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Talking About Our Generations

The following article was originally written for and published by Biz Catalyst on May 30th, 2016 by John Philpin. It is reproduced here by kind permission.

At the end of last year we celebrated the 50th birthday of The Who’s ‘My Generation’. (No, I wasn’t invited to the party.)

I can’t be specific on the date when each of us first heard it, since it does depend on where you were living at the time. Suffice to say that October 13th 1965 was the day that The Who recorded ‘My Generation’.

It was written when Townsend was 20 years old. Four years later at Woodstock he was already suggesting that since he was so much older maybe it was no longer right for the band to keep it on their set list. Fifty years later it is as relevant to the Boomers that were brought up with it as to the Millennials who are hearing it for the first time this century. Maybe the generations aren’t as different as some would have it?

Retirement Defined

My friend and colleague recently had a couple of completely unrelated conversations with two very different senior executives. One happened to be in the oil industry, the other in banking, but what struck him was the commonality of topic. To paraphrase the two of them ….


The question of course – after the usual ‘high fives’ and declarations of ‘great’[1] was “so … who will replace you? Is there a plan?” Both conversations had the same answer “I have no idea, and it doesn’t seem like there is a plan.” But it didn’t stop there. They went on to say that they were supposed to be their bosses’ successors, so now they have even less of a clue as to ‘what is to be done’.

If these random conversations were exceptions, there would be little to discuss and certainly no point in this article, but, while the conversations may not be commonplace, the problem is all too frequent.

The conversation is rare because most people don’t want to raise the issue. After all ‘succession planning’ is what every good leader takes control of with the inevitable corollary ‘If I am not working on a succession plan, then I am bad leader.’

In short, retirement and succession planning is off the discussion table since many people would just rather not talk about it.

Could this be, because they don’t have the answer to a problem that is in effect, business-critical and therefore, potentially damaging to their company ? I suspect that the answer is a partial “yes”. But I also think that it reflects the inevitable emergence of people starting to be much more aware of themselves than they used to be.

Corporations demonstrate over and over that they can’t be trusted to look after it’s people. CLICK TO TWEET

So in turn people are taking back control of their futures.

Boomers …

While the recession certainly slowed down the retirement rate for a while, the harsh reality is that, five-plus years on, everyone is, of course, five years older. No math award for that calculation. But, maybe there should be an award for spotting the fact that many people are now adjusting to the new reality of their circumstances, and ready to press on with their retirement plans, regardless of what is right for the company or making way for new, fresh, blood.

There are, of course, more people eligible for retirement now than when we were first worried about it, before the recession. The compound effect of having more people eligible for retirement than there were five years ago and the increasing desire to retire (at least in part) anyway is staggering. For example, in some oil and gas companies the proportion of full-time employees who are eligible for retirement now exceeds 50%.

This puts Boomers in the driving seat. They can leave at any time. It’s happening more and more often. And when they leave, it might be to retire or simply to jump to another company, where they can work on their own terms.

Millennials …

Also at the end of last year The Economist had an interesting article that placed the challenge of HP (even post break up) into context. On the way through they quoted Riviera Partners’ Ali Benham who said …

I don’t think anyone comes out of college saying, ‘I want to go work at HP.’ CLICK TO TWEET

I think he is right, but to me the larger challenge for society are the words that precede that quote.

HP Enterprise alone employs around 250,000 employees (although it plans to trim jobs). In contrast, Apple, Google and Facebook together employ around 160,000.

( I think it’s nearer 175,000 – but you get the drift.) This supports one of my recurring memes ( like in last week’s article ) … while the current US population is about twice what it was 80 years ago, back then the largest companies on the stock market employed orders of magnitude more people than they do now. (Even though we were then in the Great Depression).

But, most important is that (just like Boomers), Millennials don’t want to work for ‘the man’. But, when they do, they want to work on their own terms.

And My Point ?

At the top end of the business organization chart there has always been a lot of conversation about succession planning. Who will replace Bill Gates? Answer Steve Balmer …. “he’s destroying the company” … he damn well nearly did. Who will replace Steve Jobs? Answer Tim Cook …. “he’s destroying the company” …. well even with the recent declines, the stock price is still close to double where it was when Cook took over – and comfortably beats the S&P 500 index. But that’s a different story.

Marissa Meyer is now in the news as the ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacks’ write opinion after opinion as to ‘what she did wrong’, ‘how she was set up to fail’, ‘if only she was a man’, ‘older’ … ‘from Mars’? And then some say actually it doesn’t matter – CEO’s can’t make any difference, why would she be different …. and, and, and – so much focus on the top of the pyramid.

The fact is that most pundits write and comment about the future through the lens of a rear view mirror (if you will pardon the mixed metaphor). Again, not original … it was Marshall (the media is the message) McLuhan who wrote;


We all do it. It’s easy that way, and yet in some walks of life we absolutely recognize that the future is absolutely not connected to the past. Consider the SEC obliging all funds to inform us that

“a fund’s past performance does not necessarily predict future results.”

As I wrote earlier, succession plans are being thrown up into the air as people at the top of the pyramid take charge of their own futures and not expecting to be ‘looked after’. Millennials have always seemed to be in charge of their future. This I suspect is as a result of watching their parents treatment by ‘the man’. They have clear proof that ‘the man’ doesn’t really care. Their parents were thrown out when it didn’t suit them. Their savings decimated through ‘the man’s’ activities. So why would they trust him?

Which goes back to ‘My Generation’. It is a long-time popular sport to suggest that every generation is different. With his own words, even Townsend revealed that he thought that he was very different at 24 to 20. And it was George Bernard Shaw who wrote;


.. with plenty of others with their own variations. Overall, I would argue that this only serves to the ‘divide and conquer’ attitude that runs through so many conversations lead by corporations, analysts, marketers, politicians, the media ….

Bottom line, we are all people. Those corporations, analysts, marketers, politicians … that continue to divide us into categories of color, religion, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, nationality, income, age, generation do so to make it easy for them to think they understand us, but really so they can sell to us. I don’t think we do that naturally on a 1-1 basis because we are all people and have a lot more in common with each other than we are lead to believe by those that choose to divide us.

Boomers, GenY and Millennials all want to work in the way that works for them. CLICK TO TWEET

Let’s not assume that we are that different. We are first and foremost … people … with hopes, dreams, aspirations, desires, loves. Because you are 80 and not 20 doesn’t change that. Because you are 20 and not 80 doesn’t change that.

[1] Isn’t it sad that even at such senior levels, our instant reaction to ‘retirement’ is ‘great’. ‘good for you’ … they want to escape and get to do what they want. I can only assume that they are not enjoying what they do. So, why are they waiting? Why not follow the advice they hand out to others and ‘follow their dreams and passion’.

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