In the process of applying for a Master’s degree (in early 2021) I thought it would be a clever idea to meet a current student. UCL kindly arranged for me to meet one in advance from the programme to which I was applying (Democracy and Comparative Politics). We spent an hour or so in chatting about the university and his experience on the programme. Before he left I decided to ask him a question which had been burning in my mind. Finally, I asked him what he thought it would be like for somebody at my age (I was about to turn 64). He urged me not to worry and said that he, “did not find it difficult being old”—as he was the oldest student in the class at the time. I asked him his age and he said he was 31. So the oldest student in the class was less than half my age. I gulped—what would this be like?
Regardless, I signed up for the class and am now midway through the programme. It has been one of my best decisions ever—at least I feel that way so far. What has it been like to study with people who are less than half my age and why did I decide to take this on despite many fears and reservations?
Firstly, I thought it would be nice to hear what this generation was feeling (the students in my programme range from their early to late 20s, with a few exceptions). They are even younger than my children, who are all in their 30s at the time of this writing. It is therefore a generation I have little access to, and for that reason I was particularly keen to meet these young people—all of whom have come of age since the financial crash of 2008. Maybe I was also tired of hearing from my own generation and their observations, rationalisations, and prescriptions. My generation screwed things up abysmally and is therefore very unlikely to be the source of solutions.
Second, it seemed like a challenge—and I was up for a challenge. There did not seem much point in taking something on which did not force me out of my comfort zone. And this has really taken me out of my comfort zone! Throughout my life I have felt that sometimes I need to shake things up, and this experience was destined, and designed, to achieve that.
Third, friends of mine suggested that I would be able to contribute something unique to the rest of the class. Given that I had been working for over 40 years, it was difficult to dispute this idea–I would be very different from the other students. Nearly all of these young people were likely to be about to start their careers, and they might actually find it helpful speaking to someone who was on the “other side of the hill” (the one I am over). This has proven to be the case.
Finally, many individuals I spoke to about this upcoming decision said that age was just something that was “in my head.” I suppose that is true, however I have no way of knowing what is in the heads of other people, only what is in mine. And if I am honest, I am not even sure that I know my own mind much of the time. I also asked myself how I would feel if there was someone in my class who was 30+ years my senior. Apart from being immensely surprised by their willingness to learn, I thought that I would judge the individual based on his or her contribution—secretly hoping that these young people would do the same with me.
So far, the classmates have been absolutely lovely—my age more seems to be far more relevant to me than to them. They seem willing to allow me to join them for lunch and even to meet them at the pub (but I respectfully leave after the second round)! In fact, they are incredibly open and engaging and have really enhanced my learning experience. Even the dreaded coronavirus, and the many limitations it has caused, has not undermined this aspect, although obviously it has made things much more difficult.
Age is definitely an aspect of who I am and who we all are. So are gender, race, religion, birthplace, nationality, sexual preference, political leaning, and many other factors. Like any of these, one factor does not define, and probably should not define, who you are, although I guess it does help explain a bit about what you are. Also, the atmosphere of university education today is “tolerant” in a particular way, almost to a fault. Perhaps that is theme I will pick up in another post? But in the meantime, I should emphasise how open minded the students I have met are to me and to each other. I think that is partly the refreshing nature of youth but also the current climate.
In any event, I am glad I have undertaken this challenging experiment.
London, UK—29 September 2022
I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments.