Is Baby Boomer Leno Lost in New Workplace Economy?

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Jay Leno’s statement Monday about his take on NBC’s late night schedule debacle confirms it. The potential return of the veteran host to a post-prime time slot, and its consequential upheaval of Conan O’Brien, are nothing more than parts of a high-profile intergenerational workplace conflict.

(Read Conan vs. Jay: Gen X vs. Boomers in the Workplace)

Jay LenoLeno addressed his audience on last night’s “The Jay Leno Show,” saying that the network told him five years ago that they were going to promote O’Brien to “The Tonight Show” host. Leno didn’t like the plan, but went along with it.

When the time came to pass the baton in 2009, Leno asked to be released from his NBC contract. But the network said they wanted to keep Leno on their airwaves and created the soon-to-be-defunct nightly prime time show. Leno said he never liked the idea of a daily 10pm show, but went along with the network’s plans, trusting that the show’s rating would improve when competing networks began airing repeats in that same time slot.

Low ratings and affiliate pressures (i.e. higher-than-expected revenue losses) led to the network canceling “The Jay Leno Show” and offering the host a half-hour late-night show, just before O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.” Again, Leno says he was skeptical, but went along with his employers’ plan.

O’Brien, of course, was not OK with the plan and has since announced his refusal to host the “Tonight Show” if it has a later start time. Leno said he is almost certain that he will return as host of “The Tonight Show.” O’Brien’s on-air future has not been announced.

Leno is a good example of a Baby Boomer trying to navigate a workplace and an economy that has drastically changed over the years.

Leno, like millions of other American workers, grew up in a “vertical economy,” where most employees worked for one company for a long time, systematically moving up the ladder. The loyal employee was rewarded with promotions, higher pay, and the respect of his employer.

But that is no longer the world economy in which we do business.

We are now in a “dynamic economy,” where workers gain knowledge and status by moving from project to project, and often from company to company. Employers are more likely to reward employees for having specialized skills than for longevity — even during layoffs. (The Center for American Progress explains vertical and dynamic economies in its report about working learners.)

So what does this mean for an employee like Leno, who makes business deals with a handshake (he said he has no agent or manager) and values loyalty (one reason he took the 10pm show was to keep his 175-person staff employed)? It means that he is playing by a different set of rules than his employer.

Leno, who understands the business side of television as well as anyone, knows that his job security is tied to ratings and advertising revenue. It seems, however, that Leno was expecting a bit more respect from NBC management for what he has done for the network.

He’s not wrong. Leno does deserve more respect than what NBC brass is allegedly showing him. O’Brien also deserves better treatment.

NBC is part of a dynamic economy, and they have to exercise one of the most important pieces of this new employer-employee relationship: employee freedom.

NBC brass used their power to create and cancel shows, affecting Leno and O’Brien’s employment, as well as that of hundreds of behind-the-scenes staff people. But the network is not playing fair by not releasing  Leno or O’Brien from their contracts or quickly letting them renegotiate.

Keep in mind that neither the Leno nor O’Brien households will miss any meals, or have to skip paying any bills, no matter how this plays out. That does not mean, however, that neither man forfeits his right to manage his own career.

If O’Brien would rather be on another network at 10pm (FOX, hello?) than on NBC at 12:05, then let him go. Likewise, if Leno would rather leave the talk show circuit for another type of show (American version of “Top Gear,” please!), then let him.

As a fan, I’m with Coco. But as a career advisor, my heart goes out to Leno, and all the other Boomers out there trying to make it in this new world order.

Keep looking up,