The second in an occasional series on the future of the baby boomers.
The baby boomers who still run most of the nation’s business, cultural, and political bastions have been slow to move out of the corner office. There’s a lot to lose: The big salary. Access and influence. Business lunches and first-class travel. Staffs waiting on their word and whim.
A changing of the guard is already underway. But as their generation begins its long goodbye after dominating American life for the past three decades, the boomers at the very top are sure to be among the last holdouts. From Patriots football coach Bill Belichick to Senator Elizabeth Warren to film director Steven Spielberg, many are already plowing ahead into their late 60s or 70s — if not beyond.
More than half of rank-and-file employees born in the 20 years after World War II have left the labor force. That’s by no means true, however, in the leadership class, where stepping aside means confronting an often uncomfortable question: “What’s next?” Boomers still hold most of the CEO jobs at top public companies, most of the seats in Congress, and most of the votes in the academy that hands out Oscars.
Yet their grip on power is growing more precarious as these high-octane players navigate — not always smoothly — a world changing all around them. The march of technology is rewriting the rules in virtually every field. Pressure is mounting for a more diverse workforce, especially in leadership ranks that remain disproportionately white and male. And a new generation is demanding a say in how organizations operate and what they stand for, pushing issues like climate change to the forefront.
“Boomer bosses have to adapt because their businesses are changing, their customers are changing, and their employees are changing,” said workplace consultant Lindsey Pollak, 47, author of “The Remix,” a book about the new multigenerational workplace. “They have to keep up with the zeitgeist. If not, they can become irrelevant.”
The twin shocks of the long pandemic and the outrage over racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s killing have redoubled the momentum for leadership to evolve, pushing more boomer bosses toward the door. For a generation whose youngest members turned 57 this year, COVID-19 forced some to ponder their own mortality — and how much longer they want to work.
Boomer leaders at four of Boston’s legendary teaching hospitals stepped down over the past 14 months. Peter Slavin, 63, who retired as president of Massachusetts General Hospital in September, said he’d been considering the move before the pandemic, but the outbreak of coronavirus was no time to step aside. Now, he said, he’s ready to start a “second chapter” of his career.
The widespread call for police reforms that followed Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has been especially challenging — and exhausting — for law enforcement leaders. Newton’s police chief, David MacDonald, 57, was among nearly 100 chiefs across Massachusetts who called it quits during the past year amid street protests and heightened scrutiny in their cities and towns.
“I knew I couldn’t get work done in that environment,” MacDonald said. “People in this day and age aren’t satisfied with incremental progress.”
The clamor for change has taken a toll on boomer politicians, too. Anger over dysfunction in Washington has fueled the rise of youthful insurgents, such as 32-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who knocked off a boomer member of the House leadership in 2018, and Jon Ossoff, 34, who defeated a boomer incumbent in Georgia early this year to flip the Senate to the Democrats.
In Massachusetts, former congressman Michael Capuano, 69, was favored to win an 11th term in 2018. But the progressive Democrat was tripped up by Ayanna Pressley, 47, who ran on the slogan of “change can’t wait” to become the only Black member of the state’s delegation. Capuano said he may no longer be in tune with the electorate.
“I can’t twist myself into a pretzel just to get elected,” Capuano said. “I’m not interested in changing enough to do today’s politics. ... It’s other people’s turn, and I wish them the best.”
Boomers who hang on to leadership positions have learned to embrace calls for change, or are looking at their missions differently. Senator Ed Markey, 75, fended off a rival more than three decades his junior by trumpeting his environmental bona fides and striking alliances with young firebrands like Ocasio-Cortez.
Andrew Dreyfus, 63, has marbled social activism into his role as chief executive of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. The health insurer recently launched a program to pay doctors more if they close persistent gaps in care for people of color. Dreyfus admitted he sometimes hears “impatience and the undercurrent of an accusation” from the young about a mound of unaddressed problems being left for them.
A Boston Globe survey found that boomers continue to hold most of the top posts at some key power centers, but their numbers are shrinking. And many of their successors are not only younger but more diverse in their gender, racial background, and outlook.
Boomers now claim 13 of the CEO positions at the 25 largest public companies in Massachusetts, down from 18 five years ago. Nationally, the ranks of boomers reigning over the top 100 giants on the Fortune 500 list have tumbled from 82 to 67 in the same span.
A parade of high-profile boomer departures picked up speed locally in recent weeks as John Maraganore, 59, CEO of Cambridge biotech Alnylam; Steve Kaufer, 58, cofounder of Needham travel website Tripadvisor; Al Sandrock, 64, chief medical officer at drugmaker Biogen in Cambridge; and John Van Siclen, 65, CEO of Waltham software intelligence firm Dynatrace, all announced retirements.
