Donna’s baleful eyes told me I was on the uncool side of the generation gap.
I could tell she was holding back a hive of retorts that would have been funny if I were not a supervisor. I know her zingers can sting because she would later become my second ex-wife.
As the weekend editor at the newspaper where we both worked, I had to circle the newsroom looking for reporters who had excess time to do the larger, thoughtful articles that filled the Sunday paper. No one had excess time. This newspaper, like most others, had been aggressively cutting staff ever since I had arrived in 1987.
When I became involved in journalism in the early ’80s, young reporters and editors were still in the Watergate thrall that newspapers can make a difference and that the fourth estate was real. The profession was more of a calling than a job for many of us then.
I was born in one of the last boomer years and shared many of those values involving cause above all else. When we went to work for newspapers, we learned pretty quickly that we would be putting up with cantankerous and sometimes downright nasty editors.
That treatment was regarded as our initiation. We assumed that someday we would take their positions to rot in place and snarl at the new people to strangle their zest for life.
But a couple of trends changed that expectation. One was the massive slashing that newspapers were committing, often in service of shareholders used to fat returns. News distribution was changing from print to electronic, and the corporations could not or would not invest in it.
The other trend was Gen-Xers, who’d had enough of the nonsense from the boomer generation. They were cynical, tired of hearing how boomers were going to save the world only to become self-obsessed yuppies. At least, that is how Gen-Xers seemed to have seen it.
Seeing Crowds From Both Sides Now
Donna was born a few years into Gen X, so she could straddle the generational line. She loved The Who and The Clash equally. She was a compatriot of a tough band of young journalists wise to the ways companies bend a sense of mission for their own purposes.
I had once actually said to a reporter, “Your newspaper needs you,” as I asked whether he could cover a Saturday night shift. He looked at me blankly and said, “Did you just say, ‘Your newspaper needs you’?”
“Well, yeah!” I said, but drifted away. I recalled that line had not seemed so ridiculous when it was used on me years earlier.
I realized how that sounded to younger people who came into the business and saw how our corporation, Gannett, was pulling big returns from our local paper — as high as 50 cents on the dollar — to build a lavish corporate office outside Washington, D.C., and to feed the growth of the then money-losing USA Today.
We got layoffs in return. “Do more with less,” was the despised refrain.
Although I felt a tinge of betrayal about the whole souring-of-the-dream thing, younger people did not see it that way. They came to work, did a solid job, and left each day to their own lives after work. They were far more clear-eyed about the modern reality of work.
Then Gen-Xers became managers. I have worked for a few myself. I found them to be all business on the job — goal-oriented and pragmatic. Certainly the right stuff for advancing companies.
I admit that I do get a little too smug when Gen X bosses complain about millennials, the children of boomers. “Hah!” I think to myself, “there’s your karma for ya!”
Millennials are a generation bred in atonement. Boomers tried to make up for the restrictive childhoods that they rebelled against. They wanted to give perfection to their kids. They wanted their children to grow up valuing themselves.
Consequently, millennials are often accused of having been coddled to the point of feeling entitled. We say that like it is a bad thing. But this is the generation standing up and saying “Enough!” to institutionalized abuse.
Talkin’ About All Generations
We have to ask ourselves something as managers and business owners: Why should abuse be the norm in some professions? Should young journalists be subjected to snarling insults and sexist behavior? Should we expect our people to leave their values at the door? Many industries have their own practices that do more harm than good to their workers.
Of course, we have seen instances where the “call-out” culture has gone off the rails, destroying careers on very little substance. The underlying question is still important — are we expressing our values in how we treat the people who work for and with us?
I never quite shook off that sense of mission. Donna and I used to laugh about how I had believed that journalism was more religion than profession. I confess I have retained a little of that missionary zeal, but perhaps not so naively.
This month in the magazine, we are looking at how agencies are trying to transition to the next generation. That succession is not always successful. Maybe that struggle comes from one generation expecting the next to do everything the same — this way or no way. But that is not progress. That is not how we get better as an industry or as a nation.
That preceding paragraph is known in journalism as the lede. It is pronounced “lead,” and it means the paragraph tells readers the why of the story — why we are telling you all this.
And I fully expect that a Gen X or millennial colleague will rib me about burying the lede, much as I would chide them if they had.
But I’ll just smile and nod. Because I’m cool like that.
[Cue millennial eye roll.]