Tech & Work

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Generation X

The process of passing on tech skills is changing profoundly...

Written in a Florida hotel and dispatched via a free but shaky wi-fi service

Human generations have mastered new technologies and working practices by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

Historically the old have taught the young but not any more. Now the young are teaching the slightly younger.

The old master-and-apprentice model served us well for eons. Each generation was eager to pass on its skills and knowledge to the young to preserve crafts and skills.

In many cases this was a handover from father to son of trade and experience - such as occurs in farming - which ensured the prosperity and well-being of families.

As a youngster I worked in a TV repair shop at the weekends for meagre financial reward just to learn the tricks of the trade. At home I had my own repair shop and built my own equipment to further enhance my knowledge.

I even joined a radio club so I could mix with a few professionals in the hope some of what they knew would rub off on me.

I didn't realise it at the time but I was part of Generation X - the new tech-savvy group who would power us through the revolution of the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. And during my time working as a linesman for the phone company, plus my 10 years at university, I found my early craft experience absolutely invaluable. I had served and profited from my apprenticeship.

Today there is a new Generation X - born into a world of instant access, gratification, machines and participation. They start with computer games, problem solving and strategic thinking reinforced by social networking and sharing on a scale never witnessed before.

Their apprenticeship is so very different. The masters are now barely five years older than the apprentices and most likely not yet of university age. In short: the learning hierarchy seems to have become age-compressed.

The Baby Boomers like me struggle to keep up with and exploit the latest technologies, while the Generation Xs are asking for more and stretching everything to the limit.

In industrial terms, almost everywhere I now find that the IT-incapable are in a shrinking minority - with less than 50 per cent of the workforce and more than 50 per cent of managers reasonably IT competent. But it has taken decades to get there. Not so for Generation X, they get there far more quickly – see below for the timeline and competence, and for the battle of the generations.

Some people see this situation as the end of the world - but I don't. It is up to us all to try and keep up with change. If we don't, how can we possibly make any contribution to the age in which we live?

And guess what? The Generation X of today will become the cautious and responsible managers of tomorrow. It always goes that way in the end but I am sure they will have brought about their own momentous changes on the way.

In the meantime, there is the potential for increasing tensions between Generation X minds and the older control freaks who think they might be able to hold onto everything. The reality is they stand no chance against a growing, smarter, younger and tech-capable workforce. When you get tectonic forces like this, shift happens.

I always remember that wonderful, but unverified, quote by Mark Twain: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."

I feel that if I ever lose that wonderment a child feels every time they discover something new, I too will join the army of those who seem to have given up and become an impediment to progress.

My body might be in its 60s but I was Generation X once and I can't forget it. I still get that buzz of excitement every time I discover or grasp something new.

So, I'm off into town to visit the computer store. Time to update my OS and see if I can master a new set of facilities and tricks dreamt up by a generation much younger than mine.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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