Thursday, May 29, 2008
Let's Do the Time Warp Again
Reason #456 we need to hire the next generation of administrators, from an actual conversation I had this week with somebody very highly placed:
Bigwig: “Of course, there'll be golf. You do play golf, don't you?”
DD (horrified): “Oh, God, no.”
Apparently, I didn't get the memo saying that it's still 1973. It must have been posted by the water cooler, which I've also never actually seen in an office. It's probably next to the typing pool.
In cross-generational conversations, as in so many things, it's the unspoken assumptions that get you. And when you're the first bearer of – not to put too fine a point on it – assumptions valid in this millennium, you're the oddball. Who doesn't play golf?
Obviously, I should have responded differently. No argument there. But, to my mind, the question came so clearly from left field that it simply caught me off guard, so I reacted before I could edit it. (That's always dangerous in this line of work.) The whole concept of 'deals struck on golf courses' seems to me of a piece with Moose lodges, three-martini lunches, and 'banker's hours.' Fascinating from a historical perspective, maybe, but over. The world moved on some time ago.
The catch is that awareness that the world has moved on is distributed asymmetrically. And if you walk into a new situation unaware that its denizens have been frozen in amber, you're the bad guy, even if you're right.
Since peer groups are self-reinforcing, it's relatively easy for a stable group to get stuck at a particular historical moment. (See “Rolling Stones, The”) The best way around that, of course, is to keep the group from getting too stable. If change is an expected part of the process, rather than an episodic shock, then there's a chance that the response to it will be more inclusive. (“Of course, there'll be golf.” Of course?)
If there were a critical mass of Gen X'ers, I imagine the conversation would be different. “Of course you have a blog, don't you?” “Of course you try to balance home and work, right?” “Where were you when you heard Kurt Cobain shot himself?” It would be refreshing, frankly. Then, once the point was made, we could stop the exclusionary crap and actually get to work. But it won't happen for an inexcusably long time, during which time I'll keep trying to keep a straight face during impassioned discussions of drunken office parties, John Lennon's death (during which I was in, I believe, seventh grade), and how to play the sixteenth hole, while not losing points in the elusive category of 'fit.'
Until then, I'll continue to be just a little bit suspect, regardless of the improvements I bring to the college. I just get tired of doing the time warp again, and again, and again.
(Of course, this could be like the "massive wave of retirements" I was promised before entering grad school...)
While I think there is some generation gap I think it is primarily a function of having the time to play golf, the time that a large income affords people. We have several donors (7 figure amounts) who are in their late 30s and early 40s. They all play golf, not because that is where business is done, but because it is what they do in their spare time.
I also believe that as people get older they have more time to take up golf. It is a "low impact" sport and so suitable for many as they get older when basketball is no longer an option.
Finally, I have to say that I think you are as out of touch with the rest of the world as you accuse those older than yourself. So often on this blog you rail against people who have a different perspective are experience on life and are older than you. Your response is that they are out of touch or too old to be engaged in today's academic (or real) world. I think you need to remember that we academics are the ones who are in a privileged place. I am not suggesting that you should always agree with their views but to dismiss and mock them based upon their age is as nearsighted as the "Bigwig" to whom it never occurred that you did not know how to play golf. A little humility is what I am suggesting.
All of that said, I do NOT play golf. Well, I have, but my approach is to take a dozen balls and when they are gone, I am done. Consequently we don't make meetings or events around a golf outing.
I should also probably admit that I know guys in their 30s who belong to things like the Moose lodge, I've been to weddings and retirement parties at VFW halls, and any number of things that you would probably classify as 1973. Maybe it's less being in a time warp than being in/from a certain area of the country? I'm reluctant to say that certain areas of the country are all in time warps...
I think golfing is something that academics, artists, and self-identified techies don't do. It's not part of the culture. Businesspeople, even those with doctorates or serious technical chops, golf.
Me? I bowl. It confuses the heck out of everyone.
Try this one on: "Of course, there will be racquetball." Huh? They don't even make racquetball courts anymore and the ones that are still around are storage rooms.
Or they've been replaced by indoor rock climbing walls.
Imagine this exchange 30 years from now:
"Of course, there will be rock climbing."
I think our CC even recommends a PE golf class to future business majors. The real skill is in knowing how to lose to a big client.
Time warps evolve.
