26 July 2007

Age & Duty

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

One of my strongest impressions of the early years of the Clinton administration was of the youthfulness of many of the people working in it. At the time, I was finishing college and preparing to move to DC myself, and talk of the “kids” in the White House (as some of my elders would pejoratively call them) was all over town. It was a thrilling and invigorating moment – by god, these people aren’t much older than me; we’re in charge now! – and at the same time a frightening one. As much as I believed in myself, my friends, and our understanding of the world at that age, when it all came right down to it I would never have said “Yes, my generation is ready to run things.” (Many Clintonites were not, in fact, as young as all that – but the young staff got a lot of attention early on.)

I started having some flashbacks to all this a few months ago, right around the time that former White House aide Monica Goodling testified before Congress about the alleged (but seemingly obvious) influence of politics in the Department of Justice’s selected firings of nine U.S. Attorneys. At 33, Goodling seemed so, well, young: young to be testifying before Congress, and young to have held the influential position she did. Then along came Sara Taylor, another now-former White House aide, who is all of 32 years old. She also seemed rather young for all this – not too young to be working in politics, but too young to be a decision-maker in the White House, high enough up that she would need to be called before Congress or have “executive privilege” asserted on her behalf.

It’s not jealousy on my part; the age difference between us isn’t that large, and I have my own successes to feel good about. Moreover, the idea that there is always a direct, causal relationship between anyone’s age and their job performance or overall competence is absurd. Indeed, one of the most incompetent government officials of recent memory is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for whom all those years of business- and political-world management experience and high-level strategic thinking were either totally worthless or lead him in completely the wrong direction, or both.

Nonetheless, it is hard to overlook the idea that age – and the experience that goes with it – matter in terms of the judgments people make, and the frames of reference people use to back up those decisions. In the case of the Bush administration, these two “aides” were both Bush devotees, with a long history (despite their relatively short working lives) and connection to Mr. Bush and his campaigns. In other words, much of their experience and frames of reference in the working world were tied to exactly the same “decider” on whom they depended not just for their jobs but for their very careers.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this issue, or drawn a connection between age and duty. Cenk Uygur, of The Huffington Post, wrote about this a couple of weeks ago: “It’s not that the Bush administration couldn’t find experienced people – it’s that they didn’t want to. An experienced lawyer might object when you tell her to use political considerations to hire and fire attorneys at the Justice Department. An experienced lawyer can spot a violation of the Hatch Act or the FISA law or the War Crimes Act. An inexperienced lawyer who is thrilled to have such a great job at such a young age will do as they are told.”

Uygur’s perspective is tough, but he’s not wrong. On top of which, there seems to have been some sense that, age notwithstanding, these people’s creative ideas for how to approach a (potentially) highly-charged political situation were no less valid despite their inexperience.


Around the same time that I started mulling over the terrible impact on our nation of this political devotion and naïveté, I saw two interesting articles in the Wall Street Journal about the state of the younger workforce these days: Emily Meehan’s Act One column, titled “New Grads Are Impatient for Promotions,” and Jeff Zaslow’s Moving On column, titled “Blame It on Mr. Rogers: Why Young Adults Feel So Entitled.” [Note: Online subscriptions may be required to read both.]

Over the last five or six years, I have written a lot about these issues myself, especially in terms of the more-than-occasional challenges of recruiting and hiring good people. (Most recently, this article from last year – “Jobbing It – Stories” – addresses another aspect of the issue, and has links to some of my other writings on the topic from 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.) What both of these recent WSJ columns confront is a funny set of expectations that connects directly back to the inexperienced actions of these White House aides. In particular, it’s a sense of entitlement and expectation that suggests that paying one’s dues, in just about any form, is over-rated.

Meehan, for instance, refers to and quotes one young man thusly: “He and a former fraternity brother started a blog, employeeevolution.com, about people in their 20s who want more rewarding responsibilities at work. In a recent post he offered advice for peers in his shoes: ‘Keep your resume in the flow and continue to network; screw face time – if you've put in your eight hours and accomplished nothing, don't continue to waste your precious time.’” Clearly, I cannot address the details of the job experience that this guy suffered through; it does, indeed, sound stultifying, and as poor a reflection on his unnamed Fortune 500 company employer as on his own attitude.

Nonetheless, those eight hours should not have been a waste, not just because any employee should be given more work and shouldn’t be left to sit, bored, for all that time – but because workers should look for opportunities to learn about their jobs, even beyond just asking their boss for more work. For example, almost every industry (and especially those that involve Fortune 500 companies) have newsletters and publications specifically addressing news and trends within that field. In my experience, many younger employees make no effort to learn or engage with issues with which they might otherwise be unfamiliar, or to read about the goings-on and happenings elsewhere in an industry that could inform their work and their ideas. (This is particularly true since the internet made the in-office reading of out-of-office material so very easy: reading is up, but job-related reading does not seem to be.) Nor do people extend the networking opportunities to internal ones: to seek out and talk to colleagues who can spend a little time discussing the business, the field, and related issues; inter-office relationships are critical to long-term success in a job. Instead, much as this young man suggests, many workers “screw face time,” and start job-hunting all over again.

Tapping into the creativity of younger employees is important. I’ll leave that as a clear, direct statement on its own because it’s true: young people often bring a clarity of ideas and philosophy that can be quite refreshing. When I was just starting out in the working world, I benefited greatly from employers who spent time nurturing me and giving me good opportunities – but I also had to make opportunities of my own, and apply my creativity to more than just the sometimes-narrow tasks I had been assigned. Networking with colleagues – people with whom I wasn’t necessarily working directly, but from whom I could still learn – was key, doing so opened up work opportunities I would not otherwise have had, and taught me about aspects of my field I might not otherwise have thought about.

More to the point: tapping into youthful creativity and energy only has value if those young employees are able to learn from the process, too. Sometimes, it isn’t just about implementing a creative idea, but about adapting it to special circumstances and knowing what the limits are (legal or otherwise). That seems to be what was missing in the White House: that broader knowledge of the world that can help us all stop and consider an idea not just on its apparent merits or inherent creativity, but from other, outside perspectives that might reveal a “good” idea to be something else entirely.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home