Passing The Baton


Or, more accurately, refusing to pass the baton is a problem that has plagued our nation (and most societies and institutions, I suspect) from the very beginning.

Right now, we are watching the 1950s Innovators and the 1960s Equalers (I purloined those terms - more on that later) struggling to hold on to a culture they produced and that they remain convinced is the best of all generations ever, just like every generation before and after them have and will believe they had the magic formula for success.

Okay, to give credit where credit is due, I took the terms for the 50s and 60s generations, and more from the site, Big Shifts Ahead. They have done a great job of capsulizing the generations, most of which are still in play today.

If you look at the 1930s Savers, they were defined by The Great Depression. The 1940s Achievers followed them. These were the people born after the Depression and WWll. They began to rebuild our economy and saw the emergence of the birth control pill and the opportunity to earn and grow their wealth. They saved, but they rejected the scrimping approach of their parents.

Next up came the 1950s and 1960s with the Innovators and the Equalers. They were defined by increasing wealth, big houses, credit cards, low-interest rates, and the promise that Social Security would protect them in their old age. The 60s gave us both sexes pushing for more equal opportunities in the world. The Equaler women were the first beneficiaries of Title IX, and the first black US president came from this generation. For the first time, more than 60% of women worked. Dads more than doubled their involvement in childcare. And the previous generations shook their heads and declared the world was going to hell in a handbasket.

Along came The 1970s Balancers. Raised by more dual-income and divorced parents than ever before, Balancer teens embraced TV and video games. Reacting against their oft-divorced parents' workaholic lifestyles, they divorce less, stay home with kids more, and have children later in life. Disproportionately hurt by the housing crash, they own fewer homes and have much lower net worths.

The 1980s gave us the Sharers and Reagan and trickle-down economics. They invented the sharing economy out of necessity, taking advantage of new technologies. The most-educated cohort ever is racked with student debt, under-employed, and a full 20% are living below the poverty line.

And, finally, the 1990s Connectors and The 2000s Globals. With many still in school, many of the Connectors' shifts or changes have yet to emerge. They grew up with Internet access and knew little privacy. Raised by a single parent more than previously, early Connectors continue the growing trend of having children out of wedlock. Highly educated, underemployed, and wary of credit. The Globals are growing up with multicultural friends and value diversity. They will bear the burden of prior generations' underfunded retirement obligations. With technology a big part of their education to date, we expect significant shifts from the Globals.

I hope I haven't lost you at this point, but the importance of looking at generations relates to the craziness occurring in parts of our nation as I write this. We have states like Florida and Arizona in the hands of Innovators and the Equalers from the 50s and 60s, with a sprinkling of the Balancers from the 70s moving into positions of power and influence. Most generations reject much of what their parents embraced, even more so with their grandparents and generations before that. They reject what the younger generations are beating the drums over. And, there is a wild card in all this - religion.

The folks of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s were still steeped in religion, though it was eroding by the 70s. The 80s and 90s pretty much turned away from faith, and the 2000s, for the most part, see religion, or at least religious fanaticism, as something that belongs in a museum; they live in a wired world of science and technology.

One thing that is common across generations and cultures throughout history is the desire of the older generations to hang on to the past, to believe that things were better back in the day. This romanticizing of the old days is exacerbated by the fact that modern technology, communications, and what the older generation sees as a decline in morality cause them to try to reverse the direction of the culture, and when they are in positions of authority, they use their power to try to do just that. Somehow, each generation forgets they were once the younger generation fighting for the change they wanted.

Another element in play is that the older conservative politicians are almost exclusively male and white, at least the people I'm talking about. There are a few women in the conservative movement, but they are also white. Some of their children, who grew up at the knee of their elders, are also steeped in the conservative legacy of discrimination and religious conservatism. Still, by and large, the charge backward is being led by white men in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s.

To give their struggle a label, the older generation, or at least the standards they embraced, are headed for extinction. Any organism headed for extinction, and society is an organism, will fight to stay alive as long as possible. We see this as the older white conservatives pass draconian legislation against gay rights, women's rights, and even inclusive education, fighting a diversification of society that is incomprehensible and confusing to them and all they were taught to believe.

Diversity, science, the Internet, music, and social evolution are all viewed as evil forces attacking and debunking much of what their parents and old-time religion taught them as children. Like the old lion that is being forced to give up its reign over the pride to the younger lion, their instinct is to fight to the death.

I'm reminded of something I learned years ago at Boeing in an office automation class. Computers were beginning to show up like mushrooms in every office. The instructor emphasized to managers that there would be resistance to change. He gave the example of graphic artists who produced some fantastic artwork for posters, charts, and displays for the company. For decades, these talented artists had used colored pens - Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph Pens, rulers, tape, and compasses to create near photographic-quality artwork for the company. Now, they would be expected to do the work with computers.

He acknowledged that the computers would produce more detailed artwork in much less time than the old method, but he cautioned us to understand that some artists had been working in the old way for twenty years or more. They had pioneered new techniques that others adopted. They had "toolboxes" packed with the tools of their trade, and now they were being told to take that home and use a computer; their outdated tools were obsolete. Their entire career, sense of accomplishment, and self-worth revolved around the tools in their box and the art they had produced. The next generation came along, basically telling them that they and their skills were obsolete. He warned that they would not immediately embrace this new technology; some might never accept it.

This is the essence of change and social evolution. Every generation has gone through this since the beginning of time. The older generation is the architect of what is, and the new generation is the architect of what will be. Today's more senior politicians may resist change and cling to the old ways; after all, they designed the system we have today based on the principles they believed in when they were young. They aren't going to drop everything that has defined their life and career just because some upstart has a new idea. They forget that fifty or sixty years ago, they were the upstart generation pushing for change. This is the natural cycle of life and the heartbeat of evolution.

Like the old dominant lion, they will move on in time, and the young lions will take over. We have to be patient and understanding while at the same time resisting their effort to return to the past.