I have no problem with anybody's age or hobbies. What I have a problem with is constantly being outnumbered, and having that held against me. That's where 'fit' is relevant.
Dicty -- I bowl sometimes, too. It's much more kid-friendly.
I'm about your age, and I got into playing golf in college (mostly on very cheap public courses). I played through grad school and after with friends whenever I could. "Whenever I could" became less and less often when I had kids.
I haven't played since I took my current t-t job (4 years ago), but it's not because I don't want to anymore!
But it seems there's a segment of people in every age range that likes golf...
I'm not sure I agree with cb on the commodities necessary for golf. I did work at a CC where golf was a popular activity among the less well-to-do students. It was also a place where there was a golf course three miles away from campus that sold month-long memberships - all the golf you can play for $40. Where I work now, I can't FIND a place where I can even GET ON THE COURSE for $40 unless I drive 20+ miles away. Surprisingly, fewer of my students play golf 'round here. And as much as I have played in the past, I won't play golf around here pretty much ever - I can't afford it.
If you can get on a course on a regular basis, few games are as good at building relationship and community. And I mean REAL relationship and community, not merely the stereotypical back-slapping you normally associate with such things. I totally get why deals are sealed on a golf course, as far removed as I am from that place in my own life. But not all places in the country are as well suited to that type of entry as others.
DD: if you're ever in my neck of the woods, I will gladly take you out for a round. You will not have to worry about me embarrassing you. I am AWFUL. But there's still a good bit of joy in the game.
Other nice things about disc golf are that:
1) There's a lot of vocabulary cross over, so you can "fake it" with the ball golfers (makes for good "fit")
2) A round of 18 holes can be done in 1-2 hours, not 4-6 (esp. if you're a complete freakin' novice at ball golf like me).
3) It's much easier to see improvement in disc golf than ball golf.
Of course, the downside is that you have to contend with the stereotype (if they even know what disc golf is) that you're a hemp wearing, pot-smoking, hacky-sacking hippie! Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it doesn't help with "fit." ;)
A SEGMENT, yes, but DD's point was the assumption that EVERYONE plays golf. It's partly generation, and it's partly regional, but in most places it's no longer a valid assumption that EVERYONE plays. When my dad was a young lawyer, there were CONSTANT "get your game good enough for meetings on the course" classes running everywhere, all the time. My husband's lawfirm still does golf outings, but crappy play is the norm, not the exception, and there's now ALWAYS a parallel event that far more of the younger attorneys attend.
(As a regional example, in Chicago, and places nearby, it's a given that "everyone" plays softball and virtually every company fields a team. Not as given today as it was 10 years ago, but still.)
When I was in high school, we had a gym unit called "Life Sports" (Illinois being the only state in the union requiring daily PE K-12, they started getting kinda creative there near the end), the point of which was to teach recreational games that you may want to play later in life as a business thing, and get you reasonably good enough at them to not make a total ass of yourself. The options were tennis, golf, and badminton.
And I gotta tell you, of the three? Competitive badminton RULES! Too bad I've never, ever, ever seen it as an option at a business event. :P
Indeed. I got the sense that the problem wasn't so much the golf as the "of course" that came attached to it. It was the kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge boundary maintenance thing that makes me grind my teeth and roll my eyes (mentally, anyway. As a serial EA/AA, doing so where others could see would be less than a great idea).
If the guy had said: "And there will be golf, too!" it probably wouldn't have grated so hard. (At least for me; I don't live in DD's head, so I can't say categorically) It's just that assumption that of course everyone (who's anyone) wants to play golf, and that's what really makes the event... yuck.
Interesting for me, since I a) don't play golf, and b) never will, and c) found that in the Air Force officers of all ranks (er, ages) play golf. They have regular outings. The whole deal. Did it bother me? Nope.
Did I worry that I was somehow losing out? Nope. "Why not?" you may ask. Simple. I found that I often have many things "in common" with people of all ages, if I am willing to look for them. Occasionally I may have picked up a new thought/idea/hobby that not only enhanced the fit but interested me.
Of course, most importantly I found that the senior officers rewarded competence in the job more than golf. Funny thing, that. If you work hard, and (as Garrison Keillor constantly encourages us in the "Writer's Almanac") "do good work" that will be recognized and rewarded.
