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Mar 5, 2012

Wisdom of the 'retirees'

Once more, a wealthy-turned-do-gooder: David Blood, in a previous life CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, is now preaching for a sustainable capitalism. Together with Al Gore he initiated Generation Investment Management, offering an alternative to the financial markets’ tendency for short-term thinking. It might be a case of wisdom comes with age. And I wouldn’t deny Blood any genuine worries about the state of our globe. Besides sustainability is a trendy topic, and Blood won’t lose any credits among his peers to jump on the bandwagon of business larded with environmental and social consciousness – though, I would say, the verdict is still out as to how sustainable their capitalism really is.

Blood’s turn stands in a long tradition of wealthy and successful entrepreneurs embracing philanthropy and the good cause – often, like Blood, after they have become rich with business practices that didn’t necessarily withhold the scrutiny of sustainability, labour rights, poverty alleviation, et cetera. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and, nowadays, Bill Gates and George Soros are just a few examples. These seemingly contradictory practices between business without social consciousness and a ‘retirement’ filled with moral often puzzles me – the same goes for numerous politicians, driven by political power games during their term in office, but supporting the good cause after their ‘active’ career. Why wasn’t their any activism in earlier years? Why didn’t employees and customers equally share in their financial success? Would that have been an impossible task? Once more, people may change their opinions over time. We all learn by doing, after all. But the more I think about the wealthy-turned-do-gooders the more I wonder whether the explanation also lies elsewhere. Maybe they just didn’t dare to express a different – and more sustainable – approach earlier in their careers. In order to not stand out they dared not to go against the mainstream, against the pursuit to make a profit and obtain power. In hope for success, all they could was adapt to the general (business) morale. But once established and financially independent, confidence followed – to think independently and follow their heart. A question of courage, really. This is a pity, because I think society and the environment would benefit much more from people, who during their careers combine powerful ideas with a social consciousness – and not after they have cashed in and contributed their fair share to the problems they now try to solve.

 

Update (18 March 2012): Greg Smith’s lambasting of Goldman Sachs’ culture, after he had worked there for 12 years, made me think. ‘Retirement wisdom’ comes apart from a lack of courage at a younger age also from a shortage of seeing things differently. In an insightful analysis about Goldman Sachs’ long history of fooling its clients, William D. Cohan illustrates this perfectly: ‘[p]erhaps Smith’s youthful enthusiasm to join Goldman Sachs and become part of Wall Street’s elite blinded him to the firm’s history. For all the venom he has now focused on Goldman, he probably drank the Kool-Aid for most of his time there …’ Hence, a young (wo)man’s dream to establish a career, to be successful and to gain status makes him/her not only a coward in questioning the ‘unquestionable’ but actually blinds him/her for seeing the ‘questionable’.





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