Bill Gates, at the age of 58, having started young and retired young — a product of the 1980s and 1990s — is now going back to work. He’ll be taking a key role in product development and innovation initiatives at Microsoft. In a way, this is heartening and logical. He could well have another, productive, career-focused 25 years. Rupert Murdoch will soon turn 83 at his desk.
But Gates, while personally going strong, is being forced to defend the weakness of the business he built against stronger people from a different time and experience.
They seem like young and vital world beaters, each trying to be what Gates once was. Bill Gates, once the scariest man on the planet, now seems avuncular and benign, the opposite of a threat.
The business generation gap is curiously different from the cultural generation gap in that, culturally, we all grow up and get to the same place. Businesses, on the other hand, while they talk about adapting, remain the same, more than not —and hence recede as their new competitors advance.
Bill Gates’ seemingly dreadful predicament is, at 58, to go back to work in a business that was much more powerful and fun to work at when he was 38. And now he has to compete with other businesses, more fun and powerful, run by other people who are 38 — or younger.
At first, this might seem like an example of natural obsolesce or Schopenhauer’s creative destruction, wherein capitalism is always helpfully making way for the new. But the business generation gap is something quite different. Across the American economic spectrum, you have major businesses falling ever more behind but which are still so large and embedded into supply chains, brand consciousness and the installed base of American commercial life, that they’re not going anywhere fast. It’s a half-life decline, instead of an absolute decline.
In some ways, contrary to Schopenhauer’s dynamic view of capitalism, they remain immovable obstacles.
Time Inc., once America’s most powerful media company, will shortly be spun off from its parent, Time Warner, which is no longer interested in the low returns of a print publisher. For many years, Time has been slipping into decline and embarrassment. Yet, like Microsoft and hundreds of other important, but far-from-the-forefront companies, it remains in cash-positive shape. Indeed, Microsoft remains a money machine with extraordinary profit margins. And Time remains vastly more successful than all but a few digital media companies.
Microsoft and Time will continue to exist, but without inspiring anybody — neither their customers nor their employees.
In a growing sense, business culture divides these two sorts of companies: sexy, growing companies and depressing, declining companies. You work for one or the other. If there ever was a possibility of transformation and rebirth, the kind of people who would go to work for a depressing, declining company and what that kind of company does to the spirit of the people who work there, certainly won’t help.
It’s a new kind of business distinction: the super cool and the woefully uncool.
Innovation is most always thought of as the key differentiator. Yet, arguably, it is as much about perception as innovation. Or, innovation is as much about a clear story line as it is a technical adjustment. It’s hard to innovate if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.
What is Microsoft? What does it want to be? What does it stand for?
Why does Time exist, other than for its legacy profit stream? Why would anyone want to work at Time, other than for a salary?
Is this existential, with so many companies and hundreds of thousands of employees just waiting out their years? Or is it a different kind of confusion?
Young companies have, often preposterously, a moral certainty for being. Old companies, many with extraordinary histories and clear value, seem somehow to have lost their purpose — or lost track of their purpose.
Is this then about a failure of products or of articulation?
New companies are often forced to go through a process of expressing exactly what they are. Before they can exist, they have to argue for the right to exist. Their raison d’être is crystal clear.
Old companies lose that certainty — or flair or arrogance and, as well, powers of seduction. They have value, but it’s locked inside their inability to express it. They ought not perhaps to hire McKinsey to advise on management deficiencies, but hire teams of writers and producers to give them a way to express why they are in business.
Steve Jobs, on returning to Apple, was less an innovator than a storyteller.
Gates has always seemed far different from Jobs. Yet, Microsoft has always been his story. As a young man, he seemed to embody it. Now as an older man, he may have to tell it, which might be harder. But he still may have the chance to bring people to the edge of their seats once more.