Despite the election of Joe Biden, 79, to the presidency last year, political leadership is also trending younger — and away from boomers. Before Biden, there’d been four consecutive members of the generation born between 1946 and 1964 presiding over the nation.
Boston just elected its first millennial mayor in Michelle Wu, 36, the city’s youngest leader in a century and 18 years younger than the last elected mayor, Martin J. Walsh. Wu modeled the ambitious and multitasking approach of many younger leaders when she assured election night supporters, “We don’t have to choose between generational change and keeping the street lights on.”
In the US House of Representatives, the number of boomer members has fallen from 276 to 230 since 2016 while, in Massachusetts, the number of boomers in Congress dropped from seven to five. The US Senate, however, has trended toward antiquity, with five members over 80 and just one under 40. Its boomer contingent has increased, from 62 to 69, in five years. Both of the Massachusetts senators are boomers.
Deciding when and whether to move on can be intensely personal.
“When you’re in that corner office, you’re never really off,” said Jim Roosevelt, 76, who frequently logged 14-hour days during a decade as chief executive of Tufts Health Plan in Watertown before retiring in 2015. “You’re responsible for the business and the livelihood of hundreds of people. Sometimes you get to the point where you’ve done it long enough. And you recognize you can contribute in other ways.”
Helen Drinan, 74, delayed her departure as president of Simmons University in Boston for years to rescue the school from financial crisis even as she waged a battle against cancer that she chose to make public. “You can’t be president of one of the few remaining women’s colleges in the United States and just keep this a secret,” she said.
After guiding Simmons through the early months of the pandemic, she felt it was time to step down in June 2020 — and leave the university in the hands of her successor, Lynn Perry Wooten, a Black woman 20 years her junior whose expertise is in organizational transformation.
At biotech Vertex in Boston, Indian-born doctor Reshma Kewalramani, 48, took over as CEO last year, replacing 65-year-old Jeff Leiden, who still serves as executive chairman. The new chief has been outspoken in her support for diversity within the industry.
“You have to have people who come from different backgrounds,” Kewalramani said in a company video. “There’s no way to have this innovative way of thinking, solving problems that have never been solved before, if everyone is the same.”
The pace of change shows no signs of slowing. The next generational clash may be already unfolding in the office. Some younger employees who’ve come to prize the flexibility of working from home during the pandemic are resisting a return to the office every day, meaning older supervisors may oversee a remote workforce indefinitely.
“The boomers are wanting to return to normal, but it’s not clear what normal is now,” said Basima Tewfik, an MIT professor who teaches work and organizations. Many in the younger generations, she said, are more comfortable with change in their work lives and beyond.
The wisest course for boomer bosses is to lead with empathy, be alert to ferment in their organizations, and champion inclusiveness and collaboration, said veteran executive coach Priscilla Douglas.
Douglas, a boomer herself who’s winding down her Somerville firm, dislikes the word “retirement.” She stays involved in business and the arts through board service, while continuing to advise select clients.
“I do not consider myself retired,” she said flatly, before a recent gathering of the American Repertory Theater board in Harvard’s Radcliffe Yard. “This phase of my life is all about being ‘re-inspired.’”
An ‘adrenaline-pumping’ late career crisis
Peter Slavin was the face of the COVID-19 response at Massachusetts General Hospital last year, conferring regularly with Governor Charlie Baker and spelling out the threat on national television as sick patients piled into intensive care units.
This fall, Slavin, now a former hospital chief, has been spending afternoons at Hanscom Field in Bedford learning to pilot a Cessna.
“You need to look up at the horizon,” Slavin’s flight instructor, Nate Weinsaft, advised him as they sat in the cockpit.
Slavin had little time to consider his next act during his 18 years as Mass. General’s president. He worked to address health disparities and expand the reach of the nation’s largest research hospital while steering it through a series of crises. The last was the most brutal.
In late December 2019, he began hearing worrisome reports. His infectious disease and emergency preparedness teams were tracking “a very contagious and lethal respiratory virus” emerging on the other side of the world, he recalled. “They thought it had the potential to become a problem not only in China but more broadly.”
Two months later, sick Biogen executives who attended a conference at a Boston hotel were turning up at the Mass. General emergency room asking for COVID-19 tests. “We knew the disease had arrived here in Boston, so we needed to swing into action,” Slavin said.
