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The Genius of Generation Y

Generation-Y cartoonYoung Professionals. Emerging Leaders. High Potentials. Creatives. Millenials. Gen Y. We have lots of titles for the youngest demographic in the workplace. Some titles reference age. Some fragment them into groups according to performance. Some assign generalizations about the group’s interests and behaviors.


One thing is for sure: everyone’s talking about them. I attended two conferences this week—one was organized by and for young professionals. And the rhetoric of seismic generational change reminds me of the larger-than-life perception Scottish soldiers had of William Wallace whose reputation became a caricature.

  • Marketers are targeting them because of the volume of their social voices.
  • Employers want to hire them because they’re agile and ambitious.
  • Cities want to keep them because their thrift store fashion and Ray Bans ooze “cool”. And cool is the new smart.

Inasmuch as we admire Gen Y, we also fear them. HR departments worry that Gen Y’s addiction to social media exposes too much risk. Risk of lost productivity. Risk of PR disasters. And managers are overwhelmed at the thought of retaining such a mobile group.


Here’s the good news: today’s 22 – 32 year olds aren’t as different as their legend purports. Gen Y may look different than Gen X today—but much more similar to Gen X when they were entering the workplace.


Experience is (and always has been) an asset AND a liability. One edge young people have always had in the workplace is their propensity towards action. Youth don’t know what they don’t know. And that naiveté allows them to keep moving forward rather than being focused on obstacles. Meanwhile, the experienced crowd—with language and posture that can be mistaken for wisdom—too often chime in with “but…” or “on the other hand…”. The older generations have more income and ego at risk—and are more likely to obsess over the obstacles.


If Gen Y has a genius distinct from past generations entering the workplace, it’s their preference for influence rather than power. The Greatest Generation, Boomers, Gen Xers…emerged as leaders in companies, communities, and charities by climbing ladders. They studied. They worked hard. They learned from mistakes. And that progress earned them power in the form of positional authority.


Gen Yers have a different approach to leadership. They would rather educate you towards a particular path—rather than tell someone how to act. They are motivated by change. They may be the most effective makers of movements in modern history.


Skeptical? Look at Wikipedia. It’s comprised of 3.5 million articles written in 250 languages. Only one-tenth of one percent of viewers has ever contributed to the encyclopedia. The average age of those contributors is 25.


Or look at Wael Ghonim. He was the 30 year old Google employee in Egypt who curated a Facebook page that mobilized a movement of young Egyptians and led to regime change.


This generation of leadership eschews hierarchy. Their networks are large networks of weak connections—whereas preceding generations relied more on small groups of tight followers. They assemble and disband based on cause. And they build fewer and less formal organizational structures than leaders of other generations. They behave as starfish, not spiders.


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