07 March 2014

Millennials as Social Inventors in the Fourth Economy

From marriage to religion to politics, millennials are less likely to identify with institutions of any kind than are previous generations. My prediction is that they'll become a generation of social inventors.

Pew reports that Millennials (18 to 33 years old) are about one third again more likely to identify themselves as political independents (at 50%) than are Gen X (34 - 49, at 39%), Boomers (50 - 68, at 37%) or the Silent Generation (69 - 86, at 32%). 

They are twice as likely as boomers and three times as likely as the Silent generation to have no religious affiliation. 

They've had a steep decline in marriage from previous generations, a continuation of a trend.

And yet these are not disconnected people. Measured by number of Facebook friends (admittedly a number biased by the inclination of young people to use social media and to socialize) they have a large network of friends.

My interpretation? This generation is not subordinating their definition of self or their relationships to existing institutions: instead, they are likely to reinvent institutions to better fit who they are. This is not revolution by the barrel of a gun that would seize control of existing institutions. Instead, it is a revolution that simply walks away from those institutions to create something new and different. They aren't fighting over the ball; they are creating new sports.

In the Fourth Economy I tell the story of economic progress as invention. And indeed, technological inventions like steam engines and computers rightfully get a lot credit for making our lives enormously better. But social invention - acts like the creation of the modern corporation and bank - have been just as important to the transformation of our world and sense of self as any technological inventions. 

Last century, technological invention became the new normal. Today, anyone who buys a car fully expects a better model to emerge within a few years. Anyone who buys a smart phone fully expects a better model to emerge within a few months. We expect constant evolution and occasional shifts in technology. 

This century, social invention will become the new normal. It is gradually dawning on average Americans that our definition of marriage is going through an historic change. What's curious about same-sex marriage is, of course, that gays are showing such an interest in marriage even when millenials are showing less and less. But the reinvention of this social invention we call marriage is hardly the only reinvention that millenials will experience and pioneer. This is the generation that grew up playing video games as much as they watched TV or listened to music; they are used to having participation in, some control over, their experiences. You may not be able to change the outcome of a song or movie but you can change the outcome of a video game. This generation is not going to simply accept the social inventions they've inherited: they are going to expect to be able to change them to adapt to who they are and to reality as they see it.

Same-sex marriage will seem like a paltry change within a few decades. Millenials will popularize entrepreneurship twice: once in the traditional way by starting more businesses than any previous generation and a second time by extending entrepreneurship as social invention into the re-creation of education, government, and the corporation. Their leadership style will be less about ascending to the position of CEO than about creating a successful startup; and this will be true not just in the business world but across the various kinds of relationships they have, from personal to financial to religious to political. 

Economic progress has been the product of technological and social invention. We've already made technological invention a constant. It's the millenials who will make social invention a constant. 

It's little wonder that Pew reports that millenials are also optimistic about their economic future.

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