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Best If Used By 12-25-1995 (by Paul W. Smith)

When you consider the dreadful truth about food poisoning, you would expect a government-mandate for labeling the stuff we eat. There isn’t one. The FDA does require that baby formula have a “Use by…” date, but once you’re off the bottle, you’re on your own.

The lack of a legal requirement hasn’t kept food manufacturers from dating their products, but the systems they use, and the motives behind them, have only created confusion. If I purchase a can of tuna the day before the “Sell By” date, is it safe to eat for another day, or another month? “Best If Used By” feels like a suggestion related to quality, while “Use By” sounds like an imperative with dire and yet ambiguous consequences. Some of us fear health dangers lurk if we don’t adhere strictly to these dates. Others suspect that dates are a ploy by manufacturers to get us to feed their bottom line instead of ourselves. The FDA has only one thing to say about this – “use common sense” – which unfortunately isn’t all that common.

There is more to food than just avoiding sickness and everyone benefits when food items are consumed at their peak of flavor and nutrition. Retailers will customarily discard products by whatever date is on them, effectively putting the burden on the consumer. Those of us who throw things out once they pass that printed date might feel smugly safe from sickness, but how do you know the yogurt that doesn’t “expire” until next week didn’t sit on a loading dock at 110 deg for 5 hours before arriving at your local market?

The implications go beyond a rough night uploading dinner. In the United States alone, food waste is estimated to be more than one third of the total supply. In 2010 that amounted to $161 billion worth of much-needed nutrition. World Vision estimates that worldwide, 815 million people could not get enough food for a healthy life in 2016.

Food isn’t the only thing with an ambiguous “expiration” date that can lead to horrible waste. There is an unceremonious date that most knowledge workers are acquainted with – the infamous “Dead at 45” meme.

Retired race-car driver Alex Dias Ribeiro, a man well-acquainted with exhilarating career peaks, once wrote “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy. For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line.“ Perhaps without realizing it, Alex was describing the Principle of Psycho-professional Gravitation, the idea that the despair of career oblivion is directly related to the height of professional success achieved combined with one’s emotional investment in that success. Couple this with Psychology Professor Dean Simonton’s observation that we peak about 20 years into our careers – which for most of us is around the age of 45 – and you have the fixings for “Dead at 45”.

Once upon a time, a company I worked for fell victim to the Great Recession and was forced to implement a RIF (“reduction in force”- a euphemism for “layoff”). In accordance with the labor laws, they published a list showing the age and title of all those who were RIF’ed (without names). I was one of them. I was not the only one who noticed the preponderance of people over the age of 45. A class action lawsuit based on age discrimination ensued.

The simple explanation was that we were the ones making the most money, and the point of this exercise was to reduce expenses. The hidden message was that we were the “dead wood” – those whose knowledge was outdated and whose enthusiasm was on the decline. As far as the job market was concerned, we were past our “Use by” date.

So how are we to know when workers have lost their mojo? Although food can in theory be tested for bacterial contamination, the cost simply isn’t justified. The most common DIY test is to eat the stuff, and then wait 30 mins to 2 weeks and see how it works out. It is also unlikely that employees will be asked to take a periodic exam to re-certify the freshness of their skills. Performance Reviews masquerade as a barometer of professional efficacy, but the correlation with actual job effectiveness is debatable.

Success is the elusive element that breathes life into both employer and employee, but it can be hard to define. Individual success depends on who you ask and when you ask them. To a 1-year old, success is being able to walk and to a 95-year old, it may mean the same. In between, around the age of 50, money becomes a major indicator of success for most. From the perspective of an employer, your age shouldn't matter much as long as you are profitable.

Productivity is often cited as an indicator, and recent research reveals that 90% of those studied did their very best work in a hot streak of three projects that occurred over a period of just a few years. Unfortunately, the timing of that productivity burst was completely random. The researchers concluded that the idea that fresh young talent is more likely to produce breakthrough work is total baloney – it can happen anytime throughout a career.

Intelligence may play a role, but British Psychologist Raymond Cattell thinks if that’s what employers value, they must consider that there are two kinds. When we think of someone as having great intellectual horsepower, we are focusing on Fluid Intelligence. This is the type that generally has a “Use By” date around mid-career. Combine significant accumulated knowledge with the ability to effectively utilize it and you have Crystallized Intelligence, often referred to as wisdom. College Professors depend on this form of intelligence, while air traffic controllers, for example, generally need the fluid smarts. As professors age, they are frequently given “Emeritus” status and kept on the roster until late in life. Air traffic controllers face a mandatory retirement age of 56. Wisdom, says Professor Cattell, increases through our 40’s and usually doesn’t decline until very late in life.

In the United States today, 25% of the workforce is age 55 or older. Common sense would say that the additional wisdom associated with this group should be nurtured, rather than being discarded as if expired.

If only common sense were a bit more common.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40

years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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