Talking ’bout My Generation

Reading Micah Solomon’s column in my inky Atlanta Journal Constitution last Sunday, I quickly skimmed through looking for the letter X. His article was all about what Gen Y’ers want from customer service and as his foil was the Baby Boomers in paragraph two. Micah certainly knows his stuff with customer service, but I was more interested in seeing my generation kicked to curb once more. Would he even mention GenX? (Incidentally, he did mention GenX in a subordinate clause in paragraph 8.)

I am a GenX’er and proud of my tribe. We have had less written about us than any other generation and no one cares about our attitudes towards customer service or anything else. We are too small in comparison to the generations that sandwich us in.

In Douglas Coupland’s book GenX (1991) Andy Palmer, his sister and friends drift through their early 20’s unsure why no one pays any attention to them. Andy recalls at one point being with his father at a Palm Spring’s gas station as a child. When his dad spills some gas on the side of the car, he calls out to Andy, “Smell that? It smells like the future!”  This is just one of the nonsensical messages Andy receives growing up in a generation that no one seems to understand or cares to try to understand.

Before The Replacements and Husker Du entered my life, I was hooked on Baby Boomer music. That wasn’t hard to do with the amount of it out there. The Junior High School dances always included a healthy dose of it too. The Who’s “My Generation” blaring at us on the gym floor is a particularly sharp memory for me. But even back then I was wondering what g-g-geneartion Pete Townsend was talking about. His or mine?

Generational issues are visceral if nothing else. I may not relate to people from my state or town, but by golly don’t mess with my generation. 

I am sure all the attention the GenY folks are getting must be flattering. Entire consultancy practices, training and books galore are being written about them. Meanwhile, Sarah Brokaw’s book “Fortytude” hit the amazon “$2.01-14-copies-used” scrap-heap before anyone had a chance to even read it. If only it was written 15 years ago, or could be saved for a release date 15 years hence?

There is nothing to complain about, though. I think being ignored has shaped my generation and me. Being able to blend in with Baby-Boomers or GenY’er certainly has its advantages too. As for the unleaded gas at the gas station? It still smells like the future to me.

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Of Humans and Airports

The day is coming to a close, but still the Virginia sun bakes the tarmac outside the giant windows. CNN blares. A teenager stares blankly, white earbuds draped from her ears connect to a shiny black box in her lap. A man paces in front of the entrance to the restrooms speaking emphatically into a phone.  A man and a woman dressed in business suits exchange niceties.  It is time to board. With extreme alacrity everyone scrambles toward the jetway. The flight has been delayed an hour and there is a worried look on many travelers who need to make connections in Atlanta.

The flight crew hustles us to our seats. The captain comes on and apologizes for the delay due to bad weather in Atlanta. The last thing I do before the door is closed is gaze at my weather aap. There is a huge red blob sitting over Atlanta. We sit for a few minutes and then one of the flight attendants comes over the PA, “Disarm the doors”.  There is a collective groan. A ground agent comes on the PA and informs us we need to exit the plane. There is a ‘ground-hold’ in Atlanta and it will be at least 90 minutes before we can depart.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as walking off an airplane having finished a flight to your destination. Therefore, it stands to reason that there is nothing quite as dissatisfying as getting off an airplane having gone nowhere.  Some business travelers let down their guard, “Do you have a connection?”,  a portly man in a short-sleeve shirt and tie asks his neighbor. It is getting close to 8pm and the crowd heads for the restaurant and bar across from the gate. One by one the seats are taken. I sit one stool down from a man who appears to have been there all day. I order a sandwich and a beer and stare at the TV. It is going to be a long night.

A man with a large Starbucks cup asks me if the seat between me and the drunkest man in county is taken. “It’s all yours”, I say trying to conceal any double meaning.  “Thanks, I’m Jim.” He says.  Jim is lugging a canvas guitar case. His drunk neighbor asks him what kind of music he plays.  Jim politely  converses with him.  Then I suggest half-jokingly that he should play. “Nah”, he says and orders a glass of red wine.  He is friendly and we talk a bit more about the flight problems. He is going home to Austin and needs to make a connecting flight. “Really, you should get out your guitar and play.” I tell him. He is afraid of bothering people. I point out how busy the bar is and that no one should really notice. He looks around and begins to pull out the instrument and then hesitates. “What about security? Airports are funny that way.”  The drunk man erupts, “What are they going to arrest you for? Making people happy?”

Jim looks relieved and confident. He begins to play.   After an initial shock the bar warms up to him. It quickly becomes a sing-along as Jim belts out the Eagles an Jim Croce tunes. We all  laugh when he starts playing a song called “Walking Back to Georgia.”  The kitchen help comes out to enjoy the show and a few people pull out phones to take a picture. Looking around, the crowd has taken on a whole new tenor. People are smiling and some begin to speak with their neighbors. Laptops are closed and earbuds drop. Everyone is clapping and singing along to “Sweet Caroline”.

The PA roars outside the bar and everyone comes to attention. The flight is ready to go. It is almost 9.30. Everyone squares up on their tabs and Jim shoves his guitar back in the case. “Nice talking to you, Jim” I say. We spill out of the bar and walk to the gate. As the tickets ‘beep’ under the laser reader, and we begin to board the plane for a second time, the shroud of anonomynity casts itself over us once more. We fly home in silence and scatter wordlessly like dust.

Kids go to college to get more knowledge…

Corporate America has a problem.  We need more innovation. Thought-leadership is needed to put our businesses in proper position to compete globally. There is a certain fear that possibly we have squelched innovation during the go-go years or by piling too much work on the plate of each manager during these more recent years of scarcity.

Whatever the reason, there is a huge demand to get the innovation tap flowing again and companies are spending money to do so.

Besides relying more on paid consulting enagements from third parties to get new ideas, businesses are seeing the value of using their employees to drive innovation. Who knows the business and landscape better than they do? My company has invested heavily in a ‘crowd source’ platform. On this site employees can develop and collaborate on new ideas. Those ideas are vetted and improved upon by other employees. Ideas that graduate are open to investment with gamified money and later real money by the business unit that could most benefit by the innovation.

This is a great way to drive innovation, but wait a minute! What caused the hibernation of innovation to begin with? It is not as if employees in mid-career are learnig to be innovative. Where did they lose the spark? Was it created by the corporate environment or does the problem begin before that?

I was pondering this as I drove up and down the hills in Ithaca, NY last week. This college town is renowned for creativity of all types including being home to the late Carl Sagan and countless new ideas.  So, it couldn’t be that innovation is being quashed at school. Could it?

There is a lot of change happening in post-secondary education and many sacred cows are being re-examined. Some have begun to ask the question if the very basis of dividing education into disciplines that specialize in narrowly focused fields. Might this be limiting the imagination and capacity for complex adaptation, and therefore needed change, at a macro level?

I would like to see a greater collaboration and discussion between corporations thirsting after innovation and colleges to figure out how to better equip young adults to adapt and lead.  Any corporation willing to partner with a university may not get all the top talent, but imagine how it may improve their chances of snagging ready-made innovators and promote themselves as an innovative company in the market.