Ardern puts heat on NZ’s ‘frozen middle’

Last Thursday a 72-year-old man used his time at NZ's most-watched-podium to make an extraordinary ideological statement and, it seems, to swing a hammer at what has felt like a layer of thick ice between New Zealand as it is and New Zealand as it will be.

"Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today's capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe” said Winston Peters.

"That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible - its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations."

In making these remarks, Peters joined Dame Anne Salmond and Jim Bolger as elder statespeople calling time on neo-liberalism. In making the call to go into coalition with Labour, he propelled Jacinda Ardern, a 37-year old woman, to NZ's top political role.

In an odd twist for our country and maybe Peters himself, he became a catalyst for a new generation of political leadership and a new kind of thinking.

Ardern is the first of her generation to hold the office of Prime Minister, and her ascension is symbolic of more than the ideology she represents as a member of the Labour Party or the ideological disenchantment Bolger and Peters refer to.

Ardern, like me, sits on the cusp of latest of the late Gen Xers and the Millennial generations. We both grew up in the Waikato and may have battled against each other at the finest of sporting events for nerds, interschool debating. Ardern is not only the first political leader whom I can refer to as a peer and a contemporary but one of the first leaders across any sector who is more like me than not. And that is exciting, not just because my generation now has a PM in its number but because, as Salmond says, ‘it marks a changing of the guard between generations, and a time to try out new ideas.’

In part, Ardern comes equipped to try out new ideas simply by virtue of what being her age means. The New Zealand she grew up in, what she learned at school and the changes she has observed are all markedly different to that of her predecessors English, Key and Clark. She has lived almost half her life in the 21st century and the future is less likely to look like The Jetsons in her head and more like driverless cars.

Maile Carnegie, Group Executive, Digital Banking at ANZ bank recently shared her views on what it takes to shift a legacy business into the 21st century at a symposium in Sydney earlier this year. While I have never been a fan of equating government with business, I can’t help but refer to her use of the term ‘the frozen middle’ in reference to businesses struggling to adapt in the context of New Zealand right now.

Having friends who are renters won’t be unusual to this PM and the desire to use public transport rather than drive will be something she’ll understand.

Within business, the frozen middle is a layer of middle management who Carnegie says “are no longer experts in a craft, and who have graduated from doing to managing and basically bossing other people around and shuffling Powerpoints.”

The frozen middle is the most conservative layer in the organisation and the most resistant to change. Individuals within the ‘frozen middle’ will choose the safety of the tried-and-true over inventiveness and ingenuity. Carnegie names tackling the ‘frozen middle’ as one of the greatest challenges business leaders must face.

“The frozen middle will resist change like death," she says.

For a lot of my career, it has felt like being a part of my generation was akin to being underneath that frozen middle and waiting for it to crack or lightly thaw. Like many people of my age, I have spent a lot of time convincing people older than me that social media wasn’t a fad, that same-sex marriage wasn’t going to be the end of the world, that using basic Te Reo in signage or speeches shouldn’t be optional, and that consumers did care about things like the environment and gender equality. I have spent a lot of time arguing for evolution and adaption knowing that what they regarded as contestable was, in fact, a fait accompli. I have expended a lot of energy in essentially being told to accept the things I cannot change while watching them become inevitable.

No one is going to have to explain social media to Ardern. Facebook, Netflix, Uber and Airbnb will all be well-embedded technologies used by the PM’s peers as opposed to reasons you call your kids - and Ardern’s contemporaries have probably all had mobile phones for at least 15 years.

Having friends who are renters won’t be unusual to this PM and the desire to use public transport rather than drive will be something she’ll understand. There will be no ambiguity from this PM about same-sex marriage or whether climate change is a real threat. Ardern will be a PM that will attempt to correctly use Māori language because that is the right thing to do, and Guyon Espiner speaking Te Reo on RNZ won’t just be a good thing, but a normal thing.

Our government will look more like the New Zealand we live in than ever before because diverse representation will be a norm, not an exception.

Winston Peters - an unlikely but effective ally to New Zealanders seeking generational change in the corridors of power. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Accepting these things as the status quo and not contestable ideas isn’t ideological, it’s generational and it’s a prerequisite to being able to move conversations and ideas on from where they’ve been languishing in the change-resistant frozen middle. With Ardern as Prime Minster there is hope and optimism, and it’s about more than policy or ideology. There is a new generation feeling empowered to make change and there is now space for us to have the conversations we need to have; conversations that are different from the ones we’ve been having for the last 30 years.

I owe much of this week’s column to being able to have some of those new conversations with friends over eggs and many pots of coffee on Saturday. One of those friends sent me a text on Sunday with a quote from Dr. Angela Davis that she described as ‘maybe summing up a bit of the tipping point I was trying to articulate.’

‘I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.’

I think that quote more than maybe sums up the tipping point we’re at. The gap between New Zealand as it is and New Zealand as it will be has shrunk somewhat as a new generation steps up and, oddly enough, we owe some thanks to a pre-Boomer politician called Winston.

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