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Rising Millenials: How the Developing World's Youth Can Change Business

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The fall of Hosni Mubarack's regime signals some much needed hope for democracy in Egypt, as well as a powerful reminder of the growing restlessness and assertiveness of the developing world's over one billion young people, a record number. The ex-Egyptian leader himself acknowledged the role his country's youth played in booting him from office.

This youth demographic tidal wave is one of the most important developments impacting the global landscape. The World Bank estimates that as much as 9 out of every 10 young people are born in the developing regions of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South-East Asia, places that are challenged by ills including high levels of unemployment and great income disparity.

These rising millenials are growing up at a time when information technology and social media give them access to global news and popular culture, making their countries' shortcomings glaring. This same technology allows them to come together and act as more influential and powerful groups. This is precisely what is happening in the Arab world and could very well take place in other developing regions where dissatisfied youth are rightfully demanding more.

Addressing this youth call for action is key for both developing and developed countries, but also for global companies and brands that increasingly depend on developing countries for their growth. If done correctly, business can make powerful contributions to the empowerment of these youth, and the developing world's youth can reciprocate with the power of their cultural influence and pocket books. This purchasing power might be limited per capita, but the rising millenials make up for it in volume. This effect is what economist C.K Prahalad has coined "the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid."

A proper engagement with rising millenials begins with an attitude shift from the industrialized business world to see these youth as potential engines for growth and innovation. Adopting this framework is important, as rising millenials are growing at a time when industrialized countries and economies are getting older and more stagnant. Europe alone is expected to see close to a third of its population over the age of sixty, compared to countries like Brazil, India, and China with close to half of their population under the age of thirty-five.

Their youthful population makes the rising millenials and the countries they call home important partners in many ways, starting as employees and suppliers. Enabling this requires an integrated commitment to invest in them as resources, starting with a strong focus on education and training. And while governments and multilaterals should take the lead in doing this given the socioeconomic and political urgency of unmet needs, local and global companies should also invest to train this population. By doing this, businesses will not only expand their global expertise but they will also help create a new form of stronger constituency and consumer engagement; something Harvard's Michael Porter calls "shared value." This type of business engagement is very important, as global youth, like their American counterparts, have learned to peel the information and marketing layers to determine the level of authenticity behind the companies and brands they support.

Rising millenials also represent the future of innovation. Anyone that has lived in the developing world will clearly tell you the degree of creativity and inventiveness required to get by. It is then not surprising that places like Mumbai and Sao Paulo are hotbeds of creativity. Many of these same cities and regions were some of the first ones to leapfrog traditional telephone landlines and adopt wireless technology. It is this exercise in creative thinking to commercially address social challenges that has also fueled innovations such as the solar operated "One Laptop per Child," that has brought computers to poor African youth. Companies should find ways to make sure these voices and ideas make it to their global strategic planning sessions.

From a marketing perspective, global brands must also do a better job understanding the unique cultures and drivers of the rising millenials and their host countries. And as communication becomes more global, brands must also learn to better tap into a growing world culture that is taking more cues from the rising millenials. This is resulting in the growing popularity, for example, of Chinese videogames, Indian Bollywood movies, Turkish and Egyptian television, and Brazilian and Mexican youth telenovelas. All this has broad business implications for the entertainment industry, a category fueled by youth.

The rising millenials represent a powerful, yet still developing group that while facing challenges, is not afraid to mobilize to make things happen. We've already seen this on the political level in countries like Egypt, and we can expect the same sort of shake-up in the culture and business side of things. Their population numbers make it critical for companies and brands to take rising millenials seriously by reframing how they approach them, by investing in their development and progress, and by tapping into their culture to shape the broader pop culture that gives consumer brands new life.