Yesterday’s passing of folk singer Pete Seeger at age 94 is a chance to think about old age, the Twentieth Century and how the way we use technology might be restricting us from seeing the opportunities around us.
One of Seeger’s best-known hits of the 1960s was Malvina Reynold’s song ‘Little Boxes’ that described middle-class conformity in the middle of the Twentieth Century, which had a renaissance in recent years as different contemporary singers did a take of the song for the TV series Weeds.
As the Weeds opening credits imply, we are probably more conformist today than our grandparents were in the 1960s.
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In business, that conformity is born out of modern management practices that insist employees be put into their own ‘little boxes’ – if you don’t tick the right boxes then the HR department can’t put you in the right box.
With big data and social media expanding, increasing computer algorithms are used to decide which box you will fit into. One of the boxes that managers and HR people love ticking is the age box.
‘Little Boxes’ writer Malvina Reynolds would never have fitted into one of the modern HR practitioners’ little boxes as she only entered the folk music community in her late forties.
Despite being a late bloomer, Malvina wrote dozens of folk and protest songs through the 1960s and 70s – The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride was another of her hits – before passing away at age 77 in 1977.
Were Malvina Reynolds born 60 years later, she would expect to live to at least Pete Seeger’s age and expect to switch careers several time during her working life.
Modern age expectancy means the modern workplace’s age discrimination and the box ticking of HR managers is unsustainable; there’s too much talent being wasted while individuals, business and governments can’t afford to fund a society where the average person spends the last thirty years of their life in retirement.
With technology there’s no reason why a 40-year-old air pilot can’t retrain to be an accountant or a 60-year-old farmer get the skills to become a nurse, the very tools that are being used to keep workers in boxes are the ones that enable them to break out of those boxes.
Similarly modern technology allows an accountant, farmer or young kid in an obscure developing nation to create a new business or industry that puts the box ticking HR managers in downtown high rises out of work.
Just as today’s box ticking manager might be confronted by a threat they barely know exists, so too is the business that spends all its time looking at data that confirms the prejudices of its owners and executives.
Life, and data, doesn’t always neatly fit into little boxes.