Cultural intelligence: the Boomer report card

I believe boomers have broken out of orbit. They know less and less about our culture.

As managers, they continue to make decisions that guide the corporation. Some of them go so far to insist that their detailed knowledge of the Kenny Loggins songbook and Law and Order episodes is quite enough to help them steer the corporation through the meteor field of contemporary culture.  (Block that metaphor!) 

But they are wrong.  Boomer culture must not be mistaken for contemporary culture.  (It is a diminishing subset.)  Boomers are badly informed.

How do I know?  I have a test.  

Entertainment Weekly recently published a Power List that shows the "50 most powerful entertainers."  If we look at the top 10 people in this list, there’s no real cause for alarm.

1. Johnny Depp
2. Lady Gaga
3. Oprah Winfrey
4. Simon Cowell
5. Will Smith
6. Robert Downey Jr.
7. Sandra Bullock
8. Ellen DeGeneres
9. Leonardo DiCaprio
10. Eminem

A boomer will recognize all the names on this list.  But unless they are stealing cultural signals from their teenage sons and daughters, they will be a little vague on three names: Lady Gaga, Simon Cowell and Eminem.  

They will have imperfect knowledge.  The signature of imperfect knowledge is first emotional and then linquistic.  When asked, "So have you heard of Eminem,"  the boomer will protest too much (i.e., defensively) with "Sure, I have."  But the real give-away is always the admission of scant knowledge.  As in, "Sure, I have.  Isn’t he the one who…"  Let’s agree. Imperfect knowledge is insufficient knowledge.  It is not nearly ehough to make the corporation culturally alert.  

So the report card here is something like C+ with a sternly worded note to parents that reads, "Bobbie Boomer must try harder!"

The situation gets much worse when we turn to the second list contained in EW, the 40 under 40.  Here the top ten are:

1. Sam Worthington
2. Daniel Radcliffe
3. Taylor Lautner
4. Jaden Smith
5. Robert Pattinson
6. Orlando Bloom
7. Shia LaBeouf
8. Tobey Maguire
9. Hayden Christensen

The only certain knowledge here is Tobey Maquire and possibly Orlando Bloom.  (Hayden Christensen should be here, but he seems to keep a low celebrity profile.)  There are several soft spots.  ("Robert Pattison, isn’t he like that Vampire guy?")  And there are several complete blanks.  Again unless they are stealing signals from their kids, boomers have never heard of Jaden Smith or Taylor Lautner.

Now, let’s be clear.  Entertainment Weekly does not canvas the bohemian fringes of the film world.  They are our pretty much our "magazine of record" when it comes to contemporary culture.   For anyone with managerial responsibility to know only two names with certainty, well, that’s a problem.

The letter grade here is D and the note reads, "Please make an appointment to see me.  I am beginning to see that letting Bobbie out of Junior High was a terrible mistake."

I’m not saying boomers should be forced to submit to show trials or forced exams.  But I am saying that there is something odd about giving power to people who do not have reliable access to one of the streams of intelligence on which competitive success depends.  I keep waiting for Gens X and Y to establish a Fifth Column in the corporation, to band together to and fight as one.  Sorry, wrong movie.  

I believe Buzz Word Bingo gets things started.  It is a covert activity with which Gens X and Y agree to observe and comment on the cluelessness of the corporation.  If there are other practices out there, I would love to hear of them.

The other question is how to bring boomers back into orbit.  A subscription to Entertainment Weekly is a good place to start.  This is a natural undertaking for Executive Education courses.  Thoughts on our options here would also be welcome.  That D can be improved.

References

Anonymous. 2010. “THE POWER LIST.” Entertainment Weekly, October 15 http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20432613,00.html (Accessed October 14, 2010).

McCracken, Grant. 2009. Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation. Basic Books.  At Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Chief-Culture-Officer-Breathing-Corporation/dp/0465018327.

Acknowlegments

Thanks to Hiten Samtani with whom I have been talking about the problem.  

13 thoughts on “Cultural intelligence: the Boomer report card”

  1. Admittedly I have not read the above EW article, but at first blush my reaction is: Those look like lists I’d expect to be created by a mainstream media outlet that is probably run at some level by white guys who, if not boomers themselves, have started to lose their edge and are slipping into a similar life stage. The notion of “most powerful” is such a boomer notion. Do I really even need to be told at this point that Oprah Winfrey makes things happen or that Lady Gaga is kinda hot right now?

