Recently, when working with undergraduates to design a new experiment, they told me that they preferred to recruit participants under 40 in order to control for age effects in attitudes toward using technology.
Actually, that’s not quite what they said. “Older people are slower to change to new technologies,” is the quote I remember.
I acknowledged that I had seen “age effects” in my recent research — which I had just asked them to read through, though that summary didn’t include in which direction the age effects were seen. For the pilot study, I conceded that it might be wise to narrow the sampling to an age range that is more easily recruited around a college campus.
But privately, I started wondering – Do I believe, as they apparently do, that older people are usually slower to “get” technology? After all, **I** am older than 40. I could argue that, given my life circumstances as an adult returning student, I am learning new technologies at a **faster** pace than those younger than me simply because I am playing catch-up. But, in my more honest moments, I know I am more set in my ways than when I was 20 or 25. … Except, I might only be set in ways that I’ve learned the hard way from bad experiences, including from technologies that promise more than they deliver, while I stay open to new possibilities. … Except, I’ve known plenty of tech curmudgeons older than me, so I very well might be the exception. Except, …
I ended up cutting off my thoughts with a reminder to myself that **I am not the target user any more than these students are** (an axiom among the user-experience community) and that we should just run the study and see whether it supports my students’ intuitions-and/or-biases, or my own need to believe I’m not a generational curiosity. We’ll see what happens.
And the same goes for my life in general. Today, I turn 44 and am immersed in my second year of studies toward my doctorate in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Getting to this point is both a complete surprise and the result of more than 10 years of planning and hard work. In my stronger moments, I am thankful and proud to be able to use my limited time on earth in exactly the way that makes me happy and, hopefully, also benefits the entire world – through doing cutting-edge research, steeping myself in my new chosen field, and mentoring the next generation of students.
In my weaker moments, I worry that I’m too old to have the stamina for this work for long, and then I worry that I’m letting the age biases that run rampant in our society get into my head. It’s tricky (I know this as a woman also, especially pertinent this week of the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings) to separate out what is inherently true about yourself vs. what is being imposed on you by others’ views of your capabilities, and whether that reflects your individual flaws or the flaws of the society and culture around you.
One of the benefits of aging is the acceptance and perspective on how little our individual accomplishments as well as momentary setbacks mean in the long run. If that weak voice turns out to be correct, and I’m too old for this, so what? For all of us, the nourishing relationships we form with others and the greater good that we cause to appear and grow in the world will be much more significant than any line on a curriculum vitae or piece of paper in a frame. My ego is still tremendous, don’t get me wrong!, but I very much appreciate now that I am a link in a larger chain of humanity that includes my family, my friends, and the others who are also significant in my life, such as my students and community.
I come back always to the same point: let’s run this grand experiment of life, and see what happens. The results may yet surprise me!