Slavin, who grew up in Malden and worked at Mass. General for almost his entire career, drew on lessons from past crises — the stream of burn victims from the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., the gravely injured at the Boston Marathon bombing. But the pandemic was unique, both in its grinding intensity and its toll on patients and staff alike.
“The adrenaline was pumping,” Slavin said. “When the chips were down, the people at this hospital responded.”
Before the coronavirus surges had abated, a roster of boomer chiefs at Boston’s teaching hospitals — Betsy Nabel, 69, at Brigham & Women’s; Sandra Fenwick, 71, at Boston Children’s; Michael Apkon, 61, at Tufts Medical Center; and Slavin himself — had handed their jobs to younger successors (though some are also boomers). So did medical leaders elsewhere in the state, along with scores of front-line doctors and nurses.
Even before the crisis, Slavin said, he’d contemplated retiring. Now his hospital was in the midst of a $3 billion fund-raising campaign, a $1.9 billion building project, and a clinical integration with Brigham & Women’s and other hospitals that would bring a loss of autonomy.
While he has supported the consolidation strategy, Slavin concluded that a younger hospital president should see that and all of the multiyear projects through to completion.
Slavin delayed announcing his retirement. But his final crisis at the hospital made him realize “that if I was going to have another chapter, given the fragility of my life and my own mortality, I needed to do it sooner rather than later.”
In politics, a generational challenge
Mike Capuano is trying to put his primary defeat behind him and live life at a normal pace. He served 10 terms in Congress, representing his home town of Somerville and parts of Boston and Cambridge. Then he was upset by Pressley, a Boston city councilor who shared most of his policy views but was able to mobilize younger first-time voters.
Today, the ex-congressman, who’ll turn 70 in January, works half time as a business lobbyist for law firm Foley & Lardner. He’s rebuilt a stairway in his basement, puttered on the golf course, and spent time with his family at a vacation home near Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.
“I sit out on my porch and have a glass of wine at the end of the day,” he said in an interview. “The pace of my life is much slower and I like it. ... All of a sudden I realized I don’t have to go to every chicken barbecue.”
Capuano said the district he represented for two decades has changed. He acknowledged he’s not in step with today’s identity politics and worries about the nation’s growing polarization. “I know who and what I am,” he said. “I consider myself a good solid progressive liberal, but I’m not a socialist. ... I didn’t want to be a 70-year-old hippie.”
On Capitol Hill in Washington, meanwhile, Senator Ed Markey is still racing to meetings, negotiating with colleagues on climate change measures. He invited Ocasio-Cortez to lunch in the Senate dining room soon after her election, and they cosponsored the Green New Deal that became a centerpiece of Markey’s reelection campaign. The senator said he isn’t interested in scaling back now because “you need a mission.”
Markey, who’s kept all his Red Sox ticket stubs from the “Impossible Dream” season, can seem like a throwback to an earlier era. But he’s proved to be a remarkably durable politician, joining fellow Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders of Vermont in a small den of liberal lions who speak the language of a younger generation.
Acutely aware of that generation’s impatience, Markey beat back a 41-year-old challenger, former representative Joe Kennedy III, in a closely watched primary last year. He did so by appealing to younger voters as a fellow activist and “disrupter” who’s been legislating for decades on the same issues that consume them.
“The tactics might change, but the issues that resonate — climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and justice — haven’t changed,” Markey said. “It’s always been the agenda of young people.”
Many gave Markey long odds against a fresh-faced challenger, and a member of the Kennedy dynasty to boot. Markey, however, said he never saw it that way, reminding voters of his days as a mop-haired young congressman railing against the status quo. In the end, he benefited from a turnout of young voters — two-thirds of college students cast ballots in 2020, many motivated by issues like climate change and racial justice.
“The experts, the pundits, the cognoscenti all decided that I couldn’t win because they were using the wrong frame to look at the race,” Markey said. “As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, ‘It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas’ that are important. And in that race, I was the youngest guy.”
A police chief ‘second-guessed and scrutinized’
More than four years into David MacDonald’s tenure as Newton’s police chief, the shocks hit. First came COVID-19, “the backdrop to everything,” he said. Then came the uproar over race and policing.
Things got tense in the spring of 2020 as Newton, like cities across the country, grappled with Black Lives Matter protests and struggled to come to terms with the reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd, a Black man. MacDonald backed police reforms. He thought Floyd’s murder by a white Minneapolis officer was “unconscionable,” saying “people of color get the short end of the stick” too often.
