NEW YORK -- A week ago, I happened on "Occupy Wall Street," which took on an even larger proportion this past weekend. When I saw it, the demonstration was taking place in a tiny park just steps from the giant construction site that the World Trade Center has become. The cops were there as well in big numbers; observing a chaotic spread of sleeping bags, scruffy occupants and a large array of protest signs about the ills of capitalism.
What struck me first about this sight was the tight age cohort: Millennials to the core.
Whether their disgust with Wall Street is fueled by a lack of jobs or a more complex analysis was not apparent to me, but I trust we will be hearing more from the Millennials. Scholars are suggesting they will be a force to be reckoned with. In fact, you might already be experiencing their tendency to want to be heard in the workplace, in the classroom or at the dinner table, for example.
There are a lot of them; 90 million by some count, comprising the largest generation in our history. They are the most racially diverse generation ever, and they have been, and are being, shaped by remarkable events such as 9/11 and the ongoing global recession; by their parents -- the boomers of yore; and, of course by technology -- the first generation to take instant communications for granted. I believe that Millennials will shape our response to issues that bedevil us -- through their passion about social issues, their facility with technology and social networking, and through their continued willingness to vote -- as they did in big numbers in the last Presidential election.
Many of them will go to business school -- or are already there. A quarter of post-graduate degrees are in business, and 20 percent of undergraduates are pursuing business degrees. Even at liberal arts colleges that may not offer "business" as a major, students flock to economics instead, or as close as they can get to the subject. This may be the result of parental pressure to exit school with some hope of finding a job (unlike baby boomers, Millennials are close to their parents and apparently even listen to them) but it is also in pursuit of the skills, language and heroes they have grown up with -- more Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg than Bob Dylan and Robert Redford.
The question I have been thinking about is how they will bridge these two worlds -- passion for social issues, and comfort with technology and business. I know from experience that real change is hard; that to influence business, and Wall Street, requires people skills as well as analytics, patience, and multiple approaches to gain the attention and commitment of the power brokers who set the rules and design the reward systems. Protest is a not an insignificant part of the puzzle, however, and always has been; just ask Walmart, Nike or Nestle.
I saw Mayor Bloomberg on TV that same evening that I observed the Occupy Wall Street movement. He was on the news, commenting on the situation downtown, which hit the mainstream media when protestors were arrested for obstructing traffic, and police tactics were depicted as being heavy-handed in some accounts.
"Where is Wall Street?" he fumed. He was really asking two questions: "What Is Their Problem?" and "Why In My City?"
Bloomberg elaborated that Wall Street has gone global and is thus not an appropriate protest venue, at least in his opinion. And from his billionaire's perspective, protesting the very institutions that we need to create jobs and prosperity is a trifle gauche. Bloomberg is usually an astute guy, and I am generally a big fan of what he has done for New York. In this case, I could only feel that he didn't get it.
One irony that emerges from what we know of this generation's attitudes is that they have higher trust in institutions than their predecessors. What this means in terms of their expectations of both business and government remains to be seen. I left downtown feeling hopeful.