One of the companies I founded was an online marketplace for city governments. My business partner was a fiftysomething guy who had been dealing with city governments forever.
Our investors in the first round were all his friends, most were over 50, and some assumed I was dating my partner because why else would he start a company with someone so young.
Investors treated me like it was an impossibility that I could have learned things fast enough to get into a room with them. And one investor asked me to leave a meeting at such an inappropriate moment that even my partner was shocked.
Then, about a year 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 did this because he thinks it’s culturally acceptable to treat someone like they don’t know anything just because they’re young.
I’ve been holding off writing about Obama because the first (and last) time I took a leap into politics with my column was when I campaigned for Howard Dean, the week before he imploded. I told myself I learned my lesson: Politics is too volatile for a workplace writer to forge a path through.
But here I am again. Writing about politics. Writing about Obama and hoping he doesn’t implode next week. I have to write about him because while this is not an official endorsement, 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 (baby boomer) agent, 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 am from a generation that had very limited power to do anything, anywhere, except live in the wake of the boomers. Even when it came to the Internet revolution in the 90′s, most of the people who got rich were the 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 — for example, flexible hours, personal growth and the abandonment of competitive, ego-focused hierarchy in favor of team work. But we had trouble pushing through these workplace values because there were too few of us. The baby 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. It excites me to see this happen at work.
Obama is the political corollary. Finally there are enough voters, maybe, to vote for someone who is not a baby boomer. I don’t know if it will happen. But just that we’re talking about it is exciting. Because once we talk about baby boomers giving up control of politics, the talk of baby 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 is a bridge builder. That he is respectful of the fact that everyone has a place in history. And he is, above all, someone who has empathy for diverse backgrounds. These are all the same kinds of skills we need in the workplace today.
We are all engaging in a generational discussion at work, even if it is 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, at lest, 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.