In 1993, after being named IBM’s CEO as it was quickly careening toward insolvency, Lou Gerstner said, “There’s been a lot of speculation as to when I’m going to deliver a vision of IBM, and what I’d like to say to all of you is that the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” It was a peculiar thing to say, especially for an executive renown for his strategic acumen, and people took note.
What Gerstner meant was that IBM was broken internally. It had lost sight of itself and fallen into infighting. It no longer sought to serve the customer. Instead of collaborating, executives engaged in endless turf battles. Until IBM’s culture and values could be brought back into harmony with the market, it didn’t matter what the vision was.
Today, America has a similar plight. We are undergoing profound shifts in our racial makeup, urban concentration and generational demography in the midst of great geopolitical and technological disruption. We need to build a new social contract based on shared values that align with those shifts and, until we do that, any vision for the future will be irrelevant.
The Racial Divide
The recent incidents involving Amy Cooper and George Floyd outraged people across the world. In the former, a white woman leveraged her sense of privilege to threaten a black man in the most despicable way. In the latter, a black man was senselessly murdered at the hands of a police officer, while his colleagues sat back and watched.
What was notable about both incidents is that they were filmed and that the subjects involved knew they were being filmed but proceeded with their behavior anyway. How many times have they acted similarly off camera? There’s no way of knowing, but given the air of confidence they had in their actions, it’s hard to believe it was the first time for either.
At the same time, life expectancy for the white working class is actually declining, mostly because of “deaths of despair” due to drugs, alcohol and suicide. For those struggling and who see their friends and families undergoing similar travails, assertions of “white privilege” fall hollow. In fact, the very idea of “white privilege” intensifies the feeling that they are under attack.
The racial divide in America is wide and encompasses gaps in economic circumstances as well as values and attitudes. It doesn’t show signs of closing anytime soon. Yet until it does it’s hard to see how we can move forward as a nation.
The Urban-Rural Divide
In addition to the racial divide in America, we have a stark urban-rural divide that seems to keep widening. While having some gap between city and country dwellers is quite common all over the world, in America that gap is almost uniquely vast and encompasses a number of political and economic forces.
Politically, the fact that each state has two senators gives rural states with small populations an advantage in determining federal policy. On the other hand, because capitals tend to be in cities, those who work in government tend to be more liberal than their rural counterparts. Voting data has long shown that the urban and suburban areas tend to vote Democrat and exurban and rural areas tend to prefer Republicans.
On the economic side, cities wield enormous power. Most major corporations are headquartered in urban areas and large industries tend to agglomerate around specific cities, such as finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles and technology in San Francisco. Some observers have also noted that, as housing costs in key cities rise they are beginning to hemorrhage mid and low skill workers who tend to be less educated.
Much like the racial divide, the urban-rural divide is heavily rooted in values and attitudes. While city dwellers often dismiss rural areas as “fly-over country,” those who live in rural areas feel disrespected and unrecognized. They often complain that their communities are being dictated to by people in other places who live other kinds of lives, which leaves them angrily seeking political redress.
The Demographic Divide
In addition to the racial and urban-rural divides, we are also beginning to see a massive generational shift. Over the next decade, baby-boomers, many of whom came of age during the Reagan revolution, will be replaced by millennials, whose experiences with the Great Recession, debilitating student loan debt and rising healthcare costs, have very different priorities.
The main drivers of the Baby Boomer’s influence have been its size and economic prosperity. In America alone, 76 million people were born in between 1946 and 1964, and they came of age in the prosperous years of the 1960s. These factors gave them unprecedented political and economic clout that continues to this day.
Yet now, Millennials, who are more diverse and focused on issues such as the environment and tolerance, are beginning to outnumber Baby Boomers. Much like in the 1960s, their increasing influence is driving trends in politics, the economy and the workplace and their values often put them in conflict with the baby boomers.
However, unlike the Baby Boomers, Millennials are coming of age in an era where prosperity seems to be waning. With Baby Boomers retiring and putting further strains on the economy, especially with regard to healthcare costs, tensions are on the rise
A Problem Of Identity And Dignity
In 1989, standing on Kosovo Polje, in a ceremony commemorating the Battle of Kosovo, in which the Serbian army was annihilated by the Ottomans in 1389, Slobodan Milošević told his followers, “No one should dare to beat you again!” Since then, we have seen a wide array of leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump, leverage our innate need for recognition and collective identity to whip us into a frenzy.
Amy Cooper threatened a black man because he refused to recognize her privilege and she immediately called the police, with whom she obviously felt a shared identity. The Tea Party was driven, in large part, by older Americans who felt that younger Americans, who they did not feel a shared identity with, wanted to “freeload” off the country they worked their entire lives to build.
We can expect that as long as these divisions remain, there will be politicians and others who will seek to exploit them for personal gain. If we were still a white, christian country in a simpler world, things would be easier, but we would lose all of the incalculable benefits that come with diversity, including more dynamism, innovation and culture. Much like IBM in the 90s, we cannot move forward until we heal our internal divisions.
Nothing about a multi-ethnic, multicultural society is simple. Building anything worthwhile takes work and no small amount of pain. Still, we need to try harder. We need to rebuild our society, culture and values based on a new basis of shared purpose. Until we do that, nothing else will really matter.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto