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Old Age and Treachery... and Youth and Skill

Twenty years ago,

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: October 29, 2008

Twenty years ago, when I worked with the then newly retired Harrie Lewis, he found a Post-It note pad with the saying “old age and treachery can overcome youth and skill.” We had quite a chuckle about it. I thought about it recently as our industry faces an economic recession and the continued inroads of new media.

Print businesses need age diversity in their workforces for a very good reason: to remember the past and better address the future.

There are many printing owners, executives, managers, and staff personnel have never faced a deep recession. Every one we've had in the past 20 years has been mild, and the last one, at the end of 2001, was probably the mildest on record. In my mind, it shouldn't have even qualified to be called one.

The last deep recessions were the periods of November 1973 to March 1975 and a pair in the early 1980s. You can't say the years between were particularly good, even though they didn't qualify as recessions. Inflation was increasing, as was unemployment. By the time President Carter was running for a second term, the economy was in horrid shape. There were two recessions that were very close to each other, January to July of 1980, followed by July 1981 through November 1982. Paul Volcker became Fed chairman. To cope with the high inflation, he drove interest rates into the mid-double-digits to stop its strangehold on the economy. (We bought a house at that time, and the interest rate was 16.125%; we were thrilled because it was the lowest rate available).

Print business owners can benefit from the advice of executives who lived through those times. If they don't have a staff, this is an important role for advisors or mentors or board of directors members.

For the same reason, young advisors need to be part of the decision process, because these times are not like those times. The older advisors know little about new media and today's information technology. The young advisors know nothing about real recessions. It's a great match. You need the advice of both.

There are significant differences between these times and the mid- to late-1970s and early 1980s. Despite the economic problems, there was a technological revolution occurring in prepress. We were moving from hot type to cold type with the rapid adoption of phototypesetting. Camera color separations were shifting to new color scanners for the low price of $300,000 (and it was a deal!). That was about $900,000 in today's dollars. The cost of producing materials for print was going down. At the same time, most printing was black & white, even in the weekly news magazines. Color was more effective, and advertisers were actually paying almost 40% more for ad space to have something printed in color rather than black & white. The decreased prepress costs allowed color to be used in lower run lengths than ever before. This stimulated the market for new sheetfed presses, and the web offset market started to grow as printers looked to satisfy the relatively new and rapidly growing color newspaper insert and catalog markets.

We do not have this kind of technological change working in our favor in this downturn. Printers were grappling with lower demand before the economy deteriorated. Now we need the counsel of the younger advisors about working with the new media formats available today.

I've been speaking to many industry groups, and the benefits of age diversity in management has become more obvious to me as these two conflicting economic and technological trends play out. Buy an older executive an iPhone and have them have instant message with the younger one about staying ahead of inflation. It can only help.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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