Chronic Unemployment – Some Context

In 1973, a 23-year-old college graduate, oldest of seven children, was discharged from the military and sent home due to the death of his father. To add to his challenges of helping with his family was that the domestic U.S. was in a recession…. a bad one!

His journey of seeking employment was convoluted: newspaper advertisements, employment firms, Veterans Administration, networks, friends… The search lasted for over 6 months, during which the frustration, powerlessness and anxiety led this person to formulate the opinion that wanting to work, needing to work, and not being able to was among the worst of human conditions. Ultimately he found a job!   

This recession with domestic unemployment hovering at approximately 10% and globally just as serious has created many victims who are trying valiantly to cope with similar circumstances. This situation is more difficult to understand because the root cause of this recession was not oil, it was greed, stupidity and carelessness.  If you doubt this, read the business and consumer press, or just tune in CNBC.

As we reassure ourselves that the recession is ending and the horizon is more optimistic, we remain mindful that unemployment remains high, and that the quiet suffering of those trying to cope is very real.

Recent studies have indicated that those “above a certain age, with general management skills, from certain sectors” will remain unemployed for at least 6 months and likely “underemployed” for an extended period even when work is found.

There are many stories about how people are coping: but spirits flag and reality is daunting. The end of this state for many is still further down the road than desired. 

There is a movie out now, “Up In The Air.” Those of us who travel extensively for a living are hearing a lot “you remind me of George Clooney even though you look like a frog.”

Yet as the 23-year-old mentioned above and having an “Up In The Air” lifestyle for over 30 years as a consultant, I identified not with Clooney character – but with those who were being displaced. 

To those whom are still navigating to the next stop on their professional journey, be advised I, and those whom during our careers have been in similar circumstances, will silently applaud your eventual success.

Jay, Conan and the Boomer – GenX Divide

The recent Jay Leno – Conan O’Brien late-night TV debacle is a good illustration of the Boomer – Generation X divide – and a cautionary tale for organizations seeking to harness talent across the generations.

Anyone who has not been living under a rock recently is familiar with the NBC network TV saga.

Conan O’Brien is the late-night comic with an edgy, ironic sense of humor characteristic of Generation X. Born in the mid-1960s, Xers were steeped in punk rock and new wave music during their teen years.  Many saw their working parents caught in waves of layoffs in corporate America during the 1980s and ‘90s, one factor that shaped their detached, wary stance toward large organizations.

But O’Brien toed the line with network colossus NBC. After 11 years hosting Late Night with Conan O’Brien, he renewed his contract in 2004. O’Brien agreed to stay with NBC and take over The Tonight Show when host Jay Leno stepped down in 2009.

Leno is one of the most famous members of the Baby Boomer generation, who came of age during the rebellious 1960s, paid their dues in the working world and grabbed for the brass rings in their fields.

Leno grabbed the ultimate late-night TV brass ring when NBC selected him to host The Tonight Show upon Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992. Leno reportedly won out over rival David Letterman because NBC executives thought Leno was more of a “company man” who would relate well with the network affiliate TV stations.

When Leno yielded the Tonight Show host chair last year, he began hosting The Jay Leno Show, a prime-time show that aired weeknights on NBC.

Alas, both O’Brien’s and Leno’s shows produced weak ratings. NBC’s proposed solution? Offer Leno a half-hour show at 11:30 PM and push O’Brien’s Tonight Show back to midnight. O’Brien was given two options: Accept the new timeslot or leave.

He left – with a payout in the tens of millions of dollars – and Leno had his Tonight Show seat back.

How and why this all came to be has been a matter of heated debate.

Seen through the generational lens, was Leno a Boomer who couldn’t relinquish the spotlight? Could he not pass the late-night TV torch to his younger counterpart, as Carson had done with Leno nearly 20 years earlier? Or was Leno a valued network player seeking to rescue NBC’s late-night ratings?

Was O’Brien a loyal corporate soldier who got burned – or a savvy “free agent” Gen Xer who turned lemons into a seven-figure lemonade?

In the latest chapter of the story, O’Brien appears to be staying true to his Gen X roots. O’Brien is said to have chosen cable channel TBS for his new late-night talk show because they offered him the most flexibility, autonomy and control. He will own the TV show and TBS will air it.

What are the late-night lessons learned here? Does your organization provide your Boomer employees a graceful off-ramp to new roles where they can contribute and remain relevant? Do you help them pass the torch to the next generation and feel good about it?

Are you rewarding your Gen Xers for their loyalty? Do you meet them in the middle by providing autonomy, flexibility and opportunity to demonstrate ownership of the business in an entrepreneurial vein?

In the generational dialogue, your organization has a choice: Write your own witty punch lines – or be the butt of jokes.