    The 2nd list appears to be ripped from the pages of Teen Beat. No women, only one person of color; again this seems like the type of safe pickings that would almost comfort an aging Boomer. “That Taylor Lautner, he’s like the Tab Hunter of my youth.”

    Perhaps these lists are ‘accurate’ by the metrics they’ve chosen, but they aren’t interesting metrics then. Does anyone here believe that Shia LeBeouf is going to change the way we look at actors in a meaningful way?

    I’d rather see a list that includes people like Aziz Ansari, Janelle Monae, Reggie Watts, James Franco. Actors, musicians and comedians who present a different face and approach to entertainment.

    1. Rick, I think you are being a little unfair to EW, but if this is boomer work, it would be very bad news to think that boomer readers don’t recognize some of the names. Also, I don’t want to play the cooler than thou game here. But the point remains this is a mainstream magazine surveying the mainstream, to fail here is to fail deeply. thanks.

  2. In your thesis, you make an assumption that actually helps perpetuate some of what you are decrying when you assign ‘teenaged children’ to boomers. In 1970 the average age of first child was 21.4 – so the average mom was born in 1948/9, classic Boomer. In 2006 the average age of first child was 25, meaning that those moms were born in 1981. Gen Y, not Gen X. And that is just the average, of course ‘generations’ start reproducing much earlier than that. I am 42 and I have friends who are grandparents. A Boomer could be a great grandparent by now without anyone breaking any laws.

    What does this mean and why is it important? Boomers’ kids are now in their 40s! Millenials are actually being born to Gen Yers. I poll my (college) students pretty regularly on this, and their GRANDPARENTS are Boomers. Yes, to my shock and awe, it has been quite a few years now since I was old enough to have a kid in college (theoretically, my son in 10).

    Why the quibble? Because this kind of meme is what has kept Boomers seemingly relevant way past their time. We allow them to see themselves as preserved in amber, which gives rise to the kind of entitled cultural cluelessness you are diagnosing. I was startled to read the other day that Gen X icon Jennifer Grey, Baby, is 50. Shudder.

    Let’s help out future historians, by putting folks in their right timeslots:-)

    http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db21.pdf

  3. So because my parents may not know who’s playing some teeny-bopper vampire, Will Smith’s kid and the guy who made me hate Darth Vader, that they’re out of touch?

    The fact we still pretend entertainers matter in any way is laughable. No one on that list has as much power as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or countless other actually businesspeople doing real work.

    1. Tyler, I believe that celebrities kind of inhale and exhale culture. They find their way into popular culture unless they reflect some part of it. Millions would like to be famous, only a tiny few actually make this connection and rise to celebrity status. But once they are famous I think they help shift what our culture is. Maybe not singly, but certainly in groups, they shape the trend and our culture. Not to have heard of them means someone has removed themselves from contact of one of the single best indicators of where we are and where we’re going. That’s what I think anyhow.

      1. I wonder if your view of ‘celebrity cultural power’ still holds (and to what extent) in today’s ‘celebrity manufacturing’ age? (not to say they were not manufactured before, but the process has been more industrialized & streamlined as of lately).

  4. For those interested in this debate, there is a nice little discussion brewing on my Facebook page. (Where notice of this post was, er, posted.) Please friend me and participate. Actually, I think just finding me there should do it.

    1. It seems that this site attracts more debaters and FB attracts supporters, yes? just an observation. We are kinder on FB? more compliant?

      Confession, I too read EW, same reasons, to stay in touch w/ general culture. Its fun. I only regret that my other interests are not covered with the same level of deeply syncronized cultural language that is constantly morphing. EW is alive, opposite of my academic journals – ideas in a visual straightjacket.

      I think gen gaps go both ways – witness Jay Walking. People always know pop culture, it’s astonishing. Equally surprising is the lack of knowledge about world leaders, etc.

      Question is: what gen covers most other gens? sort of like a scale range is for singers – what is your gen range? and what knowledge is most useful for what purposes?

      great ideas here, you are simmering. Thanks for writing.

  5. I’m not sure that keeping up with teen idols correlates to business success, but there’s certainly a huge gap between Gen Y and boomers in business. It seems like there’s a difference in perspective on how to lead and collaborate.

    Boomers seem driven to attain and keep a high position within their organization. Gen Y, on the other hand, is more concerned with their impact than their status.

    1. Dave, I was arguing above it’s not the idols as idols that should concern us, but what they represent about changes in our culture. The Hollywood system is responsive, first because it can swap out stars that no longer have a cultural fit and because it is ruthless about doing so. Yes, a big generational differences on how people lead and collaborate. Thanks!

Comments are closed.