Generation Real-Time

A few years ago I was publicly fretting over the arrival of millennials--young people in the generation after X--in the workplace. I described how these new adults would bring with them a sense of entitlement, a need for constant praise, a habit of multitasking to the point of distraction and even their helicopter parents (HR departments were reporting that parents would call on their children's behalf).

The millennials would change the way business is done, and not necessarily for the better. "These young people will tell you what time their yoga class is, and the day's work will be organized around the fact that they have this commitment," I told "60 Minutes" in 2007. "So you actually envy them. How wonderful it is to be young and have your priorities so clear. Flip side of it is how awful it is to be managing the extension, sort of, of the teenage babysitting pool."

Two years and a global economic crisis later, I'd like to take a lot of that back.

I've had new insights into generational politics lately as my company, Euro RSCG Worldwide, has been organizing the inaugural One Young World summit, taking place Feb. 8-10 in London. A Davos for the under-30 set, One Young World will convene hundreds of young leaders from 192 countries. Planning for the summit included undertaking a study with YouGovStone of 15,844 people between the ages of 23 and 28 in 38 countries. And it forced me to rethink my prejudices about this group that we're assembling.

Not all millennials, it turns out, are the sort of millennials I was so worried about. I'm eating crow now, but I'm still a stereotyper (as all trendspotters are at times), so I've got a new one. The leaders of this generation, whether they're American, Chinese or Brazilian, are the unmillennials: actively engaged with the world around them, fully aware of how global issues affect their local communities, energetic and passionate about their own power to effect change.

Contrast that with their parents, the baby boomers, who arguably broke the world. Many activists of the '60s became the fat cats of the new millennium. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are boomers. So are Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. In the postmortem for the world the boomers built, we've seen the other side of the mindset they created: greedy, self-centered, materialistic, pursuing pleasure, throwing caution to the wind and proclaiming, "I can have it all" (even if it means I have a couple of mortgages on my house). Today's young people know better; they're shaping up for something different.

Call them the Real-Time Generation. People in their 20s don't remember a world with no Internet. They didn't wait to hear the news on an evening broadcast or read it in a morning paper. If something is happening, there's an immediate update on their phone or, if they're old-fashioned about it, on their computer. They have a wealth of ways to find out what's going on right now, told from countless points of view.

More than that, they have the tools that take them from passive observers to active participants, and they're highly adept at wielding them. Blogs and social networking mean that everyone has a platform, an amplifier, and can create his or her own wave of influence--whether it's used for something lightweight, like shaming airlines into improving customer service, or something deadly serious, like stirring up outrage over a young woman killed in an Iranian protest. (Or, unfortunately, captivating the world with a story of a little boy supposedly adrift in a balloon.)

The Real-Time Generation is empowered, not least by its ability to connect with each other fast. It elected a president by creating a groundswell of enthusiasm both online and off. It's forcing companies to clean up their act and be honest and transparent with consumers about their environmental practices and how they treat their employees. It's not a Me Generation but a We Generation, guided by idealistic values and an awareness of how interconnected we all are.

It's worth pointing out that the founders of Google and Facebook, two of the companies that enable so much of this real-time culture, created their revolutionary products in their 20s. And Twitter was started by someone not too far out of his. Imagine, for a second, what our world would be like without their innovations.

We're heading toward the point where it's hardly even remarkable when a young adult achieves staggering success. Oh, another whiz kid, we say with a shrug. It's assumed now that innovators were born in the 1980s. And they don't have to wait. Growing up in the Real-Time Generation often means not having to deal with established hierarchies: Gone are the days of paying dues and climbing corporate ladders; now anyone with a great idea, and the skills to get it out there and make it happen, can find an audience. They can more than hold their own against people old enough to be their parents.

The age when accomplishments are truly noteworthy is getting younger. Which raises a question: When is it time to take "young" out of your identifier and "junior" out of your committee header?

Full disclosure: This all challenges my own sense of where I stand. I spent years as the "young one" or the "youngest person to" and now am working for someone younger than I who has had a career of firsts (including being named global CEO of one of the world's top five communications agencies at age 38) and is now a co-founder of One Young World. He knows about the power of young minds.

When I was one of the Crain's New York Business "40 Under 40" (in 1995), I was young. Now I'm not so much young as I am in between. I still see older, wiser folks and feel "unformed"--right in the role of pupil. Then I see younger, wiser folks and feel the same way. I'm excited about One Young World because I know it will be a learning experience for me.