My 14 year old son made an interesting observation the other day. When I asked him about possible future careers that he might be interested in, one that definitely wasn’t on the cards was IT. When I asked him about it he said that he wasn’t sure why anyone would choose a career from the outset where everything you learned became irrelevant so quickly and that if you weren’t constantly studying, you were likely to end up unemployed.

Is IT a lifelong career?

He also pointed out that as far as he could tell from listening to me talk with colleagues and friends, there weren’t a whole lot of people that stayed in IT beyond their 40’s. That when he did settle on a career path, it would be one that actually included a path all the way to retirement age. Why make a choice now that meant you had to make a new career choice when you had just started a family and had kids?

I’m not sure it was an “Emperor’s got no clothes” moment for me, but it certainly did make me sit back and take stock, knowing that to stay relevant between where I am now and retirement there’s probably as much study as there has been, if not more, than there has been from the start of university to where I am now. I’m also certainly aware of people my age looking at or executing exit strategies. In some cases not entirely at times of their choosing.

How much study keeps you current?

Being half way through a doctorate in IT myself and an experienced student of both professional and academic IT, I feel able to make a comparison between the study I need to do to keep up and the study I need to do to get an undergraduate degree or even a doctorate. My estimate is that you need to do at least the equivalent of an undergraduate degree of study each decade of your career to just stay current. You probably need to do an amount of study equivalent to that required to get a doctorate every decade to get ahead.

That’s quite a bit of study. It’s something that I’m personally okay with, but I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea of being a perpetual student. Most people I know though are more like my son and the idea that they’ll need to be studying as hard in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s as they did in their 20’s and 30’s doesn’t elicit a whole lot of enthusiasm. To throw out yet another metaphor: Not only do you need to paddle against the current to stay in place, you have to paddle even harder to get ahead.

Advantage of youth

In many careers, you don’t hit your peak until middle age. For surgeons, peak performance is reached in early middle age Lawyers and accountants reach their peaks even later, with definite career benefits accruing with experience.

One reason why youth has advantage over experience in IT is that if everything you learn becomes irrelevant after a few years, the advantages of deep experience become more intangible and are more difficult to articulate. It’s easier to dismiss elder wisdom and critique of something new as intransigence than it is to accept that even in IT, many problems have been encountered and resolved before. Mastery of any specific technology becomes less beneficial if the old is always being replaced by the new.

There’s also the challenging fact that workers in their 20’s are cheaper than middle aged workers. If constant technological change means that mastery of one specific is ephemeral, the case for retaining more expensive experienced workers holds less water. If no one has more than a few years of experience working with a new technology, why pick the more likely expensive middle aged person?

No country for old IT Pros and Devs?

From my son’s perspective, there is no point entering a career that will do its best to spit you out at the other end in your 40’s rather than at retirement age. I’ve already met quite a few IT Pros and Devs who are looking at non-IT careers having reached middle age because of the general perception that IT is a game for the young and by middle age you’ve reached your career’s end of support window.

I’m not sure what the answer is here. I suspect that if I had put the same continuing intellectual effort into a career in accounting, medicine, or law that I’d put into IT that I’d probably feel that I had a solid chance of riding that career all the way to retirement. In my own case, I’ll just keep paddling hard, keep learning, and hope that putting constant effort in keeps things inching forward.

It’s my general belief that there are no certainties in the modern workplace. Even though my son would like to think that he can choose a career and only have to upskill infrequently, my suspicion is that at some point in the future all careers will look like IT does now and that the ability to constantly retrain yourself in future will be as necessary as basic computer literacy is now.