THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Bye-bye boomers: How Obama can change the workplace
Barack Obama is dissing the baby boomers. But he's doing it tactfully, so people are 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 with a 50-something guy with a lot of experience.
Our investors, most over 50, were all his friends. They acted like it was impossible that I could have learned things fast enough to get into a room with them. One asked me to leave a meeting at such an inappropriate moment that even my partner was shocked.
Then, later, when I was looking for a job, the guy I interviewed with 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 in my job interview, even though I had already launched two companies.
He thought it was culturally acceptable to treat people like they don't know anything just because they're young.
I've been holding off writing about Obama because the last time I ventured into U.S. politics was when I praised Howard Dean the week before he imploded. I thought I learned my lesson: politics is too volatile for a workplace writer.
But here I am again. Writing about Obama and hoping he doesn't implode next week. I write about him because when he talks about leading a new generation, I get giddy over the idea that we could be emerging from under the clutch of the baby boomers.
Obama talks about teamwork and community and the end of the me-me-me in-fighthing that has characterized the recent history of boomer politics. A report in Newsday says, "Obama represents the transition from the Baby Boom to Generation X...."
I have this conversation with my (baby boomer) agent, who says, "Everything to you is about generations." There's truth to that, but the baby-boomer generation is so huge that everything has been about them by default.
I'm from a generation with limited power to do anything, anywhere, except live in the wake of the boomers. Even in the Internet revolution in the '90s, most of the people who got rich were boomers who invested in companies that Gen-Xers operated.
This is why I get excited about seeing Gen Xers with their demographic power open the world to change.
I focus on change in the workplace. My generation wanted a lot of things at work: flexible hours, personal growth, and the abandonment of competitive, ego-focused hierarchy in favor of teamwork. But we had trouble pushing 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 happen.
Obama is the political corollary. Finally there may be enough voters to vote for someone who's not a boomer. Once we talk about boomers giving up control of politics, talk of them 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, that he respects that everyone has a place in history. And he's someone with empathy for diverse backgrounds. These are the same skills we need in the workplace.
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 with preconceptions and biases, but we all have to work together. So, in the near future, at least, it's the people who are best at building generational bridges who will succeed. This is something I personally work on every day, and Obama is a great role model.