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Thursday, January 17, 2008 -- 7:12 pm

As people generally refer to the "gray hair" phenomenon, I think they mean that if a junior person and a senior one give precisely the same advice, the senior one will have more credibility -- and clout -- simply by dint of their gray hair and the experience and/or wisdom that implies, and this nonverbal cue nudges people to take the advice far more to heart than a pure appeal to reason ever could. I suspect there's more to this than an innate or cultural age-based bias, however. With age, people tend to settle more into their own skin. They get accustomed to the use of power -- where it comes from, how it's squandered, what it can and cannot do. And they're less easily intimidated. All of these things ultimately translate into confidence (and that ineffable trait, the appearance of certainty), which is projected by body language and subtle non-verbal cues. I remember hearing about an acting method, or more likely a directing method, in which a power dynamic was communicated by more powerful people moving and speaking slowly and deliberately, and using a low-pitched voice, while more subservient people fidgeted, moved quickly, and spoke in a higher if not squeaky voice. There are, of course, other indicators that anyone might extract from the anthropologist's catalogue -- who has the prerogative of interrupting whom, who gets to change the subject, who gets to initiate physical contact or bestow gifts -- but those are getting a bit further afield. I suppose that ambitious junior professionals might get a head start on those gray hairs by focusing more on controlling their demeanor.

Monday, January 14, 2008 -- 7:46 pm

It's been underscored for me recently how less fluid American society has become in recent decades, and how opportunities for social advancement have gradually been closed off by degree prerequisites and the rising cost of education. There are plenty of people -- highly skilled and talented people -- retiring today who would never have been allowed the same employment opportunities in today's job market because they lack formal education or official academic credentials. At the same time, the money you have to spend to get those credentials is increasing at a ridiculous rate. Considering how little some people seem to get out of formal education, and how much others are able to absorb without having any, it seems to me that the age of meritocracy, if it ever existed, is at an end.

Not completely unconnected with this notion is that the technocrats seem to have carved out parochial priesthoods for themselves. I've commented before that people with science degrees only acknowledge the possibility of their own kind having legitimate opinions, and computer technicians assume that only those formally inducted into their order are worth talking to in anything but a patronizing tone. The possibility of someone without the right kind of paper being current in the field is dismissed without serious consideration.

Whatever happened to the notion of people being generally well-rounded and well-informed? I suppose no one reads anymore, and that contributes something to the problem. It's generally assumed that the only reason someone would read a work of non-fiction is because they had to, whether out of business necessity or as part of some kind of degree program. If you don't have a degree, you couldn't have learned it, and so you're not qualified. Of course, in my experience, a huge number of people trapsing around this world of ours have plenty of credentials but no insight, and their degrees aren't worth much more than the paper they're written on from a practical point of view. So do such people genuinely believe they're qualified because of their degrees (rather than, say, experience), or do they just assume that everyone around them is a fraud? It's hard to say. The fact that teachers are now being evaluated exclusively on the basis of test results seems to be an alarming facet of the same trend.

The end result of all of this is that "qualifications" have become a more or less political notion rather than a practical one. That can't be great for society, politics, or the economy.