The New Power Shift

In a provocative article in Time Magazine, Tom Vanderbilt describes the frustrations of teaching his seven year-old daughter to play chess.  After she soon started beating him, he turned for understanding to experts.  Vanderbilt writes, “There are, I learned, two forms of intelligence:  “fluid” and “crystallized.”  Fluid intelligence is, basically, being able to think on one’s feet, to solve new problems.  Crystallized intelligence is what a person already knows – wisdom, memories, metacognition.”


For young people, everything they see and learn flows into an open mind that doesn’t judge or sort.  Over 18, things are subject to our judgements and slotted to the appropriate places in our heads.  Sometimes that flow becomes wrapped in the wisdom of a Supreme Court justice or a physicist; for others it can become a thinker rooted in stone.


People who work in a field that runs on fluid intelligence will face the obstacle of facing obsolescence that begins around age 30.  That’s the age when everyone must try to stay relevant in new age companies.  When their minds start to organize material, they have lost their fluidity.  An article in Bloomberg Businessweek advises people to exclude any experience further back than ten years – no matter how impressive – in their resumes.  They suggest hanging out in parking lots to see what people are wearing, to absorb the lingo of their juniors and if they fail, to look for work that older people can do.


If you’ve hit 40, you’re probably done for even if you play a clever game.  Your fluid intelligence is already crystallizing.  Talking to someone whose intelligence has crystallized into wisdom may be fine for the Supreme Court, but not for those who want to work in the world of new technology.  For the first time in the lives of those of us still breathing, the power ladder is undergoing a radical shift.


Think back.  In the 1950s, women of all ages remained at home doing “women’s work.”  In the explosive ‘60s, Gloria Steinem led, and still leads, the revolution for awareness that has improved the status of women forever, but one road block remained.  Nothing could change the fact that in a few seconds, men impregnated women who then dealt with pregnancy, birth, and the raising of that child – and whatever children followed. Women were knocked out of circulation for roughly two decades while raising families.  Men were charged with earning their support. For millions of us, these were lives we loved.  And then the ‘60s exploded.  From that time forward, mothers, given new attention, struggled with how to realize themselves in ways additional to their full time domestic roles.


Then came the massive and unexpected disruption of our culture. The revolution wrought by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and their generation not only changed the power structure, but did it so fast that most of us are still trying to make sense of it.  By the time the century turned, young college graduates, both men and women were computer literate and many were turning to on line startups.  Marriage was shelved for many as they lived with people they loved, worked in on-line startups and prospered in a new world no one had predicted. This is a world where women can often work from home while their children are young if they choose to.


The language and structure of our culture had been revolutionized without a wide understanding of what was happening.  What indeed was going on?  Men in their 20s no longer wanted to start at the bottom and work their way up.  Applications to law schools dropped, corporate training programs thinned.  In existing law firms and corporations, women at the secretarial level learned the now essential language of computers.  Men at the top still thought of computers as advanced typewriters, as secretarial tools, as something they didn’t have to learn. Their subordinates could deal with it. They soon found out.


And the world for those kids? They have become the go to generation. They are the ones who understand the new language of commerce.  And if for a moment we thought this power would lie forever with the Millennials, think again.  Even they are already turning to younger people for explanations of whatever they don’t understand.  Because children now begin learning the language of the internet when they are three, a 30 year-old Millennial may deflect a complex question with “ask a kid.”


As the Millennials operate comfortably in this new world, the power has shifted downward toward them.  The president of a bank may still earn a bucket of money, but he may be lost in the world of communication.  He has to turn to those beneath him in the power structure and that power is moving slowly down the ladder in exactly the same way employees used to acquire it on the way up.  At his older age, he no longer has the mind that can grab odd new ideas on the fly.


The revolution that introduced computers in the ‘80s signaled the approach of a new global culture that will forever remain in a constant state of change. And that is precisely why the people working in it must be young enough to absorb the world through their fluid intelligence before it crystallizes. Our new world belongs to them.

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