Geeks and Geezers
by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas
Most every organization today employs members of the younger generation just out of college and, in some cases, even high school. In fact, I recently read of a west coast firm that hired several middle school students to do part-time programming after school and on weekends. Those same companies employ their share of A.A.R.P. members nearing retirement. Both age groups, as well as those in between, bring tremendous value to the table in terms of education, experience, creativity, talent, etc. However, consider the cultural, environmental, motivational and personal goal differences of these two diverse employee groups. Then consider the fact that they are being thrown into the same chaotic, rapidly changing business environment and instructed to achieve ever-increasing levels of productivity and profitability! To expect such lofty expectations to be met would, of course, require, at the very least, a basic orientation to members of each group of the vast differences existing in each of the areas mentioned earlier. In fact, education and discussion of these differences and their possible consequences should be on-going. Now think about your own organization. Is this orientation currently being offered? Has it ever been offered? Should it be?
If any organization were to recognize the importance of this education and decide to provide it for their employees, the benefits would be phenomenal! The ideal textbook for such a program would have to be Geeks & Geezers by Bennis and Thomas. In this groundbreaking study, the authors compare and contrast these two disparate groups-affectionately labeled “geeks” (aged 21-34) and “geezers” (aged 70-82). They asked successful geeks to share the secrets of their youthful triumphs and distinguished geezers to tell them how they continue to stay active and engaged despite the changes wrought by age. Today’s young leaders grew up in the glow of television and computers; the leaders of their grandparents’ generation in the shadow of the Depression and World War II.
The authors, who bring considerable experience to the table (Bennis has written more than 30 books on leadership and Thomas is a senior fellow with Accenture’s Institute for Strategic Change), interviewed more than 40 leaders who they deem either “geeks” or “geezers” to evaluate the effect of era on values and success. The two groups vary in terms of their ambitions, heroes and family lives, but members of both sets share one common experience: all have “undergone at least one intense, transformational experience,” which the authors call a “crucible.” In some cases the crucible was an actual hardship, e.g., geezer Sidney Rittenberg spent 16 years in prison in China for speaking out against the government. For others, it was a dramatic experience, such as NYSE pioneer Muriel Siebert’s entry into male-dominated Wall Street in 1967 or geek Liz Altman’s stint working at a Japanese Sony factory before becoming a Motorola VP.
Among the findings of their research, Bennis and Thomas learned that Geezers and Geeks had quite different concerns when in the age range of 25-30. The Geezers’ concerns were making a living, earning a good salary, starting and supporting a family, stability and security, working hard and getting rewarded by the system, listening to their elders, paying “dues” to various organizations, and using retirement to enjoy life. It also reveals the critical traits they share, including adaptability, vision, integrity, unquenchable optimism, and “neoteny”—a youthful curiosity and zest for knowledge.
In contrast, Geeks’ concerns (during the same age range) were making history, achieving personal wealth, launching a career, change and impermanence, working hard so they can write their own rules, wondering if their elders “got it wrong,” deciding where loyalty should lie, and achieving a balance between work and life. These are significant differences which Bennis and Thomas explain in terms of the different eras in which Geeks lived (at ages 25-30), the societal values of their respective generations, and various “defining moments” such as those associated with the Great Depression, World War II as well as Vietnam and the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web.
Geeks and Geezers is a book that will forever change how we view not just leadership but the very way we learn and ultimately live our lives. Highlighting the forces that enable any of us to learn and lead not for a time, but for a lifetime, this book is essential reading for geeks, geezers, and everyone in between.
(This book review was originally published in 2002 as one of the Top 10 Books – Edition 11.)