Brian Wilson: Born in the Wrong Generation

Try taking the long view. What will we think about Brian Wilson’s lycra tux in 2037?

–Ian Miller

Ian Miller’s essay on Brian Wilson’s antics and how we react to them (subscription required) got me thinking about this speech by Malcolm Gladwell:

I’ll summarize, for those who don’t want to watch the whole thing. Gladwell contends that this past century, we’ve gone through three large generational shifts in how people approach human social organization.

In the WWII-generation, the prevailing paradigm was a hierarchical organization. People just assumed that social organizations should be hierarchical, that’s how things work. When Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement, he did it with a hierarchical organization. There’s a boss at the top, and everyone below the boss follows orders.

But when the Baby Boomers came of age, they broke that paradigm. Somewhere around 1975, people started insisting on being treated as individuals. They didn’t just accept the orders coming from above. In Silicon Valley and other places, a new more egalitarian model of corporate governance began — driven as much by engineers as executives. Consumers started to demand choices. “Boomers want to surround themselves with the totems of their individuality,” said Gladwell. They didn’t want chocolate or vanilla ice cream. They wanted a choice of 31 flavors.

In baseball, this era is where free agency started–players no longer accepted that the owners were the bosses, and they had to follow their orders. Players began to assert their individuality, and suddenly there was a wealth of unique characters like Bill Lee, Al Hrabosky, Doc Ellis, and Mark Fidrych.

This paradigm prevailed until the last half decade or so. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in the 1990s, he was still selling to Baby Boomers. The first thing he did was create a series of products in many bright colors, to appeal to that generation that wanted products as an expression of their individuality. He told them that Apple would “think different”.

Now, however, times have changed. The Baby Boomers have now begun to yield to the next generation, which has its own paradigm. This Millenial generation is networked.

As Gladwell says, “That notion of being treated and seen as an individual is not a preoccupation of the current generation.” Millenials don’t care about tokens of individuality. They want to be surrounded by things that signal that they are connected, that they are participating in a community. You’ll notice that Apple doesn’t bother giving people these colorful choices anymore. They don’t say “think different” anymore. People in the Millenial generation go around with identical Apple laptops and iPhones, and are fine with that.

When Millenials start a movement, such as the Occupy movement, there are no leaders. Their work spreads virally across their global networks, effortlessly, but without conscious design or planning or goals. A meme can be born and become a global phenomenon in an instant. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to plan and control these phenomena.

As an aside, this is partly what makes the current NHL lockout so insanely stupid: the owners are waging a battle based on a paradigm that’s two generations out of date. Wake up, knuckleheads! You’re living in the 21st century.

So in 2037, when Millenials look back at which characters of the current generation they admire most, it probably won’t be the ones like Brian Wilson who flaunt their individuality by going to an award banquet in a lycra tux. That was the modus operandi of the previous generation. Instead, they’ll probably most fondly remember the ones who best participated in social networks: Brandon Phillips, Logan Morrison, and Brandon McCarthy. The ones who were most in tune with their generation.

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