This last year at work has been difficult.
I’ve reached an age where new things come to me with … greater difficulty. I’m still doing just fine, but I can see the shape of the road in front of me.
I pretty much stopped playing the piano in college, in the 1970’s. We bought a piano in 1982, and I played it from time to time, but I didn’t really pick it up again until the 1990’s. I was horrifically rusty: my fingers were weak, and slow, and I had no fine control. I decided to see if I could bring any of it back, and I did, and actually surpassed my earlier skill by quite a bit.
It was very hard work. But I also noticed something — memorizing new music came harder, and didn’t stick as well. That was in my 40’s.
I started doing contract software work in 1996, where every job required that I learn new things. One of my first gigs required me to dig into the interrupt structure for both HP-UX and Windows NT, and write a hardware driver for a new PCI board that would be used in both HP-UX and Windows NT systems. I was pretty familiar with the Amiga OS internals — they were a freaking work of art, by the way — but I’d never even seen NT or Unix drivers before, so I had a vertical learning curve.
But I was good, and I knew it, so I just dug in and got the job done.
In 2005, I started doing bits of contracting work with SGI, and eventually joined SGI as an employee in the spring of 2012. By that point, I’d already rewritten a major piece of the software product I was working on to multi-thread the code for performance, and I understood it pretty thoroughly.
Last spring, I left SGI to work for Cray. I had to learn an entirely new business environment, at the same time I was learning the Python language (and style) and a completely new product development process that was new to Cray as well, on top of learning (or inventing) ways to do things that no one at Cray knew how to do. It was kind of fun, and kind of nightmarish at the same time, because we had an impossible schedule to meet. I again noticed that climbing the learning curve was harder than it had been in the past, just as it had been on the piano. There were days I felt like I was pushing on a wall.
Then, at the end of last year, Cray squashed the entire project I’d been working on, and transferred all of us to other projects. Now, I’m working in the Linux kernel, in C again rather than Python, and the learning curve has been brutal. I’m just starting to become productive, in my fifth month.
I’m still ahead of the normal curve: they tell me that this particular product takes something like six to twelve months for newcomers to become productive, and I’ve found footholds after only four. So I’m not contemplating an old-age home any time soon.
But it’s been difficult. I would even say, painful. I’ve had days I’ve had to quit at three, because I could no longer focus.
I’m not looking for sympathy. My career is just like this, and has always been like this. It pays well, and I’m used to it. When I can’t do it any more, I’ll have to quit. I’ve always known that.
What brought on this posting was something in a comment that Bernie Sanders made, while speaking in coal-mining communities in West Virginia:
“In my view, we have got to invest $41 billion rebuilding coal mining communities and making sure that Americans in McDowell County and all over this country receive the job training they need for the clean energy jobs of the future.”
Clinton is singing much the same tune. All these politicians make it sound so damned easy. Just throw some money at a retraining program and declare “Mission Accomplished!”
The principal difficulty that an old (human) dog has with learning new tricks is not wrestling with less flexible brain matter.
It’s the loss of dignity.
The US doesn’t do dignity to begin with. We call our next generation a bunch of spoiled brats. We call our elders useless burdens. Our poor are parasites, and our sick should just get with the program and die, already, and stop wasting so much of our precious, precious money.
People can’t, and won’t, live like that. Force people to live without dignity, and a fair number will pick up a gun, put it in someone’s face, and say, “Respect me!” Some will point the gun at their own heads and pull the trigger. Still others will slide into addictions, or just curl up into a hopeless depression and die by inches.
People seek dignity where they can. And a lot of us seek our dignity in our work — assuming we have work, and can convince ourselves and others that we are good at it. It’s one of the few places in the US we can find any dignity at all.
When you take away a coal miner’s job, and offer a “retraining program,” you do two things.
First, you declare that the old job is no longer worth doing. You also call into question whether it was ever worth doing. It’s the same problem that returning soldiers face, when people line up and scream “baby killer” at them. It calls into question the value of their service, and leaves them with not so much as a fig leaf of dignity.
Second — and worse — you invalidate all of their accumulated expertise and experience. These are miners who know things about mining that are never written down in any book. They are men who have accumulated this knowledge through pain and effort, and they are now de facto experts in their field. Smart young miners look up to them for that experience. They share a professional camaraderie and mutual respect among their peers. Their wives, girlfriends, children, and relatives, look up to them for their position, their dedication, their hard-won wisdom as miners. They have dignity.
Suddenly, with a twist of a pen, they’re back in school, not really even an apprentice to their new trade. They’re all the way back in junior high school shop class, learning to … well, what is it, exactly, that we’re going to retrain these miners to do? Stamp ashtrays out of sheet metal? Make cabinets? Put labels on cans? Oh, no, that’s right, we’ll keep them in “the energy sector,” like there’s any crossover whatsoever between coal mining and wiring up solar panels.
Their dignity is gone, taken from them. They need to work hard to become an apprentice again. And if they don’t make the cut, competing against all those young kids with flexible brains and a long career path in front of them, rather than behind them — well, they are just one more useless burden thrown on the stack of obsolete, old-folk deadwood, a burden that we’ll all be better off without when they finally … well, you know.
Speaking of that, will you be needing your government-subsidized shared apartment next month? We’ve got a new batch of oilfield workers coming in and we need some beds for them, and as you know, funds are really, really tight.
If you want to personally contemplate what this is like, Mr. Sanders, or Mrs. Clinton — and I’d recommend it as an exercise — consider the idea that the United States has just been abolished, and you, as lawmakers, can keep working if you accept retraining in the new form of government, which is an imperial bureaucracy. By the way, you’ll need to learn Mandarin. Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention — your money isn’t any good any more, either. If you don’t want to work for your living, we’ve got some government-subsidized housing for you, and food stamps.
You’ll have to take a roommate, though, because we don’t have much space and, as you know, funds are really, really tight.