Australian business can expect a generational culture shift over the next decade-and-a-half, as baby boomers let go the levers and Generation X and then Generation Y assume positions of corporate power.
Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1961; by 2003 they are aged 42-57. Boomers are followed by Xers born over the 15 years to 1976 and who are, in turn, followed by Ys born 1976-1991. The number of births in Australia steadily increased each year after the war before peaking in 1961, bringing to a close an era that would later be termed a baby boom.
Buy why has it always been about the baby boomers? After all, there are now more Xers (4.4 million) than boomers (4.1 million).
The reason it has always been about the boomers, and the reason it will always remain about the boomers, is not the difference between the boomers and the Xers. It's because of the difference between pre-boomers (2.5 million) born 1931 - 1945 and the boomers.
Whatever shops, schools, housing and infrastructure was required during the '50s and '60s for pre-boomer households, had to be upped by 60 per cent in the '70s and '80s to accommodate the boomers. Whatever shops, schools, housing and infrastructure had to be developed to accommodate the boomers at this time, has to be upped by just 10 per cent to accommodate the Xers.
It is this stepped-difference in the number of people in the preceding generation, and the boomers, that has given the boomers their economic and cultural clout.
I argue that boomers also have vastly different values to the previous generations; boomers are consumers; pre-boomers endured war and depression. A value shift towards consumerism, multiplied by a seismic demographic shift from one generation to the next, delivers the boomer culture shift. Boomers enjoyed an early rise to power. Mark Davis' 1997 book 'Gangland' specifically targets boomers in the media for locking out bright young Xer talent. The festering mood of Xers is summed up nicely on the book's cover by a quote about boomers by Xer comedian Tony Martin: "Let go of the wheel you old farts and let someone else have a drive." Martin's message is hardly mixed; Xers were already calling for boomer blood.
Xers in 2003 fall within the ages 27-42. Successful Xers dominated the recent BRW Rich 200 under 40 edition. Xers are patiently waiting in the wings. But my research shows that the time in life when the average Australian reaches peak income-earning capacity was, at least at the time of the 2001 Census, between the ages of 43 and 48.
This hand-on-the-lever stage of the lifecycle is, in fact, moving slowly towards the 50-something mark. Xers will not fully straddle this period in life until 2009 at the earliest. Even then, it will not be until, say, 2013 before their "time at the helm" will be judged against that of the boomers.
This means that over the next 10 years, Australian business and government will be at least partially focused on issues of succession.
Perhaps the boomers will not want to let go. Perhaps boards will be concerned about the readiness of the now under 40s to assume the burden and mantle of high office.
This brings into play an important cultural difference between the boomers and the Xers. Despite all the hype and the '60s rhetoric, baby boomers are a traditional lot in many ways. Unlike previous generations, they married young. Very young. The average age at first marriage for a 1950 baby boomer woman was 21. She took the first marriageable option out of secondary school. Boomers then bought property in the mid-70s and subsequently watched their equity skyrocket. Boomers think this system is wonderful.
But Xers have a very different view of the world. They married much later in life, spending their 20s travelling, paying off tertiary education loans, trialling jobs and relationships and not committing to marriage and mortgage, let alone an employer, until 30.
The former model breeds people who have faith in the system. The latter model breeds people who experiment, trial and evaluate; people who toss out whatever is not working and take up whatever seems to be working. The former model works well in periods of steady growth, where the future is just like the past but faster and bigger.
The latter model works better within a different paradigm where the future is not like the past.
This is precisely why there will be, by the end of the next decade, a culture shift between the generations. Xers by that stage will have largely assumed positions of power. Some crusty old boomers will have weaselled their way onto boards (part of their portfolio lifestyles). Boards and CEOs may not see eye to eye. The annual rate of population growth in Australia drops quite dramatically around 2020. Sales growth cannot be achieved by simply opening more points of representation because the market is already saturated and there's just not the growth opportunities there once was.
There is conflict between a boomer's view of the world, which is rooted in the late 20th century growth paradigm, and the Xers' thinking, which is anchored in the slow-growth world of the early 21st century. Now all that experimentation that so marked Xers' youth, and which was so admonished by early-committing boomers, comes to the fore. The Xer CEOs of the 2020s will be fluid in their thinking and concerned to grow profits through efficiencies as much by growth in sales units. Xers, were well trained in the late 20th century for the way in which business has evolved in the new century.
Ys will not hit this hands-on-the-lever stage of the lifecycle until much later in the 2020s. How they, the children of the boomers and protégés of the Xers, deal with the issues of business and life at that time is difficult to even speculate upon. However, it is this generation that will inherit the property wealth of the boomers (if anything is left by then). That transfer will hit its peak 30 years from now. Meantime, Xers be advised: your time will come and it will be a very different time to the "era of the boomersaurus".
Source: Bernard Salt- Author of "The Big Shift'