The Millennials, who were supposed to be the harbingers of a global interwebbed knowledge-based prosperity, are now inheritors of one of the greatest collapses of collective judgment this century has seen. Are they in denial, in disappointment or simply in disbelief?
Some recent research we've conducted at JWT, part of our AnxietyIndex.com, provides a window into some answers. We found that more than 60 percent of today's youth believe their generation is receiving an unfair blow due to this recession.
This makes sense. Raised in a time of inflated prosperity, full of golden promises and expectations, Millenials were marred in the media as "entitled" and "narcissistic," the "Me Generation." Their career prospects appeared virtually limitless, their optimism buoyed by our faulty assumption that China would do America's saving while the U.S. spent itself rich.
As that myth unravels, in pace with the global balancing of current accounts, America's youth will shoulder a heavy portion of the fallout, most notably a rapidly shrinking job market with no clear end in sight. While we at JWT have noted that yesterday's "me" mentality is trending more toward "we"--thanks to Obama and other factors--that doesn't soften the blow of watching your opportunities shrivel in step with the stock market.
This can have severe cultural consequences, ones that define an era. In 1951 Time doomed the children of the Great Depression as the Silent Generation. As the New York Times' Kate Zernike put it, they were cast as "a generally drab lot: cautious and resigned, uninterested in striking out in new directions or shaping the great issues of the day--the outwardly efficient types whose inner agonies the novel Revolutionary Road would dissect a decade later."
Will today's youth suffer a similar fate? I don't think so. Unlike their counterparts in the '30s, they're reading the tea leaves through a different lens. More than a quarter of Millennials in our study said that if they lose or have trouble finding a job, they'll start their own business. And more than a third said they have friends who are doing interesting entrepreneurial things to make more money.
While youth of the Great Depression flocked to trusted organizations and institutions, valuing corporate continuity over the thrill of entrepreneurship, the pendulum appears to be swinging in the other direction. As confidence in mega-multinationals declines, youth appear prepared to venture into the uncharted. They're asking, "If this whole mess is the result of a system broken at its core, why not just reinvent it instead of trying to fix it?"
The time may be ripe for just that. In fact, downturns have been historically friendly to startups, product innovations and disruptive technologies, those that, in hindsight, have proved to be game-changing business models or breakthrough products or services. GE, HP, Trader Joe's, FedEx and Microsoft all grew out of economic adversity. Seemingly simple inventions--text ads and no-frills search--that were born from recessionary constraints became the monolith we know as Google. Necessity is the mother of invention--or in other words: Have less, imagine more.
Business academia has been preaching the same narrative: Recessions are the best time to bring a product to market and widen the gap between you and the competition. Markets voice their needs better in a downturn, when the competition has thinned and fewer parties are chasing the same demands with duplicative new products or services.
So rather than retreating into a silent shell, youth today are seeking out opportunity and creating things that were harder to imagine in a boom economy. Look at the artist colonies rising from the ashes of Detroit's neglected neighborhoods: Young couples are transforming beaten-down $500 homes into tomorrow's creative communities.
And for another illustration of the optimism youth are finding in the downturn, look at the startup New Work City. This co-op office share in Manhattan marries the need for flexible work space with the mission to incubate and connect entrepreneurs. In a down economy--with more people flying solo--this new membership-driven enterprise is rightly sizing the market's demand for flexible prime real estate. This "recession busting" program seeks to unlock creative spirit through collaboration and community.
Today, collaboration and community are being propelled in large part by technology. The same platforms that make this generation the most globally connected and culturally aware in history also dramatically lower many of the traditional barriers to entry that startups face. Facebook is the new contact management software, Twitter the new newswire. Virtual networks and pre-existing sites and services represent enormous efficiencies that only the Millennial generation has the collective wherewithal to maximize.
Armed with a WordPress account and a keen curatorial eye, young entrepreneurs in the ad business are carving a niche for themselves as independent consultants, social media gurus and virtually networked hot shops. Take Josh Spear, a 24-year-old marketing strategist, trendspotter and recent inductee into the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders group. He's built a religious following on his blog, and his insights are in high demand by the Fortune 500 precisely because they represent a fresh departure from the stale status quo. I've met him on several occasions, and each time I think, "If this guy's the representative Millennial, we're all in good hands."
So while the twentysomethings of today have every right to be angry and disappointed, they're not letting resentment get the best of them. Their optimism and self-reliance stand in defiance of the depressing headlines. That spirit should guide all of us who are in the driver's seat as we brace for the rough ride ahead.