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Lyrically Speaking: Teach Your Parents Well

And you, of tender years
You can’t know the fears that your elders grew by
And so, please, help them with your youth
They seek the truth before they can die

Teach your parents well
Their children’s hell will slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by

From “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Between hurricanes, wildfires, floods, the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and, of course, the rapid spread of the Delta Variant, it is difficult to find positivity in the news. As with much of what has occurred since March 2020, we are compelled to find hope ourselves — not to gloss over the difficulties we face, but to cope with what feels like an uncertain future.  Whether we look at macroeconomics, public policy, market performance, social unrest, the most serious global health threat in a century, or whatever Twitter serves up as the next impending, trending argument, the future feels more uncertain — particularly for those of us who have been working as adults for the past few decades. 

Or is it?

Is the future really more uncertain than it was when my generation or my parents’ generation was coming of age?  Or does it only feel that way because many orthodoxies to which we have become accustomed are undergoing rapid change?  I believe it is the latter.  So, I am increasingly looking and listening to younger generations for guidance because I believe that they have demonstrated an incredible ability to cope and adapt rapidly to change.  And that has given me great hope.

This insight occurred to me several times over the past month.  For one, my wife and I saw our youngest child off to college.  Watching how quickly our daughter adjusted to a new life experience over this past week has been nothing short of amazing.  It was completely different than when her brothers made the exact same journey almost a decade ago — and far different from when I left home and struck out on my own a generation ago.

I credit the vast network of friends and future classmates our daughter has built over the past eight months prior to beginning college. Her generation already knows more about one another when they meet than I know about most people with whom I have been acquainted for decades.  I can only imagine what it will be like in a few years when these digitally native, expert networkers enter the workforce.

Does Covid concern the younger generation? Of course it does.  To be sure, for Millennials and Gen Z, who came of age post-9/11 and who are entering their formative professional years in the pandemic era, things are much more serious than they were for previous generations.

But my generation seems way more concerned about how Covid has “robbed them of a childhood” or “stunted their ability to adapt” than they are. I see our daughter as a prime example: a week into school and it literally feels like she has been there a year. 

On the professional front, this past month I spent time talking with a number of people in our organization under the age of 30.  These conversations covered many topics: the Cowen culture, Inclusion and Diversity, their desire to learn from senior leaders, and more.  

Many had questions about my career path — how I recognized opportunities when they presented themselves, who were my influencers and what I learned from my mentors.  In recounting my story, I realized that I was actually pretty good at adapting to change. After all, in my three-decade career on Wall Street, I have experienced four equity market “crashes,” three or four debt crises (I lost count) including the Global Financial Crisis, and countless other exogenous events that were hard to fathom before they actually occurred — 9/11 being one of the biggest. 

Many of their questions echoed what I contemplated in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The difference today is their opinions are quite well formed, and their expectations of senior leadership are way higher than mine were when I started my career.  The next generation wants to learn not only from our successes, but also from what we might have done differently along the way. 

Over the next decade this generation will be in leadership positions. In places like the exploding world of digital assets, the next generation is already disrupting.  (Just take a random walk through the metaverse if you don’t believe me.) So, if we aren’t listening to what they are saying, we are doing so at our own peril.  The good news is that, when we engage them even a little bit, they will share—and they will do so candidly. That’s who they are. And they expect authentic answers to their questions. If we don’t have them, they appreciate that honesty.  I love that.

Engaging with younger colleagues will surely teach us a thing or two. It will also give us great hope for the future.  And for those of you who are in the formative stages of your careers, speak up more often if you don’t already.  What you think and share may make a difference.  

David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young, all now in their 70s, were in their 20s when they released “Teach Your Children” in 1970.  They spoke for a large part of their generation, but their wise words are still incredibly relevant today.