Tag Archives: boomers

Culture is the sea in which business swims. Millennials get this. Boomers not so much.

Here’s a post I published on the Harvard Business Review Blog recently.

I argue that Millennials are now forced to live secret lives in the corporation.

Please click HERE.

Thanks for Karlo Cordova for the excellent (and illustrative!) photo.  

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.


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.  

The John-Boy Problem in corporate America

Imagine this.

Let’s say we are a luxury car company.  We’re doing a year-end review of marketing.  We’re looking at everything, including person who supplies the “voice over” for our ads.

The room is filled with around 25 people.  This room is mostly Boomers with 8 Gen Xers and 4 Gen Yers (aka Millennials). 

“I say we stay with John-Boy,” says the most powerful person in the room.  There is a pause as other Boomers nod their heads sagely.  Richard Thomas has been the voice of the brand for many years. 

But Generations X and Y are thinking, “Who the hell is John-Boy?”  They don’t say anything.  Then the penny drops.  “Oh, they must mean that guy Richard Thomas.”

Their confusion is forgivable.  Richard Thomas starred in a TV series called The Waltons, a show that ended in 1981.  That’s almost thirty years ago.   The oldest Generation Xer was 20 in 1981, the youngest was born that year.  No member of Generation Y was watching TV in 1981.  For Generation Z, Richard Thomas might as well be a Martian.

For half the room, Richard Thomas is just “some guy.”  Actually, he’s just “some guy” for half the country.  Certainly, it’s true that Boomers buy most of the luxury cars in this country, but this will not last.  And in the meantime, we have 3 generations listening to a voice that means nothing to them.  And this is just odd.  As they mature towards the age and income, the corporation insists in addressing them in a voice they do not recognize. 

I believe this problem plays out in the corporate world several times a day.  Boomers make choice that work for their culture, for the world they know.  And the other half of the room (and the market) is left to wonder, “Who is the hell is John-Boy?”

The John-Boy problem is bigger than it seems.  The American corporation is not just bad at youth culture, it’s out of touch with a good deal of the American world.  It doesn’t have any real feeling for the ethnic variety of America, the alternative and indie movements, the constant ebb and flow of lifestyle, the churn in the sports world.  What is happening in the world of music, film, sports (post arena), art, and social media?  For that matter, what is happening in the kitchens of the American heartland?  Even this is changing.  Even this is mysterious.

The corporation needs to know.  It’s not enough to bring in the cool hunters and trend consultants.  They have no vested interests.  Frankly, they disdain the corporation for being clueless.  No, the corporation need its own internal brain trust, stock of knowledge, and enduring mastery of American culture.  Anything else is just guessing.  And guessing is something the corporation is not allowed to do.  

post script:

This post was erased by the Network Solutions debacle.  I just retrieved it from Gmail.  

post post script:

Mercedes made John Hamm the voice of the Mercedes ads.