In May 1897 a British journalist asked Mark Twain about reports concerning his dying in poverty in London. Twain famously called the reports “greatly exaggerated.” In fact, he did not actually say that, but the misquote took root and has become part of Americana. I bring it up now in connection with the tragedy of the submersible Titan, which happened just a few days ago.
Titan carried five people aboard, including the son of one of the passengers. It imploded approximately 3,500 meters below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean near the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, the passenger liner that sank in 1912 off the coast of Newfoundland. Some experts have criticized the lack of testing of the submersible under actual conditions, its new hull design of composite carbon fiber, and what they believe was an inadequate concern for safety on the part of the builder, OceanGate, and its CEO, Stockton Rush.
Others have accused OceanGate of cutting corners in the design and manufacture of Titan, spurred on, in part, by a fast-paced company culture. But did that culture push unconventional thinking to the point of ignoring basic testing and safety protocols? Titan was not certified by any regulatory agency. Nor was OceanGate bound by any territorial authority since it conducted its voyage in international waters and answered to no one.
Rush claimed he created OceanGate as a cutting-edge company, promoting himself as a scientific explorer and researcher. This involved searching for the best in young and diverse engineering talent rather than rely on the usual “50-year-old white guys,” who were incapable of “inspiring” a new generation. His comment has led to criticism across the internet of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the “woke” movement. However, it is unclear whether Rush meant anything more than trying to invigorate the field with younger people and ideas, his choice of words notwithstanding.
I am not qualified to say whether the team Rush assembled to work on Titan was unqualified or that its apparent inexperience led to the disaster. However, I have to wonder whether the inclusion of older, experienced engineers would have slowed things down long enough to test the calculations and computer simulations they all relied on. I am talking about wisdom here as opposed to technical prowess. The demographic he disparaged had the requisite expertise, experience, and wisdom to avoid a disaster. How do I know this? Even worse tragedies have happened in the past and we have learned from them; i.e., the USS Thresher in 1963 and the USS Scorpion in 1968 (see To Julius Johnston).
Admittedly, wisdom did not prevent the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion nor the Titanic’s sinking. And I concede that the success of Project Apollo (1968-72) was due to the brilliant work of young, “inspired” engineers, scientists, and project managers. Still, there is much to commend in a workforce that is truly diverse. That includes age. I see this at my own workplace, which spans Boomers to Zoomers. I should include here “Generation Alpha” (born in the 2000’s), since we employ student interns.
I believe the presence of Boomers in the workplace–those who are still left–does two things: (1) Counters “ideological slide,” which is groupthink with a progressive, self-serving bent. You find this in many workplaces today. It often results from some people taking themselves too seriously and no one standing up to them when they do; (2) Provides historical context. Put simply, Boomers bring history to the workplace. This means they can tell you why things are the way they are, how they got that way, and who is responsible. They’ll often put it in terms of knowing where the bodies are buried.
I don’t know if the Titan project lacked historical perspective. Without knowing the past of marine engineering and submarines, it is possible that the team overlooked something. Or a few things. It is also possible that ambition and hubris blinded Rush to the dangers he was putting himself and others in. A reading of both throughout history might have made him pause to reconsider certain decisions. It might even have led to humility, that most elusive quality of leadership and Augustine’s central virtue (see Black Forest Tragedy).
As for Boomers, this may be an instance when they were still needed. If so, then reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
Image credits: all images by NOAA. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”