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Generations: Institutionalized

In my last blog entry I showed that there is a major generational change pending in the electorate, in which up to 45% of all voters will not remember the 1960s. You can find it here:


It’s easy to make too much of the change in generations. Each of them can only be considered significant to the extent that they share an outlook on life that was created by the events happening around them during their formative years. Many things have changed in the last few decades, some of them more slowly than others, and kids that grew up in and given time might have radically different experiences. Regional variation has to be expected, as does the experience of growing up in a different culture such as a Latino world, an Evangelical Christian world, or any one of a number of class distinctions. Naturally, any given individual will have a different experience from another of the same generation.

I am considering only the wholesale changes that confront an electorate, which gives me freedom to make broad generalizations. We vote in the isolation of a private booth but the results are tabulated in bulk. Trends and attitudes wind up being all that matters. Despite the fact that there are many differences between Gen-Xers and Millenials, their approach to management and leadership is similar enough that for the purpose of electoral politics I am arguing that we can consider them the same. You can feel free to take exception to this if you feel these generations are too different to be grouped together.

Personally, my first memory of politics comes from a time when all the adults talked relentlessly about the progress of the ritual, systematic humiliation of Richard Nixon. He resigned when I was 9 years old, and Gerald Ford did not do much better at the hands of popular culture, at least not on “Saturday Night Live”. Carter’s election was not a major change, and I grew up in a time when dumping on the President was a constant experience. My image of that particular institution will always be very negative, but as an institution it suffered a fate far from unique.

There has not been an institution that defines the USofA that hasn’t undergone fundamental change in the last few decades. As Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman write in “When Generations Collide”, “While Traditionalists were characterized as being extremely loyal and Boomers optimistic, Xers have been marked by skepticism. They grew up seeing every major American institution called into question. From the presidency to the military to organized religion to corporate America, you name the institution and Xers can name the crime. Combine that with a US divorce rate that tripled during the birth years of Generation X and you have a generation that distrusts the permanence of institutions and personal relationships. As a result, Xers tend to put more faith in themselves as individuals and less faith in the institutions that have failed them time and time again.”

The response is rather organic. Xers try to balance family and work life in an attempt to head off the image of Willy Loman that was handed to them by the previous generation; Loman was a sap who realized too late what was important. Millenials experienced a similar world in many ways and also tend to trust their own instincts ahead of faith in an institution.

The result is a strong belief in “collaborative management” or “bottom-up management” styles. The network of connections is what makes any institution strong, not the hierarchy. In this arrangement, the relationships between nodes are more important than the positions themselves. A top-down model relies on each position doing its function appropriately, and thus values the strength of each position, often measured as commitment. The networked model, by emphasizing relationships, depends on energy to keep itself going as the space between people needs to be filled.

Each has its own strengths in the face of controversy. The top-down approach can respond rapidly as each person is committed to the organization and knows their role. The collaborative model may give a little at times, but when the energy of the group is engaged it is as awesome as a beehive attacked. The failure modes of each are equally distinct, with the top-down approach relatively inflexible and the collaborative one prone to burn-out and in need of constant renewal; the latter is why fun is so critical to a collaborative workforce.

For the purposes of electoral politics, we can assume that the four generations present break down into two camps who have distinct views of what it means to be President. Traditionals and Boomers tend to at least understand the nature of top-down management structures that have dominated their lives, while Gen-Xers and Millenials have forced the world to meet their own collaborative work styles. That the latter two could make up as much as 45% of the electorate is significant.

An election is about nothing more than picking the heads of our public institutions. The way that the population relates to those institutions obviously has a big effect on this. What is in the process of changing, however, is not just the fine art of finding who we think best fits the image of President, but our image of the proper role of the President itself.

When half of the electorate has grown up steeped in a collaborative model of work, it will expect that an effective President will operate in the same way. The image of leader is fundamentally different in the two management styles – the traditional one being a person who gives orders, the latter being someone who creates excitement and energy.

What is up in this election is not a choice between candidates. The election of 2008 is about the nature of the institution of President itself.

7 thoughts on “Generations: Institutionalized

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