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