was no point arguing with him and possibly ruining the friendship. 

I am now over 40 myself. And the funny thing is that as I approached and passed this age, I began to have certain realizations that collectively, allowed me to finally agree with my friend’s statement. He’d had the benefit of experience on his side when he said it. And the cumulative benefits of dealing with many more people, at all levels of employment and management, during his long career (which still continues by the way, because the fellow has an insatiable work appetite.)

Now I also see the wisdom of Shaw’s statement (which is also attributed to Oscar Wilde in some instances). Beyond the surface applicability of mere skin beauty that tends to be there in abundance when one is younger, I see a deeper meaning that has to do with the experience of age, which would certainly be very handy to the young. 

What I also see nowadays, paradoxically, is a lot of young people promoted to management positions. To further clarify, I see a lot of (mostly) inept young people promoted to management positions, making one big mistake after another, because they don’t have the life experience and the work ethic of an older person who has dedicated themselves to their career. Perhaps this is to be expected when the current mantra is that “you really should change your job every couple of years”, which is the sort of idiotic thing young HR managers say to sound smart, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that promotes superficiality in one’s work ethic and the sort of bullshit CVs you see these days. 

I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes in my job as a director at 25. I can think of several right now, off the top of my head, some of which still embarrass me. But I did a good job, as good a job as I could do. I gave it my all, earnestly. It turns out that in this modern world of ours, where youth is prized more than experience, that my performance as a young person in management was an exception, because most young people I see in management are a disappointment to say the least. They’re no good, and they’re not even trying. They’re not giving it their all. They’re bullshitting their way through their jobs and their lackluster, inadequate performances are accepted as-is, because “you can’t get better people nowadays, there’s a skilled labor shortage”. 

Really? There is one? In an ever-growing world, with 7.2 billion people (at the moment), there’s an HR shortage? What a shame… I wonder how much worse this shortage will be when we’ll be at 8 billion… And how come we didn’t have a shortage of people during the Great Depression, when there were only 2 billion people in the world? You know, back when (mostly) experienced people were promoted to management positions? 

I think we are somehow confusing youthful enthusiasm with leadership potential; energy with stamina; bright faces with optimism; intelligence with wisdom; knowledge with experience; a tailored suit and good cosmetics with a good work ethic. There’s a lot of confusion going on. I suppose it’s to be expected when so many changes are taking place in the world. Perhaps in this day and age it’s easy to look at the worn, exhausted faces of older employees and believe they can’t carry the load of a department or division or company, but it’s not about the cosmetics; it’s about the experience, the ability to look at the big picture and the small details. These are things that come with age, with dedication to one’s career and yes, with wrinkles and white hair. 

If you’re stumbling onto this post randomly and you don’t know my website, you’re probably waiting for the pitch. Well, there isn’t one. I’m not selling my services. I’m busy enough with my own work. Thanks for reading this and carry on. 


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