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June, 2008

Young People

It's time to think about young people and what they mean again. So says the media, from what I gather. However, I'm noticing a change in tone around this subject this year that has got me thinking.

Where a story a few years ago about Millennials entering the workplace (then with a front edge barely pushing 25) included some fresh observation and (cautious) optimism, this year seems to be telling a more combative and cynical story:

"It's graduation time and once again we say 'Stand back all bosses!' a new breed of American worker is attacking everything you hold sacred."

Those words came from Morley Safer in his intro to the recent 60 Minutes report on the Millennials. The segment then dove into some dialogue that didn't paint a very pleasant picture:

Morley Safer: Take me through some of the do's and don'ts about how you must speak to this generation of young workers. Expert: You do have to speak to them a little bit like a therapist on television might speak to a patient.

Add to this the little debate going around a few weeks ago triggered by the Radar post titled "Generation Slap: They're naive, self-important, and perpetually plugged in. This is a call to arms against Millennials."

Here's the little story I'm picking up on: Millennials have reached critical mass in the workplace (front edge 27ish now), are exerting some real power and influence on business and culture, have more like-minded folks coming in behind them that amplify their perspectives, and now, according to some folks, it's time to get defensive.

I'm bit hesitant in the first place to draw this type of line between "clashing generations," because I don't think there is actually a line, and the differences that exist tend to be exaggerated. I agree for the most part with Anastasia's thoughts on the matter: that young people aren't fundamentally that different from other generations. I think a lot of what we hear about young people is reactionary hype.

But I do think a key dynamic at play here might have to do with something that Adrian at Zeus Jones wrote about awhile back on how what we call the digital divide is really a human values one, not a technological one, since "technology shapes behavior which shapes thinking." It's worth reading the values he lays out (open, supportive, optimists, value the process, reject authority etc). Seen this way, the 60 Minutes piece seems more about a clash between digital thinkers and non-digital thinkers. Maybe the so called problems employers are facing with challenges to authority and strong attitudes on how to do things better is actually just that: a better approach.

That leads me to the observation Clay Shirky makes near the end of "Here Comes Everybody" -- that many of the examples in his book feature young people because they are "...taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models not because they know more useful things than we do but because they know fewer useless things than we do."

In this complex story of who this generation is and what they mean, I think the biggest (and most exciting) point is missed if we don't look at everything through the lens of the changed digital communications DNA that they are the leaders of. The great upside to this, as Shirky points out, is that all generations benefit. The way young people operate and the tools they use spread everywhere. The new ways they are organizing themselves will spread everywhere (I'll be surprised if the biggest, most historic story this year is not about how young people organized themselves to vote in their choice to the White House). I think this is a healthier way to look at the situation. We can be excited that we can work and collaborate with a group that brings a fresh approach to communication, among many other things.

Chet Gulland lives in NYC and works at Anomaly.

June 2, 2008
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