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Rating:Malcolm Gladwell Helps TD Attendees Bridge the Baby Boomer-Millennial Gap Not Rated 4.0 Email Routing List Email & Route  Print Print
Friday, February 01, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell Helps TD Attendees Bridge the Baby Boomer-Millennial Gap

Reported by Tommy Fernandez

Twenty somethings really are different and it's not just because they are younger, cuter and have weird taste in music, explained award-winning journalist Malcolm Gladwell at the TD Ameritrade Institutional National Conference.

During a packed keynote presentation Thursday afternoon in the Elizabeth ballroom at the Manchester Hyatt in San Diego, the writer of such best-selling books as The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers addressed the subject of country's youngest adult generation and how they differ from Baby Boomers.

"There is something distinctive in the way they see the world," he said. "There is a difference in the way we conceive the world and the way they conceive their vision of the world. If we are this generation we have to understand how they think and where they are coming from."

A key dynamic between the two generations, Gladwell explained, was this: boomers are used to hierarchies, while millennials live in networks.

To illustrate this point, Gladwell compared the defining moments of activism for each generation.

For the boomers, it was Martin Luther King's civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, during which King and his cohorts utilized a concerted strategy to force white supremacist Bull Connor to display his violent side before the world. The strategy utilized escalating waves of nonviolent protest that forced Connor to first fill up his jail cells with arrested activists, and then when the jail cells were full, to use fire hoses and German shepherds on protesting teenagers as journalists from across the country watched. Gladwell noted that many credit this campaign with providing the incentive for the creation and passage of the Civil Rights Act.

This strategy, Gladwell explained, had a number of key characteristics: it was hierarchical, it was disciplined, it was strategic. King's nickname during many campaigns was actually "Mr. Leader."

In comparison, one of the defining moments in Millennial activism has been the Occupy campaigns in New York and around the world. These campaigns, in comparison, were organic, impromptu, flexible and without creed or leaders. Gladwell noted that it was common for Occupy activists to hold neverending meetings in which participants just showed up and talked, and talked, and talked. For example, participants in the Occupy Wall Street campaign in New York City once tried to decide whether to buy used or new garbage containers for the collection of all the trash that was generated by the campaign. The discussions took so long without ever reaching a point that nobody ever reached a decision, Gladwell said.

This defining moment is emblematic of many of the key characteristics of this generation, which grew up always with an Internet and always with some form of social-media-networked existence. They are flexible, open, spontaneous and not amenable to any authoritarian or rigidly controlled groups.

"These two models are diametrically opposed," he said. "This shift is emblematic of something larger."

Actually, the roots of this shift were set by Boomers themselves, thanks to a number of pivotal events that all took place in 1975, a critical year given the fact that the most baby boomers hit the age of 25 in that year.

It was during 1975 that the concept of free agents in professional sports was developed. Before this concept, Gladwell explained, professional sports players were essentially indentured servants to sports teams. The concept spread like wildfire from baseball to other sports, creating the concept of the sports mega star.

This was also the year of major revolutions in publishing contracts, the year that private investing witnessed the invention of the "2 and 20" rule in management fees. Lauren Hutton, who previously made roughly $60 an hour being the face of Revlon, had the guts to ask for more money. She ultimately made $20,000 a day and helped create the concept of the super model.

It was also during this year that a relatively unknown director named George Lucas dared to go before 20th Century Fox to pitch the idea of a space opera film, as well as the strange notion of giving Lucas all the residual rights to the film.

"To their everlasting chagrin, Fox said OK," said Gladwell. "That is why now Lucas has many billions of dollars ... and Fox does not."

As a result of these changes, Boomers enjoyed a fundamental change in the way work was organized. This change empowered talent and fostered the idea that talent should be paid more.

Whereas Boomers witnessed a paradigm shift which led to the recognition of individual talent, Millennials are witnessing a shift in favor of the social organization, of the network. The differences in these models are profound.

To illustrate, Gladwell outlined three examples of how the generations differ in their approach to life.

The first was encyclopedias versus wikipedia. Boomers were used to idea of a centralized authoritarian repository of knowledge that was profoundly expensive, was perhaps updated every fifteen or so years and was produced by a recognized set of academic authorities. Whereas Millennials are used to repositories of knowledge that are open, updated perhaps by the minute and are written by people they don't even know.

Another example was dating, in which Boomers were used to dating people within their nearest social circles in a relatively closed and gradual process. Meanwhile, Millennials, thanks to the Internet, are used to opening up their entire social lives to everyone and thereby have many, many more dates.

"With the Internet, if you give up the notion of privacy, give up the idea of closed activity, you can have a whole lot more dates. It's not uncommon to find someone who has gone on a hundred dates a year," he said.

A third example was that of the game Chess. Boomers were used to the idea of mastering the game via participating in closed, authoritarian groups, like Chess Clubs, in which masters taught and trained lesser experienced players for a very long time until they demonstrated a degree of expertise in the game.

In comparison, Millennials gain experience by playing online. By going to various public chess websites and networks, a player can find a virtually unlimited supply of ready players.

The key to dealing with the differences between these two models, Gladwell said, is not to consider one better than the other, although he did declare that he believed having a hundred dates a year perhaps made a social process that was already difficult "well nigh impossible."

Both can learn from each other. Millennials have skills for rapid, monumental change, such as the Arab Spring, what have you. Yet Boomers have skills and experience with the concepts of discipline, patience and respect for leadership that is important for following through. For example, Boomer talents could have been useful in the months after the Arab Spring when all of the revolutionaries in their respective countries tried to get elected and set up new governments, but lost elections because they did not have fully defined creeds or strategies in order. Boomer discipline and patience could help Millennials and the networked young in slow hard-going processes of studying science, math and engineering.

"You have to try and find ways to communicate these values to this generation and do it in a way that is sensitive enough so that it doesn't alienate them," he said.

Gladwell said that he believed that it is actually possible to have the best of both worlds: the best of the hierarchy and the best of the network.

Other luminaries featured at the TD Conference included fiscal discipline activists Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.

The Conference is scheduled to end tonight with the operatic punk of Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo

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