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  • Jerry Schuitema

The Clash of Generations

Can business be a greater bridge between hopelessness and promise?

“Every generation blames the one before.”

This opening line of that haunting hit song: “The living years”, by Mike and the Mechanics, and the full lyrics (see here) have a reflective message for all generations, both at an individual and collective level. They assume even deeper meaning, if you add another observation: that every generation hopes to leave the world a better place.

These two pronouncements reflect an ongoing struggle that often leaves the outgoing generation bewildered and deeply saddened, and the new agitated and belligerent.

It is the perpetual struggle of the living years. Rarely do the two mind-sets meet and then only when they face a combined threat to their existence and freedom such as a war or oppression: a reflection of my father’s and my youth respectively. In the absence of these or a state of uncommon national contentment, the young wage war on the old, mostly at a personal level, but often at a societal level. And those of the ageing who have entered the last of their living years, but can remember well their own troubled selves reborn in today’s student stone throwers, try to have their faltering voices heard above the sirens and shouts; when, as the song says: “all of their frustrations, come beating at your door.”

“You don’t know!” we say. “No-one possesses the ultimate truth. No noble end can justify malevolent militancy. Be patient. Your cause is being driven by a third force. You are not being heard because you cannot speak with one coherent voice. You create power vacuums that are filled by two-day hot head wonders intent on spectacle more than compromise. Above all, as much as we all fail to recognize it in a hormone active state, the struggle is as much with the self as it is with others.”

At the same time, we of the outgoing generation have to recognise that we are leaving a world of intolerable imbalances and fault lines. For too large a number, it is a world of little hope, of uncertainty, robbed of aspirational promise, of grudge inducing inequalities and of insecurity. It is fertile ground for dissension, frustration and anger and it fuels extremism and fanatical activism. It will force evolution into revolution. In that, the cause is often not the real issue and can morph from one to another. Being part of an angry mob, whether 25% or less of the whole, is cause enough for a good number and gives a critical mass to create social trauma.

The turmoil for many of the outgoing generation is multiplied by their own internal struggle, by posing at a personal level the same question: whether they are going to leave the world a better place in their sphere of influence. It’s a haunting self-prosecution in confronting mortality; one that imposes a burden of unfinished business; of repairing broken relationships; creating some modest legacy beyond material things for which much has been sacrificed but then abandoned to an estate in the forlorn hope of making up for past neglect, or receiving recognition and gratitude when one is past caring. I have witnessed that many times – in some even to the point of not being able to accept that their time has come and plunging their final living years, months, days and hours into misery.

In sharing my own, I am fully aware that I might be inappropriately narrow and testing the limits of your forbearance in what could be seen as self-indulgence. But at one or other point popular assumptions and the discourse in organisational practice have to change to become a valid and significant contributor to easing tensions.

I have always had a leaning towards interrogating context rather than content. It made me acutely aware of how the critical role of business as provider not only of goods and services, but of purpose and meaning, had been degraded and smeared by atrocious business behaviour, populist rhetoric, perceptions and assumptions. But most of all, by an obsession with reward and extraction rather than contribution. It has largely neutered business as a credible bridge between hopelessness and promise – a bridge that could remove some of the wind from the sails of dissent. I have unshakeable faith that business can reclaim that position and all I have written, done and am still doing has had that as its aim.

That path led to the formulation of an authoritatively endorsed argument, including testimony by retired retailer, Raymond Ackerman, that it is “the way of the future; the whisper of tomorrow”. (See endorsements here.) The premise is simply that the fundamental underpinning of sustainable business is service, benevolence, empathy and making a difference to others. Acute awareness of the powerful interplay between behaviour and accounting, as well as the need to preserve sound business principles, prompted a questioning of the narrow nature of the final business accounts, the struggle for alternatives and the neglect of a long established format of value-added accounting, or contribution accounting.

It is not complex or even new. It is perhaps more appropriately called “accounting for contribution”. It is about being and doing, not just counting. Above all, it binds behaviour and measurements in a cohesive, harmonious and virtuous circle for sustainable growth. All of this has been captured in books, articles, workshops, interviews and speeches. But what has been missing is conversion of theory into broader application: the creation and widening of a comprehensive methodology embracing already proven application in areas such as employee awareness, involvement, communication, financial transparency, and service orientation; to overall strategy, reward systems and entrepreneurial pursuit.

This has been developed in the past few months into what I have called the Contribution Accounting Methodology, or CAM (see here). Above all, to ensure broader traction, the content had to be made highly transferable and break from the standard mould of high cost exclusivity. That has been my unfinished business. It comes at a time when globally there has been much soul searching about the conventional role of business in society.

While no-one, least of all myself, possesses the ultimate truth, evolution is as much about sharing ideas as it is about experimenting with the new.

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