On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity

On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity
On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity

Citizens of Everywhere: Searching for Identity in the Age of Brexit” is the story of how a Jewish couple (Peter’s grandparents) fled Nazi Germany, made a home in the United Kingdom, and how their daughter’s son came to re-embrace his German identity. It’s also the story of our colleague, Peter, the author of the book and current editorial director of McKinsey Global Institute. We sat down with Peter to learn more about him and his path to and through the firm.

How did you end up at McKinsey?

I started as a journalist out of college, and I was lucky enough to find my way into a career that hardly exists anymore—as a foreign correspondent. I was in Moscow in the late 80s, Berlin in the mid-90s. London, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, New York, Los Angeles… I’ve had a fantastic life.

What were some highlights?

I was particularly lucky that one of my first assignments was being sent to Moscow during the final years of Communism—the reporting I did there set me on an incredible path. I was also a bureau chief in Los Angeles for years, and in that position, I got invited to some Hollywood parties, including the Oscars.

How did you get from Hollywood to McKinsey Global Institute?

On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity
On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity

I wrote a few books first, including a best-seller on French education. But there are similarities between my life as a reporter and my life at MGI. In both cases, I’ve worked on deeply reported, well-researched, carefully written and edited reports I hope have a big impact. The biggest difference is now I’m not the one doing the research—I’m helping teams take what they’ve found, shape the narrative, refine the messaging, and launch it into the world. I am happy I still get to learn new things all the time.

On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity
On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity

Of which MGI reports are you most proud?

It’s hard to pick. The first automation report would be one. It laid the groundwork for our subsequent Future of Work reports, and it helped change the conversation from alarmism about how all jobs are supposedly going to be done by robots to something more nuanced about how different activities within jobs might be affected.

On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity
On Brexit, Hollywood, and national identity

Another would be our recent report on climate risk. It’s an incredibly complicated subject, and we had to be accurate about the science, accessible to a general reader, and mindful about different audiences. I worked on it with my editor colleague, Anna, and when we did get it out, it had a huge impact. It was a strong statement by McKinsey to identify climate risk as a big issue for the business community.

Let’s get back to your book. What made you write it?

The starting point was my decision to acquire a new European nationality after the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016. I live in Paris and, as a British citizen, I would have faced bureaucratic hassles to continue working here after Britain withdrew from the European Union. I also would have lost my freedom of movement across the rest of the European Union.

There was a deeper and personal reason, too. My grandparents were stripped of their German nationality when they fled Nazi Germany in 1939, and, under the postwar German constitution, I was eligible to apply for German citizenship. Doing so meant closing an 80-year cycle of family history and that required a lot of soul-searching.

I took a close look at myself and my values, as well as the reality of Germany and Britain today. The exercise was well worth the effort. I have brought closure to a part of my family history that was so painful it remained taboo for many years. At the same time, it gave me a better understanding of the changing nature of identity in our digital age, and made me appreciate all the more the values of freedom, tolerance, and justice that my grandparents yearned for in their darkest hours.

In your book, you recount hearing a Brexit-era political speech with the line, “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” I assume your book’s title is a negation of this idea?

National identity is still very important. My argument is that it is less defining than it once was. More and more people have multiple identities related to themes and issues that transcend geography, including race and gender. The idea of citizenship, then, can become more about shared values than shared geography.

How has that idea played out in your own life?

I inherited a sense of identity which was precarious and delicate. My grandparents thought they were completely German until suddenly they weren’t. I grew up thinking I was completely British, then Brexit left me feeling abandoned and, in a sense, orphaned. While my nationality was and still is British, I live in Paris and have a heritage which is German. My conviction is therefore more European. To me, this is a reason to return to my German roots and look for those shared values that transcend national borders.

Any parting thoughts?

One of the great cliched phrases in journalism is, “Things will never be the same again.” For once, I think it’s true. We are at an inflection point, coming out of a traumatic year/year-and-a-half which has affected people in many different ways. It’s a moment during which many of us are discovering or rediscovering what is important. For me, writing this essay was important.

Never miss another post

Receive new stories once a week directly in your inbox