Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Harold Burson’s reflections: A must for all

I read Burson-Marsteller Founding Chairman Harold Burson’s blog ‘Reflections on Reaching 85... Are We Getting it Right?’ last Friday.

The underlying message is so powerful that I had to revisit his blog at the weekend… on Monday again…. Perhaps I would read it again and again….

Here is the full text:

It's often said age is in the mind. Growing up in the 1920s and 30s, I couldn't even imagine I would be around for my 85th birthday. In those days, most people settled for the Biblical three-score-and-ten. Still blessed with most of my faculties, I reflect, from time to time, on what, for me, has been a life that, in earlier years, I would never have thought possible. However, I would be less than candid communicating the impression I now consider my self "old." Like many others, my perspective on young, middle and old age has changed with the passing years.
Approaching 40, I thought middle age started sometime after 50. Nearing 65, I figured old age started at 75. Now that I am 85 (hopefully still counting!) I stubbornly believe old age is far in the distance.

I am a first generation American. My parents emigrated from Leeds, in the English Midlands, to Memphis. I grew up in the South in a household more European than southern - a circumstance of significant influence on my life. I am old enough to remember the Great Depression (note the capital letters) of the 1930s. Few of my generation escaped the deprivations and devastation of poverty. Little wonder I chose the subway to take me where I needed to go most of my business life in New York. (I even figured out how to get to LaGuardia from our former office on Third Avenue by taking the E or F train to Queens Plaza and transferring to the Q33 bus; it was barely 10 percent the cost of a taxi and was quicker!)

World War II was a cataclysm in the lives of my generation (I was almost 20 when Pearl Harbor was bombed). I was an enlisted man with a Combat Engineer Group in Europe the better part of two years. I saw first-hand the flattened cities of Germany and the ravage of almost six years of war in other countries. The impression it made on me - one of opportunity as well as despair - undoubtedly contributed to my decision to take Burson-Marsteller overseas in 1961. That coupled with my earlier exposure to parents whose roots were in Europe. Life is a continuum.

I truly believe the years I have lived - 1921 to 2006 -- are the most interesting sequential 85 years in all of history. Just think of the changes people my age have seen and experienced. Radio when it was new, first "crystal sets" with earphones and then radio consoles that became status symbols in middle-class living rooms; now we are bedazzled by the ever-changing progression of miracle boxes that send and receive information and entertainment around the world. Air travel as late as 1935 was still a novelty; some four decades later American astronauts walked on the moon. I remember the milk man delivering the milk and the iceman delivering the ice in horse-drawn wagons at a time when the staple cure-all medicines were aspirin, calomel, castor oil and paregoric and a long distance telephone call was a special event. I remember the first coast-to-coast newscasts (CBS and Edward R. Murrow) when Nazi armies stormed the Polish border in 1939. I remember people going to the movies (before 6 o'clock tickets cost a dime) or wandering the aisles of downtown department stores seeking relief from the summer heat in my home town's only air conditioned buildings. Nowadays no one can deny the rapid evolution to a higher order in almost every material aspect of life. In science, communications, medicine and technology generally, the progress has been mind-numbing.

But I must confess to some misgivings on whether we as a society have advanced in our sense of right and wrong -- in short, the values we live by. I am troubled that we seem not to have many heroes nowadays, whether in government, in sports, in entertainment, in business. Who are the equals of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill or Charles DeGaulle? Of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams or Lou Gehrig? Who is today's Einstein? Nearly every institution in our society has suffered a loss of public esteem, some important ones, like the Presidency and the Congress, alarmingly so. Time and again, surveys show we believe less in what we read in our newspapers and what we hear and see on radio and television.

Nor am I one who boasts that mine is really "the greatest generation." But my impression of the now about-to-retire boomer generation, its successor X-generation and those who follow, is, increasingly, that fewer hold to the same values that governed our post-World War II behavior. The descriptor "now" generation seems to be an apt one. Instant gratification represented by instant wealth seems, more and more, the measure of success, if not happiness.

What bothers me most is my fear that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren won't live nearly as good a life as I have lived. We are leaving them an unconscionable debt burden, a public school system failing miserably in preparing them for a technology-based economy, a physical infrastructure some parts of which are beyond repair. Most of all, I fear they have seen too often their elders compromise on the meaning of truth, embrace the credo that winning is everything, believe monetary accretion is the ultimate metric and that, in politics winner takes all and compromise is an unpardonable sign of weakness.

But I have enough faith to believe those problems can be solved. As William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize address, "the human spirit will endure." The pendulum swings two ways. In matters both social and economic, it has an inherent correction mechanism that has worked marvelously well in this great country in which I have been privileged to live and in many other countries around the world.

As for me personally, it's been a journey beyond my expectations. And as for my continuing to come to the office every day? Perhaps, it's because no one ever told me not to.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

quite interesting article. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did anyone hear that some chinese hacker had hacked twitter yesterday again.

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