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Blog art croppedBy Jim McCloskey

Ever since I completed my last WaterShapes World entry – the one on the passing of Herman Silverman and John Kelley, Jr. – I’ve found myself thinking about the coincidence of their having been 30 years apart in age – that is, with a conventional “generation” between them.  

It reminded me that I joined the watershaping game in the midst of a grand generational transition, at a time when those who’d built the industry in the years after World War II (including Herman Silverman) had begun fading from the scene and a new group in their thirties and forties was stepping up onto the main stage – John Kelley among them.

I started with Pool & Spa News in 1986 at 30 years old, and I was aware through contacts with industry people of all ages that the transitions then under way were consequential and often painful.  The old guard, which still spoke with the most emphatic voices in the industry (including the one wielded by my boss at the time, Jules Field), had, like my parents, been through the Great Depression or its aftermath and had witnessed World War II in grim detail.

Many of them thrived in the booming postwar environment and built good, solid, profitable businesses through the ’50s and ’60s and beyond.  For all that, however, by the mid-1980s lots of them were feeling marginalized and maybe even disrespected by an up and coming generation that didn’t seem to appreciate all they’d been through in their lifetimes.

Some of the “old timers” I met in my early days in the industry were true pioneers and were probably justified in feeling underappreciated.  But more generally, the new generation saw the attitudes embodied by their older professional associates as outmoded at best and, at worst, as serious impediments to progress.

This sort of intergenerational tension is common, of course – but it’s particularly complicated in industries where there are lots of family-owned and -operated businesses.  Mom and pop are successful and proud, the story goes, but their kids see them as set in their ways and overly inclined to hold onto the reins of authority.  This leaves the older generation with a sense of competition that leads them to resist change and hang on to protect their legacies.

And now, just beyond 30 years of my own participation in the industry, the wheels are turning again.  Some in the younger generation are struggling to be patient if they’ve managed to stay in the family’s business at all.  But lots of them took the good educations their folks were able to afford because of the success of their businesses and put those degrees to good use in other fields of endeavor.  Some have come back, but many never will.

I could go on and on about these cross-currents of change, because I’ve watched the process unfold in countless businesses through the years, no matter whether the focus has been pools, ponds, fountains or some other slice of the watershaping pie.  And now that I find myself in the old guard, I’m starting to recognize and understand the nature of the conflict.  But I also see clearly that the situation is different these days than it was in the 1980s – a fact that gives me great hope.  

For one thing (and at risk of painting with too broad a brush), I get the sense that today’s older generation – that is, my generation – is more willing to step aside than was the case 30 years ago.  The Great Recession of 2009 was a sobering experience, but it was no Great Depression.  Sure, it was a shaping event and scared the heck out of a lot of today’s business leaders – and still does – but for all that, it was just a longer-than-usual string of difficult but survivable years rather than the existential crisis experienced by our parents and others of their generation.

As a result, the set of life lessons learned by someone like me is different from the one that shaped my parents.  As I see it, fewer of us Boomers are about gritty survival and endurance, and more of us are about valuing the benefits that flow from skill and success.  We’re still working and will keep working as long as we feel useful, but we also think fondly about enjoying the fruits of our labors instead of figuring out ways to stay at the helm forever.

I hope I’m correct, because it means the current generational shift will be much less traumatic than the last big one.  

Whether you agree with me or think I’m out to lunch, please share your own thoughts by commenting below!

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