What’s with the age disparity among speechwriters?

Money, mortgages and kids account for the age difference between political speechwriters and executive communicators.

“Yes, political speechwriters generally are young,” said President Carter’s former speechwriter James Fallows, in a recent interview with Ragan.com.

Despite the lack of hard data, several current and former political speechwriters echoed this sentiment, while corporate speechwriters made a similar observation: Generation Y isn’t writing speeches for the C-suite.

So are the maturing corporate speechwriters void of the idealism necessary for composing stirring political rhetoric?

Hardly, speechwriters insisted. The age disparity is less about ideals and more about job security, as well as hours, money and climbing the corporate ladder.

The hours are unbelievable

Former political speechwriters insisted long hours often deter older, more experienced speechwriters from working for campaigning or elected officials.

“Political speechwriters are generally younger because the hours are unbelievable,” Fallows, an editor at The Atlantic magazine, told Ragan.com over e-mail. “They are simply better adapted to the circumstances of a campaign (bad food, no sleep, no pay, etc.).”

At age 26, Fallows started writing for the Carter campaign and subsequently joined his administration. He left the Carter White House at 27.

“Unbelievable hours” means they’re not only long, but unpredictable. Sixteen-hour days are common for speechwriters working in the political arena; nights, weekends and holidays are part of the job.

While executive communicators don’t necessarily work a strict eight-hour day, and are often at the whim of their VP or CEO, corporate hours are usually less crushing than political campaigns or even working for elected officials.

Take Bob Lehrman, for example; he was Al Gore’s chief speechwriter from 1993 to 1995. Instead of attending his own 50th birthday party, Lehrman spent the weekend writing a speech for Vice President Gore on the sanctity of fatherhood.

“As people have families they want to get home at a reasonable hour,” he said. “You want to be able to coach soccer practice and take kids to the zoo—not get stuck in the office doing one more draft at midnight as happened to me many times … .”

Although Lehrman continued political work into his 50s, he now writes speeches for the CEO of Pfizer and the workload, as he said, is much more reasonable. He plans to leave that post to finish a book on writing a political speech.

Money, mortgage and kids

More than the hours, though, Lehrman insists the age difference stems mostly from money. He said, for example, “A speechwriter for a committee chair in the Senate might make $40,000 or $50,000 a year. A speechwriter for the CEO of even a medium Fortune 500 company might make $250,000.

“This is important as people begin to have kids, and mortgages.”

Children and mortgages were popular reasons among political speechwriters for, if not abandoning speechwriting altogether, diversifying into executive communications.

Fallows mentioned it; so did Mike Long, former speechwriter to then Congressman Fred Thompson, who said: “It’s a low-dollar thing—a great experience builder—and only something that a young man with no dependents can afford to do for very long.”

Political speechwriting might pay poorly, but Long insists the job provides great experience. “If you’re going to make any money in the private sector as a writer it’s awfully helpful to have spent some time in government,” he said.

Long now teaches speechwriting at Georgetown University and for Ragan Communications; he’s also director of the White House Writer’s Group.

Speechwriting is not a job

Speaking of mortgages and kids, the low job security in politics isn’t very attractive to writers with dependents.

“For many people on a campaign, speechwriting is not a job,” Fallows said. “It’s a risk/dare/gamble. That is, for each person who ends up as the campaign speechwriter for Obama or McCain, there were 10 others who signed on with Romney, Dodd, Edwards, Biden, Giuliani and so on.”

If you’re not in a position to take risks, then political speechwriting is dangerous.

“Somebody with a family to support, in his or her 30s, 40s or 50s, is in a worse position to take a big risk with a campaign than someone in his or her 20s,” Fallows said.

Why not Generation Y?

Long hours, bad pay and slim job security keep older writers from politics, but what keeps young speechwriters from the C-suite?

“Within the corporate structure you are promoted based on longevity,” explained John Watkis, a corporate speechwriter and executive coach. “For that reason you really aren’t going to find [a GenYer] who is … writing speeches for executives at large corporations.”

People usually have a large degree of experience—whether it’s in public relations or communications—before they’re writing speeches at the top levels for an executive, he said. “In the corporations, there’s a hierarchy or ladder you have to climb, whereas politicians don’t really care so long as you can get the job done.”

Watkis has written speeches for corporations and nonprofit groups for the past 18 years.

Long said to remember also that trying to get a job for speechwriters is like auditioning for a friend. “In most cases the persons wants someone they can sit down with, have a conversation and be understood by.”

Older executives may feel more comfortable conversing with someone closer to their own age than writers their sons or daughters’ age.

Climbing the corporate ladder

It took Ian Griffin, a speechwriter at Hewlett-Packard, nearly 20 years to work his way into the position. Griffin didn’t come from politics, he sneaked into corporate communication with an engineering background and worked his way through various communication positions at Sun Microsystems, and seven years ago started writing speeches for executives, including Sun’s CEO. Today Griffin works at HP and writes for the company’s head of HP Labs.

“I’ve been a corporate employee for 25, 30 years,” Griffin said, “and I’m over 50, so I’m in the gray-haired end of the spectrum.”

The average age of HP speechwriters is somewhere around 45, he said. In his experience, Generation Y is not represented among C-suite speechwriters.

“The [corporate] speechwriters I know in Silicon Valley have experience with communications, maybe journalism or PR,” Griffin explained.

Writers have to climb the corporate ladder to breach the C-suite, he continued. These communicators usually stay with the company for a while and learn the lingo and culture, and then, after some time, are appointed to speechwriter.

There are, of course, exceptions; Watkis said the VP at a large auto company just hired a speechwriter in his 20s.

“The mix is definitely there, it’s just that you will find, more often than not, if there is a promotion in larger corporation it is given to people in the industry longer,” he said.
How to break into executive communications

Thinking about executive communications? Whether you’re young or old, here are some tips from John Watkis for jumping into it.

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