Two of the year’s best productions, one in theaters and the other for the small screen, contain the same warning about overemphasizing youth in your hiring practices: Doing so may increase the odds that unethical behavior will go unchecked.
Not out of malice, but because the perspective that only experience can bring may be missing, while eagerness runs high. It can be a dangerous combination.
The first example is the documentary Three Identical Strangers, about triplets who (spoiler warning) were adopted out to different homes as part of larger, secret psychological study in the 1960s, and only reunited as teenagers because of a freak coincidence. Toward the end of the film, we meet Lawrence Perlman, a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the one living person who was directly involved in the exceedingly inhumane study and agrees to go on record about it. By this time, the viewer is desperate for answers about what researchers like him were thinking as they spent years tracking groups of twins and triplets without telling the children or parents about existing siblings.
“I was 24. This was essentially my first job,” Perlman tells the filmmakers. “The question of whether I feel guilty is interesting,” he says, “because I never felt a responsibility. I came on after this was designed. However, I was a participant, so you can say I was ethically compromised by that.”
“In retrospect,” he also allows, “I can say, it was undoubtedly ethically wrong.”
The other production is a fictional one: Homecoming, the Amazon original series starring Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman, a one-time counselor at an institution in south Florida (named Homecoming) that ostensibly helped young veterans deal with PTSD and adjust to civilian life. We meet Heidi years later, as a waitress trying to piece together what happened at her former job. Near the end of the series, in an episode called “Work,” we learn how Heidi first became ensnared in Homecoming, a startup, and its unscrupulous goals.
During a flashback, we see her in a job interview with the founder (Bobby Cannavale), who tells her in an exasperated tone, “You know, we’ve seen a lot of people, a lot of options, some very experienced candidates. But.”
“What is experience, Heidi?” he then asks. And when she doesn’t have an answer he fills in the blank:
It’s really just familiarity. Familiarity with the past, with how things are. But what about the future? About the way things could be?
What we need is passion, focus, relentless commitment to something that may not be clear in the moment because it doesn’t yet exist.
In this case, the character who naively goes along with the experiment is not young, per se, but a career-changer, keen to succeed in her new field. But during a present-day conversation in the same episode, Heidi’s mother (Sissy Spacek) reveals that she was suspicious about Homecoming all along. Heidi complains that her mother doesn’t understand the situation, and her mother responds: “What don’t I understand? That what you were doing down there was fishy?”
“I knew that the first time you had told me about it,” she continues. “Well, you’d just gotten your degree. You had, what, three years’ experience? And they wanted you to run that whole thing, a company like that? Pay you that salary? Fishy.”
What is experience?
Anyone with a substantial number of years in a job, in any given field, will recognize the warning in Homecoming and Three Identical Strangers. You will know the ways people in your profession can become entangled in questionable practices. And you notice when a manager turns to interns or new hires with a dubious project, one that might face opposition from more seasoned staffers.
When you’ve lived a bit, you also know to look for unintended consequences that may not only impact profits, but lead to ethical failures. You may be better able to predict the way a policy may play out in practice, despite its grand intentions.
Unfortunately, our culture has a history of ignoring warnings from the past and over-focusing on what and who comes next. This habit seems especially risky now as it relates to industries that feel as new and “hot” as psychology was during the era of the twin study.
Consider the real-life tale of Theranos, the formerly high-flying blood-testing tech company that was actually duping investors. It begins with a recent college dropout who recruits several novice researchers. Meanwhile, every day, we’re learning more about the highly detailed personal data—captured by our phones, our interactions with various apps, or our social media postings—that’s sold to companies that want to in turn sell us products. Generally, youth-focused Silicon Valley asks us not worry about this form of commerce, because it’s supposedly anonymous, and is not a threat to law-abiding citizens with nothing to hide.
As a society, we’re just beginning to understand the social impact of not regulating a social media company founded by a college student. But as a dying generation of people who have lived through dramatic changes in political regimes can tell you: Laws change, people’s expectations adapt, and ethical boundaries shift over time. If you don’t already, you may one day regret having your phone track your travel patterns and doctor’s visits. And as AI quietly creeps up on us, we would be wise to pay attention to who is making, and going along with, various ethics decisions in that field, which is rife with potential quagmires.
This is not to say that young or novice hires can’t sound alarms or foresee quandaries, or that people who should know better are not routinely violating regulations. (Examples, from Enron to Wells Fargo, abound.) Nor is it to say that keeping up with real-time changes in technology or societal mores, as younger people are usually in a better position to do, isn’t essential.
The trick may be to keep multiple generations working together—and to make sure that people of a certain age who raise red flags are not viewed as grumpy, inflexible, or out of touch.