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The ageing of the baby boomers

Posted By Chris Reay, Monday, 15 December 2014

On January 1, 2011, the oldest of the Baby Boomer era turned 65. Every day for the next 19 years from that date, about 10,000 more (in the USA alone) will cross that threshold. This puts the starting date of the era at 1946 and the “end” date at 1965. The annual birth rate in the 50s was the highest ever in history.

We can ask what relevance this has to us here in South Africa where the population distribution is radically different from that in the USA. This however becomes apparent when we track the impact this era has had on the development of the built environment world-wide, which is largely engineering based. Post- war birth rate behavior was not much different in other countries recovering from the depression of the 1930s and the second-world war.

The baby boomer era was really the builder of our modern infrastructure as we know it. The rise of urbanization, consumerism, technology development and health care improvements among many changes took place rapidly, underscored by the focus on access to education and high levels of employment. 

If we reflect on SA, it is evident that the basic infrastructure of the country was developed in this period and well into the 80s. Multiple large projects were all happening in mining, power stations, roads, water storage and reticulation, industries, military developments, agriculture and travel facilities to name many. Urban development began with a vengeance and has continued unabated to accommodate the growth in the population. Urban development brings with it the need to provide power, sanitation, communications and general infrastructure and the services required by the citizens.

It is interesting to witness the trends that evolve with eras such as this. Aside from the social characteristics such the hippies, political protests, civil rights etc, there has been a decline in the building and replacement of infrastructure since. It leveled off by virtue of having met the required levels of need. Much of it has understandably worn out over the last 50 years and simply not either been maintained or replaced. It would appear that maintaining and refurbishing is not as glamorous as building from new. 

So we look at our own circumstances and in the domain of engineering it is evident that the same era built the bulk of our infrastructure, and much if it is ageing. More evident is that maintenance has been neglected in many cases and we are experiencing that on an increasing basis in our electrical power assets. Added to that is the “forced” reduction in skills and expertise which existed in that era of Engineers that built the power stations and distribution systems. Where we designed, constructed and commissioned many six pack stations, none of them ever displayed the horror that is being displayed by Medupi – 3 years late (so far) and getting on for double the capital cost, and add to this the cost of non-availability to the economy. It is thus worth noting: things are built by people. Better people build things better.

Of concern to the Americans is that the rate of exit of engineering talent is considerably greater than the rate of entry of new resources that have to be developed with the assistance of the outgoing skills. This is our own experience in SA where it must be understood that numbers entering the industry may be improving but the experiential training is certainly not sufficient. This applies to the trades as well. The average age of a qualified artisan in the USA is now mid- fifties, the same as ours.

This scenario then makes it very clear that unless we harness the ageing skills and experience of the baby boomer fraternity to mentor and upskill the young engineering resources entering the profession, where else will we get them?  They are not available in a box, a book, a video, a classroom or a memorychip. It is time on the ground with the human interaction, learning on the job.

Time waits for no one. The need is now. It’s time to start attracting the baby boomers to enter a paid mentoring profession.

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