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.

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One Response

  1. I think it’s time someone from the Boomers said this: I am tired of being stereotyped. I am not Jay Leno. If anything I am closer to Conan or Craig Ferguson or perhaps Jason Segel. I don’t hate Gen Xers, really like Gen Ys (my kids are Gen Ys), and don’t want to be around Boomers who whine, still think they have the only ideas that matter, and want to get their way. It’s nice that 60 is the new 40, but in business 60 is still 60. Things that are new interest me, whether that’s technology or ideas. I don’t want to be gracefully exited; I don’t want to “remain relevant.” I want to be seen as an individual, which is hard to do in “business” where so often people and things have their place. I respect the idea here and think the analogy generally works. But the fact that companies still need to be told how to treat employees fairly and as individuals says far too much about how little (many) companies have changed. They may have adopted the rhetoric of the workplace – collaboration, sharing, openness – but when it comes to operating, many continue the old hierarchical ways of getting things done. So, while this is an interesting piece, the fact that it had to be written is a reminder that things have not changed all that much. (Hope this does not sound like a whine. Hmm, maybe it does.)

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