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Last week Matthew Taylor wrote a blog about two tribes – the elders with all the power and the youth with all the chutzpah. While I do know what he’s talking about, I can’t see where I fit in. Not old enough to be an elder, too old to be down with the kids: I’m in generational limbo… 

If the Baby Boomers had hippies and the Millennial’s have hipsters – Generation Xers like me have George Osborne. We are the generational inbetweeners: the awkward older brother of the cool kid, or the child of the captain of industry – rarely able to find a unique identity for ourselves.

Now I don’t wish to mock Osborne, nor indeed to malign my entire generation, but I’m just going to say it: our problem is we lack boldness and purpose. If, for simplicity’s sake, I were to reduce my entire generation to Cameron, Clegg, Milliband, the members of Take That and Miranda Hart, then you might start to see my point. To some we might look like we are impersonating people from a previous generation, using the template set by the Baby Boomer.


Growing up in the shadow of Richard Branson

The Boomer template for leadership was molded on the confident western world model – entrepreneurial with certain conditions: hierarchical, in control, with clear branding and cogent messaging. It emerged in a post-war broadcast era when the audience was passive and you had their full attention. This was a time of bold speeches and memorable catchphrases. From the templates set by JFK and others, boomers like Richard Branson, Tony Blair and The Beatles defined the modernist economy of global brands and successful businesses. And my generation has been trying to emulate it ever since.

But when the Millennials walked into the workplace, the cracks in this mold were beginning to show. The broadcast era was over and the networked economy was emerging. Traditional hierarchies were not fit for purpose. Millennials are more urbane: more likely to have travelled and be better educated – so they came to work with a bemusing lack of deference.

So while we Gen Xers were toeing the line, the Millennials were creating Facebook. We didn’t take them seriously at first. But now that the social web is a reality that they pretty much created, they are defining the new rules of the networked world. While traditional business leaders and politicians strive to maintain “business as usual” with versions of the old hierarchical model, new businesses designed by Millennials like Instagram are rendering their old world equivalents like Kodak redundant.


Bridging the generational divide

So does it matter that my generation doesn’t feature much in this big shift? I’d argue that it does. I’ve just returned from an education leadership conference in Singapore run by the Cambridge University Institute for Sustainable Leadership and United World Colleges   and I’ve had a bit of an epiphany about my role in all of this. At this event, CISL brought thought leaders, teachers and students together to undergo a “Theory U” process to enquire into how we might collectively change the global education system in order to tackle the challenges our planet faces (you know, the big stuff: climate change, food security, energy and social inequality, etc.) and through this enquiry process I saw a chasm that is growing between the generations.

The “thought leaders” were experienced and knowledgeable educationalists from funding bodies and international institutions (like the RSA). They were brilliant people with a passion for change, however, when we got to the “designing solutions” part of the Theory U process, our group continued to offer traditional hierarchical solutions to the gigantic challenges we face (we need to influence LEADERS, we need to communicate a single MESSAGE, we need clear and replicable business MODELS that fit within the current economic paradigm, we need a PROCESS and a sequential TIMELINE). I don’t want to do my colleagues an injustice here – there was genuine creativity and collaboration in the room – but it was noticeable how we reverted to a model where we were the nexus of control.

When we came together to share our ideas, the young people were restless. They made it very clear that they were angry that the older generation had got us into this mess and they fired off a range of “just do it” solutions: Clean Tech fixes which showed an irritation in with delay and a lack of patience with any of the sequential process solutions that we were offering. Nuclear fusion – it’s easy right?

And I could understand both sides. I see why the organized top-down model is attractive, because it provides a sense of certainty and simplifies complex systems. It does what Matthew Taylor calls “sorting, splitting and subordinating”  – which, although effective, has the downside of disengaging those who are being sorted. What we maybe haven’t appreciated, is that the next generation can actually handle complexity and uncertainty – indeed they have been navigating their lives through the constant fragmentation of traditional models of family, media, technology, religion, and politics.  


Facilitating the transition to a networked model

This inter-generational tension gets right to the heart of RSA’s ‘Power to Create’ enquiry if we envision a society where everyone is able and willing to exercise their creative power, we will need to relinquish the hierarchical models of old and get comfortable with uncertainty – and that will be tough. It is often said that “humans don’t like change” and yet in the last 50 years fundamentally everything has changed: the global population has increased by 4 billion since the sixties, business is now global, there is no longer a job for life, and social media has democratized the internet. Add climate change into the mix and the world in 2040 looks totally different.

So, before it all kicks off between the Hippies and the Hipsters, we Generation Xers (as we taken on ever more positions of power) need to cease upholding the old and facilitate the shift to the new. We need to stop trotting out the politics of nostalgia to reassure Boomers that everything is same as it ever was. It’s not. So let’s start by opening the dialogue between the generations so that we can collectively find solutions that will build a fair and just society for all.

So maybe – as that great diva of my generation Martine McCutcheon once sang – this is my moment. I have a role in making the transition to a fair and networked society. And I’d better get busy before my children’s generation gets to the workplace (those digital natives who’ve had lifelong use of the internet). If we haven’t shifted by then, we really will be in trouble.

Rowan Conway is Director of Research and Innovation, follow her on Twitter at @RowanElena




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