This week on Facing the Future, it’s time for the Baby Boomer generation to step aside and let Gen-X, Millennials, and Gen-Z lead the way towards solving some of our country’s most pressing problems. So says David Gergen, advisor to four US presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton), CNN political commentator, and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy school of Government where he was the founding director for the Center for Public Leadership. Gergen has written a new book called Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made. As a Boomer who agrees with Gergen’s recommendation that it’s time for us to pass the leadership torch, I had two Gen-X-ers join the discussion with Gergen about his latest book: Concord Coalition policy director Tori Gorman and our national field director Phil Smith.
Gergen says in contrast to the WWII generation Baby Boomers have shown mixed leadership at best. Rife with deep divisions from the outset between traditionalists and progressives, those rifts were widened by the war in Vietnam. He says these divisions have never been resolved because Boomers lack both energy and political will.
“I have a sense of urgency with this cascade of crises that we never seem to solve, and only get worse,” said Gergen. “It sets off alarm bells for people in my generation, and we’re trying to do what we can to set things straight while we’re still here. As worthy as many of those who are in office today are as individuals, the current situation just isn’t working. I don’t see a way out of it anytime soon, and our best hope is passing the baton to a new generation. Fresh blood, fresh energy, and fresh alarm at where we’ve been. We also need to do a better job at preparing future leaders for changing the civic culture. This is not going to be easy; it’s a long-term prospect with a lot of perils along the way. The new generations are going to pay a price for what the older generations have left behind. But I think it’s necessary, and time is running out.”
Even though Gergen says he views the baby boom generation as a disappointment, he is still a long-term optimist because we have overcome great existential crises as a country in the past, and he sees younger generations as tired of the same old political arguments and willing to make sacrifices to solve some of our long-term problems.
“I have seen more and more evidence that there are young people out there in their 20s, 30s, and indeed in their 40s in Generation X as well who really do want to change the country,” said Gergen. “Particularly I would point to the veterans who have come back from Afghanistan and Iraq. They have a patriotism I haven’t seen since the WWII generation. And they’re pitching right in. They are doing all sorts of things to see if we can right the ship - including trying to run for the House of Representatives to see if we can restore a centrist civic culture once again. Simultaneously, we see a set of new young leaders emerging among people of color and among women. Even though some of their politics are to the left of mine, I celebrate the especially impressive young Black women who have increasingly chosen the high ground, the moral ground in our politics. Look at the #MeToo movement, that started with a young Black woman in her 20s, look at #BlackLivesMatter, started by three Black women in their 20s and 30s.”
One of the great debates about leadership is whether great leaders are born with certain traits that can’t be taught, or whether they are made by virtue of the circumstances in which they come of age. Gergen says it is a little bit of both, and luck plays a role as well. But the keys to becoming a good leader are hard work, and finding mentors along the way to learn from.
“People are born with certain predilections, certain natural traits that can advance them,” said Gergen. “But it is important to apply yourself, and get some help from a mentor or sponsor who can take great interest in your success. It is a question of judging the willingness or interest level of a potential mentor. You don’t want just any person to be your mentor. You really want someone who wants to be your mentor, who sees something in you, some promise in you that can be developed. It’s often been hard to get women to support each other. Now fortunately, it is changing dramatically, and women can find mentors, can find sponsors that they couldn’t find before. It’s been a long go before women could find an equal place at the starting line. The most important role of a leader is to find other people who have the promise of future leadership.”
Gergen also says it’s time for Americans to take another serious look at national service, because those who perform public service in some way often learn the critical skills of humility and understanding the circumstances of those who grew up differently than they did.
“Don’t require it, but create an expectation and a capacity for young people to take a year out - say a gap year - before going on to school, in a service capacity,” said Gergen. “Whether you’re working on the environment, working at a hospital, or trying to help people who are homeless, there are a whole lot of things that young people could be doing. You give us a year of national service, we take a year off your college debt. You give us a couple of years, we’ll take two years off. And what I think we will find is if people growing up in urban America can go spend a year or two working in national service in rural America, and vice versa, if people in rural America come work in urban America, it would do enormous good for the country and create a healing process where we can come back together again. We have to find incentives for young people to throw themselves into public service. The number of young people who want to serve is now far larger than the number of spots we have for them.”
Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join my guests and me as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.