Obama and Gen Y. When the Honeymoon ends.

A number of people have sent me messages asking for my take on the cultural event of the week, that is Obama’s inauguration. As I mentioned yesterday I have been ill for the last couple of days, and so have been here slow cooking in the 24 hour media coverage Obama’s transition to power. There are multiple different observations that I have had over the last 48 hours. But I wanted to pick up on one stream. To me there were a variety of different stories being told yesterday. Probably the strongest story that gained the most resonance with people across the world was the story of an African – American being elected president of the United States. But an interesting sub story will be how Obama now handles the expectations and aspirations of the millions of Gen Y’s that he so effectivly corralled.

Obama brilliantly spoke to Gen Y’s in a language that they understood, that is aspirationally. He used social networking media and technologies to engage them where they were at. His branding and slogan “Yes we can” captured perfectly the worldview of Gen Y. However in an age of inflated personal expectations and instant gratification, many young people may simply see the breakthrough of Obama’s rise to president a result of his drive, personal power, and his command of social networking technology. However the reality is much different, the path taken by Obama, was blazed by millions of others who fought in the civil right movement, who’s understanding of commitment and cost meant that they faced social isolation, racism, imprisonment, or even lynching. This is a very different reality than supporting the cause by wearing an Obama bandana or adding him as a facebook friend.  

I think that Obama understands this dynamic. However many young people watching across the world yesterday would not have seen the spark’s flying as Obama pulled the breaks, the ‘Yes we Can’ Obama was gone, we now had President Obama who spoke of the giant challenges that we faced, the huge task ahead, the dangers of terrorism, the threat of economic meltdown. The need for everyone to pull together and work hard. This was not Gen Y Obama, this was not even Gen X or Baby Boomer Obama, this was Builder Obama, this was the language of the the builder generation who had lived through World War two, who understood the hardships of the depression. The Yes we can message that had entranced young people was still there but there was a caveat attached the end “Yes We Can: But it is going to really cost, going to be hard work and could take a lot longer than you think at significant cost to you”. Sentiments and language that is unintelligible to Gen Y. The million dollar question is how does Obama handle the sea of expectation that he has created from a generation who will expect instant results at bargain basement prices?

Tony Blair faced a similar issue when his Britpop infused new Labour engaged British young people in the political process in a way that they had never been before. He swept the conservative party out of the way surfing to power on a youth wave. However months later the music bible the NME which had lauded Blair and his hipster brand of politics was filled with scorn for the new leader, its pages were filled with the vitriol of rock stars and celeb’s that had once praised the Prime Minister (for more on this story see John Harris’ excellent rock/political history The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock) Once you enter the world of youth culture to

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant once noted that the real skill in leading a nation is playing the balancing act between working towards social good and administering universal justice. When you are running for office all you speak about is social good, social justice, and building a fair and civil society. But once you take office you also have to wield the stick. As one commentator on CNN said yesterday, how will the organic social networking generation handle President Obama the boss of the most top down leadership structure on earth?

It is going to be fascinating how the newest President of the United States handles the expectations of a youth culture who expects it all, yesterday.


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