All that said, I would echo the words of CB, and ask that you (DD) do some self-reflection. It seems to this reader that your tone when dealing with those older than yourself is consistently that they need to get outta the way. In a sense that is ironic, since most of those that need to "move on" were Baby Boomers who argued to "never trust anyone over 30." Seems they now are being asked to "eat their own dogfood."
I agree that the problem is more in your tone than in the topic. Your written version of the conversation conveyed a certain sense of academic elitism, as if you are above the management types who play golf.
And the way I figure it, DD acknowledges his long standing bias against the older generation in the very first line when he writes "Reason #456 we need to hire the next generation of administrators"
Apparently, he has 455 other reasons, as well (and a regular reader could easily identify a distinct thread over the years.)
It is not your response, DD, that I was critiquing. I did suggest that you have a regular habit of dismissing people you disagree with who are older than you by referring to their age and (implicitly or explicitly) that they are therefore out of touch. To my implied comments you said, "I have no problem with anybody's age or hobbies. What I have a problem with is constantly being outnumbered, and having that held against me. That's where 'fit' is relevant."
Being outnumbered still does not warrant this sort of dismissivness. As I mentioned in my first post, I am also a dean about your age. I will be more specific. I am the dean of an honors college and a Big Ten uni (not trying to be obtuse, feel free to look it up). This means that all of my peers within this university are easily 15+ years older than I. I am certainly "outnumbered" but I don't feel that they hold this against me. Personally, I take it as an opportunity to learn from those with far more experience than myself. In turn, I am often looked to as one who can provide some insight into our students not only because I am closer to them in age but because of the nature of my job (academic and student affairs components) I am in much closer contact with the students on a daily basis than the other deans who have associate deans to handle that stuff. My point? We need to be truly "open minded" and learn from other's differences and experiences, even when that comes from their age. "Fit" isn't about sameness it is about presence, being there not being them.
One final gripe. Why is it "inexcusable" that it should take "us" some time (and effort and demonstrating our worthiness) to move up into higher roles of leadership? Or, to put it another way, that we should assume that folks who are now in such positions do not have a right, so long as they are doing their job well and properly, to maintain their own position? There are presidents and provosts that I know who are in the 60s and the fact that they are still at it is a great benefit to their institutions and to those of us who are willing to learn from them. They will retire soon and then, if we have learned our lessons well, we can hope to take up the mantel and do as good a job as they did, and perhaps even better. "To everything there is a season." (Qohelet, not the Doors, btw.)
What if Bigwig had said "Of course, there'll be wife-swapping"?
DD identifies a valid problem that's recognized across the employment world -- that the Baby Boom is very large and has been sitting at the top of the heap "blocking" advancement for quite some time. I put "blocking" in quotes because it's obviously not deliberate (and a lot of it has to do with the small size of the generations right after the boom), but the effect of this is that we have a lot of senior management AND middle management who are ALL Baby Boomers, and in a lot of corporations (and academia, and non-profits), there has been very little move-up of anyone who is NOT a Boomer, because the Boomers are all still in those jobs. A more typical (and desireable) progression has similarly-sized cohorts moving "up and out" to allow similarly-sized cohorts below to GRADUALLY take on increasing responsibility. A lot of corporations are starting to get a little panicked when they realize their senior management AND middle management are retiring, and they haven't groomed anyone under 50 to take on those positions.
(And in many cases, they've lost a lot of managerial talent in the age cohorts right behind the Boomers because those people became stalled in their careers because management was static.)
USA Today was an interesting example of this, because it was founded by editors who were so young. (I don't recall the exact ages, so I shall invent.) For example, the founding editors were 30, the staff they hired was all about 22, and 20 years later, when your typical editors would be retiring, these guys were only 50, and their senior writing staff was 42 and pretty furious about being stuck with no hope of advancement because nobody was retiring. USA Today lost a LOT of talent in a certain age cohort because their editorial staff was so young and so stayed static for an unusually long period of time. In that scenario, those talented writers were able to go to other publications and move up. But in THIS scenario, it's the entire workforce where people are stalled behind the Boomers and there's often not a lot of places to go.
(And yes, I realize plenty of you haven't run into this problem individually; plenty of other individuals have, and it's a general (if not universal) problem that most corporations that do any strategic planning are starting to look at with more than a little panic.)
