Youth Is Different Now: How 20 Is the New 30, and what that Means for Millennials, Xers, and Boomers

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 do, not 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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Steve Radick

“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).”

This is a fantastic point Gadi, one that I think warrants much additional thinking. In fact, this is a topic that, while I was still at Booz, I constantly tried to hammer home with our managers and diversity officers. Diversity in the workplace today isn’t just about ethnicity, religion, race, or sexuality – it’s about more than simply creating a “tolerant” workplace. It’s about embracing vastly different points of views and knowing when and where to use the strengths and weaknesses of all of your employees. Diversity in the workplace was never about people’s skin color or citizenship, but about diversity of thought and ways of working.

Stephen Owens

Great point Ghadi. What we tend to forget is that by the time a GenY has gone through college, they’ve read/heard/learned info most people historically have absorbed in their entire lifetimes.

The good news: GenY thinks very bottom line – like a CEO. I’m not saying they act with the delicacy of a CEO (obviously, that comes with experience) but they do think like one. They think in terms of bottom line contribution. Ultimately, they view contribution from people much like any other resource. If they have a copier that only puts out 10 per minute, why wouldn’t you replace it with one that’s doing 20? In their view, why would you promote/keep around someone who isn’t producing at a high level? The old copier is in the space the new one needs to be. Cold, I know.

The bad news: GenY is very collaborative and expect other generations to collaborate just as much. People often confuse experience with expertise. B/c of Social, Gen Y is used to having/getting immediate expertise. X and Boomers had to work for it so when they see a Y coming, often they discount their expertise since they don’t have experience. Rather than demonstrating their expertise and building organic collaboration, Y tends to dismiss the others in the workplace since they’re being dismissed in their own minds. Catch 22.

Solution: Xers/Boomers – start treating Gen Y like they’re mid 30’s when it comes to work skills. Yers – Stop acting like you’re 18 when it comes to people skills.

Just my .02

Dannielle Blumenthal

I appreciated this post but am not sure the premise that us old folks (Gen Xers and Boomers) have trouble appreciating the contributions of Millennials. What’s clear to me is that we greatly appreciate those contributions and that’s why we work so hard to recruit the next generation into government and to incorporate what they have to say about making improvements.

As an Xer, the parent of a Yer and having worked with Yers a few observations. On the plus side:

  • When they are focused on a goal they work tirelessly.
  • They are competitive in a positive way – the competition is mostly with themselves, to excel or succeed in their chosen field or hobby.
  • They have an incredible ability to organize social networks quickly around virtually any cause, project, or initiative. (Actually GovLoop itself is an example.)
  • They know how to allocate different team members to different functions.
  • They trust one another and work well together.
  • They understand formal authority and know how to adhere to the chain of command.
  • They don’t feel constrained by past traditions.
  • They have a great ability to use visual media to get the point across, and will subject virtually any process to improvement through technology.

Gen Yers tend to get along well with Baby Boomers also, I think because Boomers are more clearly in positions of authority and can help them advance. Like Boomers, Yers also see work as inherently a team effort. The difference is that Boomers build consensus more slowly and deliberately whereas Yers tend to have less patience with people from different generations…this is where some of the demoralization comes in as Yers want to move forward while Boomers want to be sure that consensus has been reached (even if it’s not real consensus, they strongly believe everyone should at least express their opinion.)

Where some of the conflict surfaces is between Xers and Yers. There are probably a lot of reasons for this. One of the most basic is that Xers tend to see themselves as battling heroic odds to get an impossible job done. Xers work well with other Xers, as long as the territorial lines are clearly drawn – and they will pursue the mission tenaciously. On the other hand, Yers see work as only an aspect of a larger social grid called “life,” and they don’t relate to the individual focus at all. In addition, Xers are very good at identifying problems independently and innovating to fix them, whereas Yers (in the workplace) prefer to have someone tell them what to do first, or give them the green light.

This is probably the single biggest issue between the generations at work – understanding the unspoken rules that govern the initiation of work. Boomers want employees to be self-starters, but they also want employees to check in and do things their way, which creates some lack of clarity for both Xers and Yers.

All of this is made more complicated by differences in class, race, and gender because there are very marked differences in how various demographic groups approach work.

To give an obvious example more elite Yers have more of a sense of entitlement, probably because their Xer parents were determined to do better than their Boomer predecessors and so did everything to ensure they “lacked for nothing.”

Another example might center on gender. I’m not totally clear on the differences between Yer females and Yer males but one thing that stands out is that the females actually seem more achievement-oriented than the males – in the sense that they more avidly pursue traditional degrees, etc. while males are more comfortable checking out of the system till they feel comfortable with the track they’re on.

It’s funny, writing about it it seems more simple and clear, but in the day-to-day it’s easy to lose sight of things. Miscommunication is so often simply a result of having been raised and socialized in a different time or environment.