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INNOVATE

An Open Letter to My Fellow Baby-Boomers

The youngsters shouldn’t be forced to pry the reins of power from our cold, dead hands.

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BY Geoffrey James - 25 Nov 2018

open letter to baby-boomers

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Dear Fellow Baby-Boomers:

I'll cut to the chase: it's time to let the younger folk take the lead. We boomers have a stranglehold on leadership positions in business and government alike and it's showing up as a lack of flexibility and an inability to evolve.

Take business, for instance. The average age of the Fortune 500 CEOs is 58, up from 56 just ten years ago. Not surprisingly (considering how they've hogged the corner offices), billionaires have an average age of 63.

In government, the situation is even worse. Prior to the recent election, the US congress was among the oldest in history. The average age in the House was 57, in the Senate, 61. That's up from 49 and 51 respectively as recently as 1981.

The political scene is full of boomers who intend to run for President: Trump, Warren, Biden, Clinton, Sanders. Subtract their cumulative ages from the year 2018 and you get the year 1659.

This is not to say that boomers are incompetent. Actually, many of them are quite talented, especially at holding onto power and money. For example, note how effectively Nancy Pelosi fought off her recent leadership challenge. Let's face it, no Democrat will get that gavel from Pelosi unless they pry it from her cold, dead hands.

Where the boomers are lacking is in the area of new ideas. Take Bernie Sanders. Despite his ability to electrify a young crowd, his speeches--let's be honest here--come off as brittle and well-worn, like the golden oldies of the silver lefties. Same thing with the boomers on the right. Either it's Trump's drivel or Mitch McConnell's fluent weasel-ese.

 

The same is true in the business world. You already know what your typical boomer CEO is going to say long before he says it. Most of them obviously haven't had a new idea in decades; they're overpaid barriers to change.

The inadequacy of boomer leadership becomes particularly clear when you look at how they struggle with technology. The only boomer politician who arguably "gets" Twitter is Trump and, even then, he only uses it to issue the equivalent of press releases.

By contrast, Beto O'Rourke (who is Gen-X) live-streamed his campaign into national prominence. Better yet, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a Millennial, of course) has turned her adventures in Washington into a major Web event, positioning herself as an every-woman (or, rather, every-Millennial) bemused by the possibilities and pomposity of political power.

Considering that the Democrats would win nearly every election if they could get young people to vote, which of the below do you think will resonate with young voters?

  • Clinton (in a speech): "Pokemon Go to the polls."
  • Ocasio-Cortez (on an Instagram of the Capitol rotunda): "Welcome to Hogwarts."

The same thing is true in business. Most companies (especially those led by boomers) have a Web presence that could best be described as "brochure-ware on Quaaludes. Consider, by contrast, Gen-Xer Elon Musk. While he sometimes tweets crazy stuff, it's because he's in a crazed state of mind.

Musk, O'Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez understand what escapes most boomers, which is that there's no more public vs private. If you're a public figure, you live your life online. It's not about controlling the media; it's about being transparent.

That's a very hard concept for the TV generation to grasp, especially those who were media trainer and have a near-religious belief in the power of the focus group. (Hint: nothing in business is more ridiculous or more useless today than the focus group.)

But this failure to understand how technology changes things is really just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is (as much I wish it weren't true), the human brain becomes less effective as it ages. Thinking becomes ossified. Creativity wanes.

None of this is to say that boomers shouldn't continue to contribute. Experience has value. So does the perspective of age. But here's the thing: we boomers are clinging to leadership past the point of our ability to pivot.

So I say to my fellow boomers, it's time--indeed past time--to get off the center stage and give up the reins. The kids are all right. Give them their chance.

Geoffrey James

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