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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why Obama's Candidacy Matters No Matter Who Gets Your Vote

I am 48, and my earliest memories are in front of the television (I think a fudge-pop may have been involved) during the turbulent middle and late 1960s. I have thus grown up during the era of civil rights; that period that transformed this country from a Protestant, white-male dominated culture to a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and religiously diverse nation. My time in business, first in line management then in HR, has been entirely during the era of group rights and redress of societal grievances, some legitimate and some not. Now more than halfway through a career focused on business management and HR, I'm well versed in all the things you can't say, can't do, and sometimes don't dare think in regards to race, gender, national origin, etc...

Along with the political correctness of our culture, which can't help but be reflected in our business culture, come a few assumptions; women are more sensitive to women's issues, non-whites are more sensitive to race issues, immigrants are more focused on national origin issues, etc... In the civil rights era, that time between about 1962 and 2008, the focus is on defining people as to which group they belong, not as individuals, and everyone takes up for their group. Around these groups, a civil rights industry developed which took advantage of both private and public money to keep civil rights issues on people's minds. Organizations from NOW to the NAACP to the Rainbow/Push Coalition existed to advocate and support women and people of color, to raise money for those efforts, and to keep civil rights alive. If you've received a mailing from any of these groups, you'll also know that they served to sound the alarm on offenses real and simply perceived, and to keep righteous anger alive as part of fund raising.

The fact that we may be able to book-end the civil rights era with an end date is the transcendent, sea-change impact of the Obama candidacy. His popularity has highlighted a generational reality that many people missed; that the civil rights movement succeeded, and the generation my daughter's age not only doesn't see race, gender, and national origin, but also doesn't see the need for the infrastructure of the civil rights industry itself.

Running against the first legitimate woman candidate for President, Obama swept the overwhelming majority of young women's votes in the democratic primary. Middle-aged and older women voted for Hillary with a passion born of righteous indignation; young women voted for Obama because they don't have that indignation and liked his policies. White men voted overwhelmingly for Obama in all but the rust-belt states. In the rust belt this was an indication of class politics; blue-collar vs. Obama as the perceived elitist. In the rest of the country, they just liked him better regardless of his race. This was particularly true, again, with young white male voters.

As I said above, societal trends show up as workplace trends because no workplace exists in a vacuum from the society in which it operates. At work I'm starting to see signs of this post-feminist, post-racial generation. We recently held compensation communications meetings in one division, and I invited anyone with questions about their compensation to ask me directly. This group contains a disproportionate percentage of our young women, and those who approached me were all from this demographic. It has been my experience with women's compensation questions, particularly among middle-aged and older workers, that I commonly get the question, "Am I paid fairly compared to the boys"? Its a fair question, to be sure. What struck me about the questions from the young women were that it was entirely, "Am I being paid fairly compared to the market"? Unlike their mother's generation, this generation of young women has so far not exhibited the expectation of gender bias in pay; they are post-feminist.

As for race, the last two EEOC claims we've received were from whites who quit and claimed either age or racial associative discrimination ("I was friends with an African American and that's why they fired me"). Both were lame and, in my opinion, a mis-use of the EEOC as a weapon of retaliation against a company that didn't provide for them the outcomes they desired. Again, this is a sign of post-civil rights non-whites whose thought process, like our young women, does not run first to discrimination.

Whether or not Obama is elected isn't the point, and I'm not advocating anyone's candidacy. The important aspects of it in the workplace, however, are that as managers and co-workers we have a new and fundamentally different demographic with which to deal in the workplace. Our younger workers are post-feminist, post-civil rights, and more focused on business. Now there's one place where we can follow their example.

1 comment:

Mark Gedeon said...

Great analysis!
Having been a Diversity trainer during the 90s I saw Diversity at its worst and best. I had the opportunity to train in communication across cultures and leave a lot of the stupid stuff out. We ended up with a cohesive team.

Mark Gedeon