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Ken North

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Stereotype-Defying Career Longevity

May 09, 2010

There are stereotypes about the computing and entertainment fields being work for the young, a short-lived career at best. But there are also well-known examples of stereotype-defying behavior.There was a lengthy online debate in a Compuserve Forum after a recent college graduate commented that people over 29 were too old to be programming computers. It was not a unique attitude. A programmer whose employer shut down when she was 32 had feedback from interviewers about her being too old to be hired to write software. A comment about 32 being over the hill would be expected coming from the casting director for a teen movie, but it's a surprise coming from a recruiter hiring software developers.

Fortunately, not everyone who chooses to work in the fields of computing or entertainment feels compelled to live up to the youth stereotype.

Some people who love programming have found a way to continue doing it for years. Jeff Duntemann's PC Techniques magazine sometimes ran articles about assembly language programming for the PC. In introducing one of the articles, Jeff mentioned the author was a 70-ish programmer who had retired from IBM. Jim Gray, the 1998 ACM Turing Award winner, participated for several years on expert panels I'd organized and moderated for various computer conferences. At the time, he was several decades removed from his undergraduate days. Jim was Director of Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center when he commented during a panel in San Jose that he tried to spend two hours per day writing code. We miss him and we could use more like him.

The entertainment industry is a prime example of pandering to youth, with faces on the screen that are marketable to the under-24 crowd. This forces some performers not yet in their prime years to find other work when casting directors look for a fresh crop of talented youngsters. But three performers have notably defied the odds. Betty White was chosen to host NBC's Saturday Night Live on May 8, 2010 due to a surge in popularity with a younger generation, driven in part by a Facebook campaign. Her first TV appearance was in a demonstration of television at the 1939 World's Fair and she had her own TV series by 1952. Lauren Bacall was a Harper's Bazaar cover model before making her movie debut in the 1944 Howard Hawks film "To Have and Have Not". So far in 2010, she has completed three films, 66 years after her movie debut.

But the person most likely to hold the record for the longest time between his first and last movie is Mickey Rooney. He was a child actor when he was cast as a midget in the 1926 film "Not to Be Trusted". For 2010 he has five movies to his credit as an actor. He appears in "Night Club", which is scheduled for a 2011 release. That will mean there is a span of 85 years between his film debut and his appearance in "Night Club". Even Jim Gray, whose distinguished career spanned several decades, would likely have admitted that Mickey Rooney sets the high mark for career longevity in a field where stereotypes about age can be an obstacle.

It's nice to know that people with a fire in their gut can defy stereotypes and contribute for a lengthy career, whether it's in entertainment, computing or other fields for which they have a passion.It's nice to know that people with a fire in their gut can defy stereotypes and contribute for a lengthy career, whether it's in entertainment, computing or other fields for which they have a passion.

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