Election 2008: Young Versus Old

I see the 2008 Presidential election as a contest between youth and age. It’s not whether we want a young person or an old person in the White House. It’s which demographic finally takes control of the country. It’s been a long time coming, but I think my generation’s turn at the wheel is next. I think my generation will also have a very short turn.

I’m a consultant, which means that I get to see inside lots and lots of companies. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is that there is very little age spectrum in leadership. Power is concentrated among the oldest, with a very broad gap between them and the next level. It seems to me that the older and more stable an institution (be it a university, government agency, corporation, charity, or church), the more likely it is to have leaders who are two or more generations removed from their lieutenants.

A few forces are at work here. People are living longer than ever, the baby boomers just love to work, and wage pressures have been squeezing out traditional apprentice promotion models.

As we live longer, people work longer in their lives. People who reached high leadership positions ten or twenty years ago, continue to have them now. The next generation doesn’t get a shot at those positions until the older generation moves on. It’s like going to get in line at 2:00am for concert tickets only to discover that hundreds of people got there the day before. You’ll get your tickets, alright, but you’ve got to wait for all the others first.

Speaking of working, we have a generational tendency in the mix, too. Baby Boomers work hard. They don’t give up work easily. So their better health, combined with a proclivity to keep on working, means they will stay at the helm of the economy, government, and major institutions as long as they can. Once they’ve earned the right to lead, they’re slow to give over the reins.

Lastly, when you look at the demographic make-up of older institutions, it is bipolar. Very old and very young. The middle-aged folks are headed to places where they can get ahead. The young can get into a government or big-company job and get something out of it for a while, but they’re never going to get promoted to the level of their older supervisors. Eventually, you hit a certain age and you’ve gotten all you’re going to get from the big company or institution. Time to move on to somewhere smaller, where you can make a bigger impact, and you don’t have this impenetrable ceiling of pending retirees. Then there’s wage pressure. When times are tough, you squeeze the fat from the middle. The top folks are unassailable, the bottom folks are cheap, and the middle ones get cut. Well, those cheap, young folks aren’t ready to learn from the top executives, and the middle managers who are ready to learn just got handed their boxes and told to pack their cubes. The pressure on wages—to do more with fewer people, to do more with cheaper people—gets some things done while impairing the process of passing on management responsibility.

What does this all mean for our big institutions? A lack of corporate memory. Older institutions are going to forget what they do and how they do it. Why? Because there’s nobody around to pass the knowledge on to. The middle managers all left or were sacked, and the youngsters were never considered ready to learn the ropes. There are major retirements planned in key agencies in the government. They will leave knowledge vacuums that cannot be filled. New employees are too new to have the requisite experience, and the employees who knew stuff just retired to play golf in Williamsburg.

I predict a period of adolescence in this country. Old institutions run by young people. It’s great if it means new ideas and fresh thinking. It’s bad when it means repeating mistakes we made twenty years ago. In board rooms, court rooms, news rooms, and locker rooms we’re going to see really young folks who had power and authority thrust on them suddenly. We’re going to see them make mistakes. This is bigger than usual simply because it is precipitated by the phenomenon of the Baby Boom. A whole generation of middle managers was snuffed out by systematically removing their jobs and making them shuffle around waiting for the prior generation to move on.

So, back to the Presidential election of 2008. McCain and Clinton (when she ran) represent the older generation’s last attempt at clinging to power. McCain could win, and we’d be stuck with four or eight more years of old ways of doing things. There’s something to be said for experience, but the right thing is to pass it on at the right time. Obama, on the other hand, represents totally new thinking, without the baggage of decades of doing things a certain way. He does, of course, lack four decades of experience.

The fact that thirty-odd years separate the two candidates is exactly the bipolar nature that I’m talking about. All the candidates in their fifties and sixties got squeezed out of the Presidential race, just like they got squeezed out of corporate structure.

Me? I’m voting for Obama. It’s time my generation was put in charge. I’m not kidding myself about what happens if he wins. There will be a mass exodus of old people from Washington, taking the millenia of manyears of experience with them. That gap will be filled by inexperienced youngsters full of crazy ideas. I’ve seen what the tired old ideas have gotten us for the last two decades, though. I’m ready for change.