But an incident in Newton that came to light in the weeks after Floyd’s killing engulfed the city’s police — and MacDonald — in controversy. Five officers had stopped a Black resident, a former Northeastern deputy athletic director named Tim Duncan, at gunpoint while searching for a suspect in a fatal Boston shooting. Duncan spoke publicly about the encounter, but it took more than two weeks — and prodding from MacDonald — before police filed their field report.
Detectives apologized to Duncan. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller issued a statement denouncing “systemic racism” in society. “Newton is not immune,” she wrote, “and the Newton Police Department is not immune.”
MacDonald, who grew up in Newton and rose through the ranks after joining the department in 1993, was named police chief in 2015 by Setti Warren, the city’s first Black mayor, and immediately started building bridges. He created a post of community outreach officer to stay in touch with all parts of the city, and brought in students of color from local colleges like Pine Manor and Lasell as department interns.
Now he was being grilled at meetings by council members he saw as “grandstanding” while a citizens group called for defunding his department. One council member, citing a move to disband the Camden, N.J., police force, asked why that couldn’t be done in Newton. MacDonald was dumbstruck; his department handled about 32,000 police calls a year and got fewer than a dozen civilian complaints.
MacDonald said city officials who offered words of support in private conversations remained silent when his department was being criticized. “While we were being second-guessed and scrutinized, I had nobody publicly coming out and saying anything in my defense,” he said.
Soon after Fuller became mayor, she canceled preliminary planning for a new police headquarters, something MacDonald supported. Then, on a Sunday night in June, the mayor told him that she was cutting funds out of a line item in the police budget to fund a reform task force.
That was the last straw for MacDonald. Two days later, he resigned, ending a contract that would have expired at the end of next year. Mayor Fuller said she was surprised when MacDonald gave his notice. But she conceded “this was a very difficult time to be a police chief.”
MacDonald wasn’t alone. Ninety-eight police chiefs in the state have stepped down over the past year, more than triple the total in previous years, according to the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. Many, like MacDonald, are younger boomers who took early retirement.
The former Newton chief now spends much of his time working on projects around the house and helping his mother and in-laws with chores. He said he’s considering his next step, whether to return to running a police department or working in some other capacity.
“I have too much training and experience to sit on the sidelines,” he said.
For boomer bosses, ‘retirement is a transition’
Priscilla Douglas studied organizational behavior at Harvard. She was a White House fellow, worked at General Motors with quality guru W. Edward Deming, and helped Xerox shift from an analog to a digital business. Then she became an entrepreneur, running a successful executive coaching firm in Somerville for the past two decades.
But like many boomer leaders, Douglas — who’s also an art lover, scuba diver, and world traveler — recoils from the traditional idea of retirement. She belts out the line “I’m not dead yet” from Monty Python. While she began scaling back in 2017, she’s retained a corps of smaller clients and serves as a director on nonprofit boards.
Douglas doesn’t give her age, explaining that “people discriminate,” but she identifies proudly as a boomer. “Retirement is a transition,” she said. “The key is the capacity to reinvent and reimagine who you are.”
Born in Cambridge, she was raised on a pig farm in Bedford, the youngest of six children and the only girl. She tended the vegetable garden and helped with chores, while also taking piano and dance lessons and spending hours in the library.
Rather than climb a single ladder, Douglas pursued an eclectic career, from special assistant to FBI Director William Webster to a Cabinet secretary for consumer affairs under former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld to a Vertex vice president for learning and development.
She brought to each role the perspective of an outsider who could spot opportunities or flaws in policies or strategies. “It has to do with how you see the world,” said Douglas. “If you have that [outside] perspective, you have the capacity to see things and figure things out that others don’t.”
Ultimately, she jumped off the corporate merry-go-round and launched her own firm, P.H. Douglas & Associates, coaching senior executives at Fortune 500 companies. Her approach was to help clients gain clarity and move forward. “I don’t care what the root of the problem is,” she said. “I care about what you want to do” and how to achieve it.
Douglas, who divides her time between Somerville and Martha’s Vineyard, has been trying to downshift in recent years to allow herself more time to travel overseas.
Her wanderlust took a pause during the pandemic, but the lockdown enabled her to finish writing a book, “Woke Leadership,” published earlier this year. Drawing on lessons from her own career and leaders she’s met along the way, Douglas points toward a new era of leadership that is “alert and attending to important issues of social and racial justice.”
Can the boomers create a path to that era? Douglas thinks her generation has left a mixed legacy of greater opportunity and unfinished business. But she believes boomer leaders who are enlightened still have a role to play. “They don’t have to move aside if they’re not old school,” she said. “They can share their wisdom and give back.”
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.