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Jeff DeGraff

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Out With the New and in With the Old

Posted: 08/09/2012 11:33 am

"18-35? You Are Generation Screwed!" was emblazoned on the cover of Newsweek. A little light summer reading, a sufficiently controversial subject and a Tina Brown screamer -- I just couldn't resist. The basic argument goes like this: Boomers got lucky and were born at the right time, made a lot of money (and lost it) and will live much longer than any previous generation. Oh yah, and there are a gazillion of us. We brought our kids up with an impossible to replicate standard of living and made them listen to our aging hippie soundtrack. Remember what little Emily said to you the first time you turned up the volume to hear Bob Dylan screeching "How does it feel?" So basically they are poor and pissed and have opted out of our "you can do it if you just work hard enough" Utopian love fest.

The truth is most of us save a few misanthropes who all seem to have a radio program want our young people to excel and would be aghast to find out that we have become the Man that's holding them down.  Yet, according to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust the generation gap between Millennials, someone who was born after 1980, and Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, is the largest on record since Nixon ran against McGovern. The idea that my generation is walking in the shoes of Tricky Dick is appalling but maybe, just maybe, accurate. The omnipresent ear buds, the indecorous tattoos and the accompanying slacker attitude may be the Millennials' version of tuning-in, turning-on and dropping out. The more we get angry the more they disengage.

Case in point: I was having lunch with an old friend of mine the other day when I overheard the conversation of two junior professors at the next table. The one prattled on to the other about how it would be impossible for her to ever achieve academic tenure since her colleagues were at least twenty years from retiring, worked incessantly to amass a prodigious dossier and controlled all the refereed journals and research granting agencies. Surprisingly, the one said that she was going to start her own business and leave the academy because she felt she could do better on her own than within a system that was designed to work against her. Once they left I started in with my usual tough-it-out Tinkerbell talk when my comrade turned the tables on me and suggested that she might be right. While our mentors -- prolific bare-knuckled survivors of the atrocities of the last century -- put us through hell they had also promoted us to our lofty positions. Maybe living so close to death keeps the idea of succession top of mind. I defensively responded with a litany of all the things I regularly do to promote the fame and fortune of my younger associates. But my friend's point was that while no one is intentionally holding back this young professor no one is helping her create a pathway by which she can advance on terms she finds acceptable. The my way or the highway ultimatum makes hitchhikers out of our best and brightest. His remark reminded me of that colorful critic Anton Ego from the Pixar gem Ratatouille -- "The new needs friends."

So lately I've been looking around to see if we Boomers are indeed bringing our rookies, cadets and novitiates down. Summer is a time for taking the family to art museums, theater festivals and the symphony in the park. There are the adults who all appear to fall into a very wide range that might be described as mid-thirties to Methuselah. Then there are the unwilling conscripts -- kiddies and disaffected teens -- appeased with all manner of gaming gadgetry that pretend to enjoy the experience but would much prefer to be home destroying über-aggressive antagonists on their Xbox in a gaming chat room filled with anonymous players. What's missing is the generation in-between: Millennials. While the National Endowment for the Arts studies have cited the importance of arts education and the gap between socioeconomic groups for over a decade the most startling finding may be the rapid decline in attendance across the board in arts organizations for those between the ages of 25 and 34. While attendance flagged for most age groups, the Millennials slid faster and farther. They've opted out. To compound the issue, most of the big donors and sponsors of our hallowed institutions are north of 70 and while many have given their most sacred duty and treasure to preserving what is grand and glorious about our civilization they may be inadvertently contributing to the widening gap. The question isn't, "What does Beethoven sound like in a virtual environment?" but rather, "How does symphonic music remain relevant to a generation that doesn't care for Beethoven?" You can almost hear the purse close.

There are similar drop out patterns for both political and religious institutions. One of the most contentious is the mounting data that suggests that regular church attendance is rapidly declining particularly among the young. While many sites affiliated with a religion or denomination question these findings or try to spin them they often make the error that religion and spirituality are the same for Millennials. As bestselling author Eric Weiner put it in the New York Times: "We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious." I guess one person's heresy is another's saving grace.

Even our most cherished political ideas regarding the inalienable correctness of the democratic process come into question when the interest of a single majority -- such as an especially large age group -- outweighs the greater good over time. Consider how twenty years ago Kalkaska, Mich., predominantly a retirement community, voted to close their schools instead of increase their taxes. What was supposed to be a routine demonstration of democracy in action in a small community exploded into a national referendum on how the old prosper at the expense of the young. Frustrated by the whole ordeal the schools were reopened over twenty years ago but the Kalkaska Option is now a routine maneuver in communities throughout America. Why should they pay? It's not their kids, their future or their problem. But isn't that the real problem?

Of course the answer isn't doing away with the arts, religion, democracy or civilization. We are their grateful beneficiaries -- some more than others. Gee whiz, I have enough trouble just getting through the day without a decent local newspaper. But what if Newsweek is right? Do Millennials have a chance in royal realm of Boomerdom?  Could it be the very things we are doing to help the guy down the line may actually have the opposite effect? I believe the adage is supposed to be out with the old and in with the new.

There is an old maxim that the worst of all possible strategies is to have an increasing share of a decreasing market. The Smith-Worthington Saddlery Company of Hartford, Conn., makes arguably the best saddles in the land. During their heyday they made millions of them each year. Their still here making excellent products but the enormous market is gone. Progress moves all of us along. More so, I have it on the best of authority that the young will outlast us. That's the way it should be. So I'm betting that they will get it their way in the end anyway.  I wonder if it's too late to change sides.

JEFF DEGRAFF is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS Special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.

 

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