Monday, August 6, 2012
What makes today's young professionals different than previous generations?

This article is neither rebuttal nor follow-up of Cathryn Sloan’s “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25,” but an investigation into the question “are today’s young professionals different than those entering the workforce 20 years ago.”

For the past decade, at least, Americans have been subject to variations of “40 is the new 30.” A mantra that is supposed to allow older people to do the things that had previously been relegated to younger people, either because their bodies were more capable, or society looked at those activities as within the province of youth.  There has been a general acceptance that in many ways, our idea of what it is to be 40—meaning both what is possible and what is acceptable—needs to change.

But few have looked at how the opposite is also true: even as 40 might be a new 30, in terms what we are physically able to do, 20 is also a new 30 in terms of what we are mentally and professionally capable of doing.  And the big driver of that is social media coupled with mobile technologies. 

In fact, there are three ways that Millennials, members of Cathryn Sloan’s generation, are correct when they say that their age belies their experience.  First, they understand networking in a much more sophisticated way than the 20-year olds of generations past.  Second, they likely already have an extensive network of many diverse people.  Third, the understand that they are responsible to their network all the time, because they are connected to it 24/7.

Understanding Networking

Cathryn is certainly correct that her generation grew up with social networks.  But the key difference is the Xers and Boomers could join valuable social networks primarily through exclusive institutions.  When my former colleague,Mark Storey, was Cathryn’s age, joining network of children of CEOs and socialites was a perk of joining prep schools as one example, or religious institutions or civic organizations.  Think St. Albans, the Junior League, or Phi Beta Kappa. 

But today, through Facebook as well as Linked In, high school and college students can curate and cultivate their own network.  They do it both online and at events that reinforce their relationships.  They can find work, projects, and new connections in ways that Mark Storey could not have.

And they do--study after study reveals that Millennials find news, events, and many other types of information through their social networks.  That is, they add a social layer to asocial media (like newspapers or government information), and appreciate friends who enrich that social layer.

It bears repeating that I am comparing 22-year old Cathryn to 22-year old Mark Storey, not today’s Cathryn to today’s Mark Storey.  But this is my point: that today’s Mark Storey must not confuse his own 22-year old self with a contemporary 22-year old.

Extensive Network

The second difference between Millennials and their predecessors is that today’s young professionals are more likely to enter the market with an extensive network of professional contacts.  If they are smart, students network with professionals from every stage in their career.

In my Linked In community, for example, one will find interns, first- and second-year professionals, people who own their own small business, and C-suite executives of mid- and large-size organizations.  By connecting with me (which I encourage people to do!), young professionals are gaining access to my network.

Of course, these activities were possible when Mark was 22, but it was much less common and much more difficult to do.  (See:St. Albans)

Persistent Connection

Another catch phrase that is currently gaining currency is “Work is what you donot where you go.”  Because today’s young professionals have always had access to data (don’t forget, the iPhone came out in 2007, when today’s college graduates were still in high school), they have been able to be constantly engaged with their social network.  To answer friends’ questions, to update plans with their parents as a day progresses, to check their calendars, their email, to tend to their twitter feed and facebook status.

And in the working world, especially for younger workers for whom flexibility is key and multitasking is essential, having been inculcated into the culture of work as a thing-you-do, as a set of tasks to be accomplished, rather than a building that you go to, is a major asset.  On the one hand, that might mean leaving the office at 5:30 to meet friends for dinner, but on the other, it means answering emails at 10 at night or 6 in the morning, because they're checking their phones anyway.

The Future Ain’t What It Was, but Neither Is the Present

Two decades ago, people may still have taken smoking breaks.  No young professional I know does that today.  But 20 year ago, few if any young professionals brought their own cell phone (and none brought a smart phone) to work, and nearly everyone does today.

If I were Cathryn’s editor, and I received her article, I would have said, “you have a great idea here: that today’s young professional is different in profound and as-yet-unexplored ways than her manager was when she entered the workforce.  But what you’ve written isn’t that article.”

Successful multi-generational workplaces need to understand the strengths of employees from various historical stages.  The experience of the Boomers, the pragmatism of Xers, the innovation of the Millennials that arises both out of their youth (which is transitory) and of the specific technological and cultural climate of their age (which is not).

The future of work looks very different than it did 20 years ago.  We are still, as some of my colleagues like to say, “in the first pitch of the first inning” in the social media game.  Mobility has barely begun to reshape the professional landscape, but already we see the tectonic shifts it engenders: people living on one coast who work on the other.  Whole divisions of companies situated in separate time zones—or separate countries—from the rest of the organization. 

This may be jarring for people who envisioned their professional life looking like their parents’.  They may still be adjusting to the New Normal.  But for Millennials, this is simply The Normal.  And while Boomers may simply be trying to keep up with the pace of change, many Millenials are agitating to move on to the next stage in social business and mobile workplaces.

Their elders may have a difficult time seeing or admitting it, but Millenials do bring a host of assets to a team that Xers and Boomers did not when they were young.  And as much as we praise our hard-won experience, we must recognize that the current youth’s present is not like our past when today was still the future.


The IBM Center for the Business of Government has published a report called "Engaging a Multi-Generational Workforce: Practical Advice for Government Managers" which covers many issues raised when Millennials, Xers, and Boomers work together.

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