von Lucy Kellaway
Although many 40 years ago, the 1960s still have resonance today - a
decade that time just won't forget. Modern business innovations can
be traced back to the ideals established during that brief period of
In May 1968 I had my first sexual experience. I was almost nine at
the time and that afternoon had been practising French skipping in my
bedroom with my best friend, Tabitha. When we had tired of leaping
over the elastic that was strung tightly between two chairs, she told
me about French kissing and - briefly and rather less
enthusiastically - we practised that instead.
At around the same time my mother came home one day with a bag from
Kids In Gear in Carnaby Street. Inside was a black jumbo-cord
miniskirt, with a red leather belt almost as wide as the skirt, and a
mustard skinny-rib polo neck. Never has an outfit given me more
pleasure. Never have I felt quite so cool.
Apart from these two isolated incidents, the 1960s didn't leave much
of a mark on me. Yet 40 years later the decade will not leave me
alone. It is my job to write about management trends and working
life, and it seems that I have been writing about the values of the
1960s for a very long time.
It didn't happen at once. Indeed it took business about 20 years to
work out that the 1960s had happened at all. When I joined the
workforce in 1981, the culture was much the same as it had been in
the 1950s: hierarchical and stable. Jobs were still meant to be for
life. But 1968 happened in offices around about 1988, and in 2008 the
ideas of the 1960s are still affecting the ways we behave and think at work.
Creative, not mechanical
In the early 1960s a group of radical American students got together
and drew up a blueprint for what they thought the world ought to look
like. The celebrated Port Huron Statement called for work that was "
educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed,
not manipulated, encouraging independence and a willingness to accept
As Anthony Dworkin pointed out in the current issue of Prospect
magazine, these ideas have now become enshrined in the workplace
ideal that business schools preach. Empowerment, creativity,
team-work, lifelong learning, values and visions: all these ideas had
their roots in the 1960s. Students got over it. Business never has.
Some of these ideas have turned into a good thing in workplaces,
others less so. The business equivalent of free love is job hopping,
which means that employees can get into bed with any old employer and
if it doesn't work out they can dump them and move on. In moderation
this is good; in excess it is expensive for employers and
destabilising for employees.
The idea of instant, and constant, gratification was also a big thing
in the 1960s, but is not so good when translated to work. Jobs are
often dull, and so if we expect the earth to move for us every time,
we end up feeling cheated and disappointed when it doesn't.
'Square' corporate executives
Above all what characterised the 1960s was people pretending to be
cool when they were actually quite square. "Far out, man," and "be
free", they used to say.
The same now applies to most corporate executives. They speak a
language infected with the spirit of the 1960s because they think it
sounds good, not because they really mean it. My favourite example
was the JP Morgan manager who instructed investment bankers to "take
the time today to call a client and tell them you love them". Peace
and love proved a dodgy dictum even when applied to students. When
applied to bankers it beggars belief.
Less extreme but more revealing was an e-mail forwarded to me and
written by Devin Wenig, the new CEO of the markets division of the
newly merged Thomson Reuters. This message strikes me as a perfect
example of the standard, professional memo that successful executives
like to write. It is also an extraordinary hybrid: corporate jargon
overlaid on 1960s hippy talk. The result is repulsive.
The point of the memo was to reassure customers that most of the
services pre-merger will still be available to them post-merger; that
the company is interested in their views; that it will try to improve
its service. Simple stuff.
Creativity innovations - right from the 1960s
But it is expressed like this. Mr Wenig says the company's goal is to
"develop deeper and richer innovative solutions". "Delivery" and
"solutions" are newish, but the rest is straight from the 1960s with
its insistence on creativity and compulsory hyperbole. Indeed, the
1960s was the decade when adjectival inflation took hold. Until then
something could be merely "good"; the 1960s made it "fabulous",
"great" or "sensational".
The memo continues: "Going forward we are committed to supporting the
vast majority of our products." Going forward is a modern
monstrosity, but all that "supporting" and all that misplaced
"commitment" is very 1960s.
Throughout the memo there is much hippy talk of customer "experience"
of "reaching out" and of "passion". In this spaced-out world,
suppliers are instead called "partners who share our vision".
The memo ends like this: "We are at the beginning of an exciting
journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you." In the 1960s
people did an awful lot of sharing (of joints, girlfriends, and so
on) and went on a lot of trips together. But at least then they
weren't so po-faced about it.
"Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields," sang
the Beatles. "Nothing is real, nothing to get hung about..." But that
is just the trouble and that is why the spirit of the 1960s jars at
work. In business it is real, and there is much to get hung about.