Why Gen Y should talk about politics at work

It was a committee meeting, and a CEO was using the coldest-Wisconsin-winter-ever as proof that global warming didn’t exist. I had to leave the room so I wouldn’t explode with the news that global warming creates weather extremes, not just a general warming.

Such a small thing years ago, but I think about it constantly because it’s one of the few times I haven’t spoken up.

More recently, Maria Antonia and I had planned to go to a local political fundraiser, and she cancelled at the last minute. Her boss thought it was a bad idea since we are both semi-public figures and should remain neutral.

And then at my family reunion just this past weekend, we weren’t allowed to discuss politics or religion. Out on the patio, I secretly tried to goad one of my uncles into telling me who he was voting for, but silent he remained. Instead, we talked about the weather.

Business Week’s Bruce Weinsten argues in his ethics column that mum should be the word on politics, especially at work. Apparently, speaking up can bring you down career-wise.

“Along with sex, money, and religion, politics is one of the most controversial topics of conversation that exists,” he states. “We talk about sex with our closest friends (with whom we probably would not even discuss our income), but this kind of conversation is wisely held after business hours. Neither your salary nor your sex life is anyone’s business at the office.”

Except that Generation Y’s rituals fly in the face of Weinsten’s fearsome foursome.

As products of the Sex and the City generation, Belle and I openly discuss sex, but we also openly discuss income. I know what both she and her fiancé make, and they both know what I make. We know how much each of us paid for our condos, and how much debt or lack thereof, we both have.

This isn’t a trend relegated to personal relationships either. Nonprofits have routinely disclosed executive salaries as part of a law for increased accountability, and now transparent salaries are being implemented in forward-thinking companies like Brazen Careerist.

Taboo topics are quickly becoming acceptable as part of Generation Y’s demand for authenticity and transparency. Except, maybe, for politics.

Despite projections that we will define one of the most influential elections in history, in part due to online discussions facilitated by people like Tim Weaver and Milena Thomas in the Gen Y blogosphere, we still seem to be weary of expressing our opinions openly in the workplace.

 “Ultimately I’m at work to work, and I wasn’t hired to discuss my personal political opinions,” one commenter argues. Which is like saying you weren’t hired to talk about the Red Sox, the back problem you have, or the Kooks concert you went to on Thursday night. Because I’m sure people are dying to hear how you made tacos with hot sauce AND sour cream more than your informed opinion on the most important issues of today.

What we believe in and have faith in informs our work and personal lives intimately, and to say that we shouldn’t discuss them anywhere is dangerous.

“The idea that practicing any profession somehow obliges or even encourages a vow of silence on any subject, politics or otherwise, that might offend someone somewhere, is odious,” argues author John Scalzi. “Everyone should be encouraged to say what they wish to say about the important matters of the day. Everyone should feel that participation in the life of their community and their state and nation is a critical act. To do less invites ignorance and ultimately tyranny.”

And to argue otherwise is to say that the whole idea of America – a democracy where people aren’t persecuted for speaking their minds – is based on a fallacy. But it isn’t. Generation Y is just entirely too quiet and conservative.

And while voicing your opinion may invite all sorts of opinions and criticism and the chance that you might – gasp! – have to defend your beliefs, we cannot have as our legacy a production that mindlessly follows the corporate establishment.

As one of the largest generations born into idealism, we are now facing the first true test of whether we will rise or recoil in the face of adversity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a librarian or are in the most public of professions, you have enormous political power.

Years from now, when I look back and reflect, I will know that I never, ever regretted opening my mouth, only keeping it shut.

Open wide.