In a worst-case scenario, a company that's been VERY static in its management will be leaping right from baby boomers in senior management to the echo boomers who are all of 25 right now and still on the lowest rungs. That's a LOT of dislocation.
Academia has much the same problem, and it has many ways been reinforced by a) tenure and b) the fact that academics tend to retire later (it's work you can keep doing well past retirement age, and many people love it and don't want to retire). So you've got a sort of blockage that's preventing people from reaching tenure or achieving management positions, and that leads to a lot of attrition in age cohort after age cohort that is blocked. In a worst case, colleges will find themselves without anyone with any management experience being pushed into upper academic management levels (with equally inexperienced management below them and all around them). That's a recipe for catastrophe.
And in the VERY worst-case scenario, we replace all the deans and faculty with a huge bunch of people in their late 20s and early 30s, and then THEY make a whole new blockage 20 years down the line and recycle the process.
Again, this isn't something anyone's done DELIBERATELY or MALICIOUSLY, but some companies, some colleges, some non-profits are being very head-in-the-sand about it, and the problems are already starting to occur. I think DD is correct in that colleges (and companies and everyone else) need to recognize that the next generation of leadership doesn't groom itself, and that the situation here is unusual and will require some action on the part of management that'd different from how things have gone in the past.
1. All companies promote from within--and apparently prefer to do that. I think we are finding that the total workforce dynamic is far more fluid, and responsive, than that. It actually has been in corporate America's best interest to hire from outside the company, infusing new ideas and styles. These new ideas come from young, AND older/seasoned employees.
2. That when the younger folks (faculty, writers, etc) leave the company they are somehow "lost." The implication is, lost forever, never to return. That is an unfortunate outcome of (false) assumption 1, above. Hey, people leave, they get other jobs, better jobs, diversity in experiences. They then are actually better choices when they have the opportunity to come back.
So, in a sense, McGee is right. Any college/univ that sticks their head in the sand, and feel that the "only" people who can be hired for administration are academics, and specifically academics from within. And what is worse then, are the faculty that feel that they are somehow more qualified for the position than an outsider because "they have paid their dues/been there waiting" etc... They are most likely the least qualified to move an organization forward and implement change.
It's the "of course," not the golf, that gets to me.
I myself am a terrible golfer, incidentally -- all I learned from my golf lessons was a kick-ass 5-yard chip-shot to escape a sand trap. I'm great at that. I'm game to go if everyone else is going, but I don't think it's that much fun, and I always worry about getting everyone aggravated at me when I'm terrible and it takes me a dozen strokes to get down the fairway.
I try to be respectful to golfers, though, even if I think it's a stupid game, just because they often have money and power, both of which I may at some point want a piece of. Bwah, ha, ha!
An old friend and very serious golfer told me that I had completely the wrong temperament for golf, though. He thought I would find it incredibly stressful, so I've avoided it, and that's what I use as my excuse on the rare occasions it comes up.
CB -- I'm glad that you feel that you've been treated fairly. Just don't assume that this is always the case.
What some people apparently read as 'dismissiveness' or 'ageism' (!) is actually frustration at running into the same arbitrary barriers over and over again. I'm calling for some diversification of the ranks while the current veterans are still there precisely so the newbies CAN learn from them. The alternative is to wait until there's no choice, then throw in people who haven't been prepared. Adapt slowly now, or adapt much too quickly later. I vote for the former.
This is complicated further by the demographics of academia, where most grads from the middle of the boom were looking for jobs when there were very few faculty jobs available. Few boomers finished a PhD before 1970. AIP statistics on age of physics faculty show an obvious minimum where a boomer peak should be.
A good example of what we see as a result is the president of Albany (SUNY), who spent 30+ years in the state bureaucracy (and none in academia) before being appointed president.
What Eyebrows didn't mention is that we couldn't move up because the Boomers occupied the slots above us, and when the Boomers (finally) retired (often in a biggish wave) mange organizations looked for younger employees to 'rejuvenate' the place. In my school there are very few people my age in positions of authority: they are generally either half a generation older or half a generation younger.
Well I'd comment this "Robert Lanham is the author of the satirical anthropological studies The Hipster Handbook, Food Court Druids, and The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right.
But I came back here to post a link to a Ms. Mentor column on whether you need to play golf to become a president. That should entertain you, Dean Dad!