I ventured to the Institute of Economic Affairs yesterday evening to attend a panel discussion titled "Were 364 Economists All Wrong?". I must confess that the level of the debate was far deeper than I anticipated and I found it hard to follow one or two of the arguments. However, the topic itself was easy enough: the British government, in 1981, implemented a number of economic policies that a large number of academic economists strongly disagreed with. They wrote a letter to The Times saying as much and predicted disaster.
Implicit to the title of the discussion was the claim that disaster did not occur - and the question was: does this mean those economists were wrong?
There was a lot of talk of monetarism, measures of money supply, the technical definition of a depression and more. All good stuff. The reasoned, polite debate was enjoyable and it was refreshing, as it always is, to hear those at the top of their profession confess to doubts in their understanding of their specialism. Honesty is good.
One aspect of the debate stood out, however. Here, in one room, were more old men than I had seen since High Table at college. These were people who had been (or were) senior economic advisers to the treasury, the heads of various banks. Several of them were easily in their eighties. They had vast experience and accumulated knowledge and they were treated as experts to be listened to and to learn from.
As I looked around, I tried to imagine what the equivalent would be in the IT industry. We have a most unpleasant habit of regarding anybody over the age of 35 as past it. If you're still working on new technology (rather than supporting the old stuff) at the age of fifty then you must be doing something pretty remarkable.
Perhaps my sample was biased by the large number of academics present (there certainly seems to be a free flow between academia and policymaking/advising) but I'm not so sure it was significant.
I think there really is a difference in the demographics of the two professions. The question is: how much of this is due to the much younger age of our industry and how much is intrinsic to our work? If the latter dominates then I'd better have a plan for my middle-age if I don't want to starve when I'm 60.