MIT Celebrates the End of the “Me Generation”

10 06 2014

As MIT Spectrum puts it, “music resounds at MIT.” Around 70% of recent undergraduates arrive at MIT with musical training. Half of the undergraduates take music classes or participate in performing groups.

Every year since 1896, The Boston Pops orchestra has entertained the MIT community as part of the commencement and reunion celebration, playing classical favorites and showcasing MIT’s homegrown musical talent on the Symphony Hall stage.

Glancing over the program as I settled into my seat on June 5, I smiled as I saw the music chosen for the different reunion classes – everything from On The Town and Theme from a Summer Place to Livin’ La Vida Loca and Hey Jude.

At first I was puzzled to see Danse Macabre on the program. I knew the Camille Saint Saens piece only as a staple of Halloween concerts.

Was this a nod to the recent classes, to the generation that wears the skull as a fashion motif?

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Or was there more to it? On my trusty smartphone, I stealthily googled The Dance of Death, which I vaguely remembered as an allegory from the Middle Ages.

Eureka! Thanks to Wikipedia, I could see that the Tech Night at the Pops programming made perfect sense: no MIT gathering is complete without mathematical wit.

As then, so now; death is the constant in the equation of life.

I settled into my seat with the smug feeling of someone who has just seen through the trick question on a test.

And then, as the music played, I felt its spirit. I felt a shift inside me, a personal decision confirmed, a weight lifted.

The Danse Macabre was playing in the English tradition of marking a major shift by saying:

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

The “Me Generation” is Over

I am a member of what novelist Tom Wolfe called the Me Generation. I graduated from MIT Sloan in the spring of 1984. Later that year, Madonna’s Material Girl hit the charts and remained there for 17 weeks. In the spring of 1986, Ivan Boesky said this to the graduating class at Berkeley’s business school:

“I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Boesky may have been fined $100 million and subsequently imprisoned for insider trading, but his words reverberated on in business culture, and in the popular imagination. Boesky’s Berkeley commencement address was adapted by Oliver Stone as the basis for Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in the film, Wall Street.

Today’s public discourse is re-examining the role of greed in capitalism. Atlantic Magazine makes the distinction this way: although greed can do good, greed is not intrinsically good.

Back in the 1980s, it was still accepted wisdom that the purpose of the firm is to maximize profits. I looked for the exceptions, and found them among the entrepreneurial technology companies. In March of 1982, Dun’s Business Month quoted Computervision Corporation Chairman, Martin Allen, as follows:

“I want to do something for mankind, have some fun, and make a profit at the same time.“

Why were the technology firms so refreshingly different back then? As I recall, tech companies were the first to “get” the network effect. Starting with the telephone and the fax machine, technology products follow this rule: the utility of the product increases with the size of the installed base. So the technology business was always about growing the profits by growing the size of the pie.

It’s Time for the “We Generation”

Today, the magic word, “and,” has permeated the mission statement of the modern firm. Sloan Professor Zeynep Ton, author of The Good Jobs Strategy, has this to say:

“Some of the companies I admire, like Costco and Mercadona of Spain, do not have profit or shareholder maximization as their objective. They put customers, employees, suppliers, and society ahead of profits and believe that by doing so they will create more value in the long term.”

I was pleased to see new thinking featured prominently at the MIT Sloan 100th Anniversary Symposium, held the Saturday of Reunion weekend.

MIT Sloan at 100

In the mid 1980s, we had Dean Abraham Siegel organizing and incenting Sloan Students to follow the golden rule. Today, should you wander into a classroom, you’ll likely see this on a poster:

“The Mission of The MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice.”

When I entered Sloan in the 1980s, I already felt connected to MIT because my father had attended MIT in the Navy V-12 program shortly before the end of World War II. From the first moment I laid a hand on a computer during the first week at Sloan, I was captivated by technology. At the time, I felt a personal magic in the synergy between the business school and the Institute.

At the Sloan 100th anniversary symposium, I realized how broad that bizno-tech synergy truly is. In the words of MIT President Rafael Reif:

“MIT has always been a wellspring of innovation, with many faculty and alumni entrepreneurs. But today, innovation and entrepreneurship have a new urgency – as a vital source of jobs and economic growth, as the key to accelerating progress in fields from clean energy to biomedicine, and as a pathway to deliver the fruits of our research to the world.”

And as MIT Sloan School Dean David Schmittlein puts it:

“Our partners at the four schools within MIT are developing solutions to the world’s greatest challenges such as cancer, energy independence and climate change. Critical, groundbreaking research occurs at MIT daily. Yet these advancements only lead to positive change when they are taken out of the lab or classroom and brought into the world, through successful, innovation-driven enterprises of the kind we create and develop at MIT Sloan.”

“Mens et Manus,” or head and hands, is the motto of MIT. The Sloan School of Management at 100 certainly does reflect this core purpose. After 30 years out, I see that MIT has a humanistic heart as well. The “We Generation” is here. And I am glad.

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