We are all captives of the time we live in, of course. But what if people or businesses in the same time are captives of different times -- micro-times, if you will?
Bill Gates, at the age of 58, having started young and retired young, a product of the 1980s and 1990s, is going back to work. He'll take a key role in product development and innovation initiatives at Microsoft. In a way, this is heartening and logical. He could 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 of a different time and experience. They seem like young and vital world beaters, 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 -- hence, receding as 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 quite different. Across the American economic spectrum, you have major businesses falling ever more behind but which are so large and embedded into supply chains, brand consciousness and the base of U.S. commercial life, 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. Microsoft remains a money machine with extraordinary profit margins. And Time remains vastly more successful than all but a few digital media companies. (continued...)
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