THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Boomer kaboomer: What Obama means for the workplace
Barack Obama is dissing the baby boomers– tactfully. He has people talking about generational issues in politics, and I'm anticipating spillover into the workplace, which also needs this frank discussion.
I founded an online marketplace for city governments. My business partner was a fiftysomething guy who had experience with city government. Our investors were all his friends, most over 50, and some assumed I was dating him– because why else would he start a company with someone so young?
Investors treated me like it was impossible that I could have learned things fast enough to get into a room with them. Then when I was looking for a job a year later, the guy who interviewed me said, "Kids now think they can learn on the job and they don't need an MBA. What do you think of that?"
I couldn't believe it: He was calling me a kid, even though I had already launched two companies.
He did this because he thought it was acceptable to treat me like I didn't know anything just because I was young.
I write about Obama because when he talks about leading a new generation, I get giddy over the idea that we could be wrestling ourselves out from under the clutch of the baby boomers.
Obama talks about teamwork and community and the end of the me-me-me in-fighting that has characterized the recent history of baby boomer politics. A report in Newsday says:
"Obama represents the transition from the Baby Boom to Generation X... He spoke of a post-boomer sensibility, of moving beyond the divisions exacerbated by undue self-focus."
I have this conversation with my agent (a boomer), and she says, "Everything to you is about generations." And okay, there's truth to that, but there's also some hot air, because the baby-boomer generation is so huge that everything has been about them by default.
I'm from a generation that had limited power to do anything except live in the wake of the boomers. Even when it came to the Internet revolution in the '90s, most people who got rich were baby boomers who invested in companies that Gen-Xers operated.
This is why I get excited about Generation Y. It's amazing to see this group, with all their demographic power, open up the world to change.
For the most part, I focus on change in the workplace. There were a lot of things that my generation wanted at work– flexible hours, personal growth and the abandonment of competitive, ego-focused hierarchy in favor of team work. But we had trouble pushing through these values because there were too few of us. The boomers could always just say no.
But Generation Y wants so many of those Gen-X things, and Generation Y has the demographic power to make it real at work.
Obama is the political corollary. Finally there are enough voters, maybe, to vote for someone who's not a boomer. I don't know if it will happen. But just talking about it is exciting, because once we talk about boomers giving up control of politics, the talk of boomers giving up control of corporate life cannot be far behind.
But there's a workplace lesson from Obama as well. He's very tactful as he disses the boomers. He makes it clear that he's a bridge builder, respectful of the fact that everyone has a place in history. And he is, above all, someone with empathy for diverse backgrounds. These are all the same kinds of skills we need in the workplace today.
We're all engaging in a generational discussion at work, even if it's not as overt as an interviewer calling you a kid. We all come to the table with preconceptions and biases, but we all have to work together. So, in the near future, the people who are best at building generational bridges will succeed. This is something I work on every day, and Obama is a great role model.