(This post was originally written in 2009 for a blog salon on Americans for the Arts’s ARTSBlog discussing emerging leaders and intergenerational dialogue. For a couple of years, it had the distinction of being the most-commented post on ARTSBlog ever, thanks to the rather cheeky tone I decided to take. It later become Createquity’s most popular post for some time as well. I was inspired to experiment with this format by a guest post on Sean Stannard-Stockton’s Tactical Philanthropy blog by Nonprofit Finance Fund Capital Partners founder George Overholser. Now, as then, I hope you enjoy it. -IDM)

  • An oft-heard complaint about Generation Y (and other “emerging leaders”) is that they have a sense of entitlement—that they think they are smarter than everyone else.
  • I don’t believe that people in Generation Y are any smarter than generations that came before.
  • HOWEVER, here’s something I do believe:
    • The people in Generation Y that YOU DEAL WITH in YOUR OFFICE are very likely smarter than the people who would have been in that office in earlier generations.
    • Which means that they may well be smarter than YOU!
  • The secret power of Generation Y is not that we’re smarter: it is that we are MORE!
    • More numerous: the population of the world is 6.7 billion, 81% higher than it was in 1970.
    • More highly educated: 29% of Americans age 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees now, compared to 11% in 1970.
    • More professional: Nearly one-third of employed Americans work in the so-called “creative class” (i.e., white-collar professions), compared to about a fifth in 1970.
    • More egalitarian: the percentage of women in the workplace has shot up both domestically (from 43% to 59% between 1970 and 2006) and internationally, and racial barriers to employment have lessened significantly.
    • More ambitious: The number of high-quality colleges that offer meaningful financial aid has exploded; many more scholarships exist for talented low-income individuals.
    • More international: Enrollment by foreign residents in US colleges and universities is up significantly in recent decades.
    • More technologically able: More about the technology than the people; the Internet has completely revolutionized the way we communicate and think about opportunity.
  • The result of all of these factors is that the size of the qualified labor pool who applies for things like entry-level arts administration jobs in the United States is much, much higher than it used to be.
    • Sure, the number of arts administration jobs has increased, too. But based on the cultural economics literature I’ve been reading recently, I’m not convinced that this is taking place any faster than overall US growth in GDP. My hunch is that the qualified labor pool has increased much more.
  • What happens when the pool of qualified candidates increases relative to the opportunities available?
    • Let’s take the Olympics as an example.
    • China won zero gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympic games, out of 195 total.
    • In 2008, China won 51 gold medals, or 17% of the total—more than any other nation.
    • Does this mean Chinese athletes are infinitely better in 2008 than they were in 1972?
      • Of course not – it means that far more Chinese have the opportunity to compete for a gold medal in 2008 instead of toiling in the rice fields or sweat shops for their entire lives.
      • The talent was always there – but now less of it is getting wasted because of discrimination, prejudice, income inequality, and social fragmentation.
    • So Chinese athletes presumably had no more natural talent in 2008 than they did in 1972—
      • But the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 2008 were more talented than the Chinese athletes competing in the Olympics in 1972.
  • Take this metaphor to arts administration in 2009.
    • It’s not that Generation Y is any smarter than the generations that came before.
    • It’s that more of us have the opportunity to compete for arts administration jobs – which, despite their flaws, are pretty awesome compared to careers many of our ancestors were stuck with instead.
    • As a result, the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs (who are the ones who get them) are smarter, on average, than the best candidates for entry-level arts administration jobs in a previous era (who are the ones now leading arts organizations).
      • (Assuming, again, that the growth in the number of arts admin jobs has not kept pace with the rise in qualified candidates for those jobs. Let’s just say I would be really, really surprised to learn otherwise.)
  • But wait! That’s not all!
    • Why are Generation Y employees so damn ambitious?
      • (Well, remember, we’re talking about the cream of the crop here—the unambitious ones will probably never get a chance to work with you.)
    • You see, with all of these talented people around us competing for the same jobs and spots in the class and other opportunities, we have to get used to being on top of our game.
    • That means we have to apply to more opportunities to have a decent chance of landing one, which conveniently is made far easier than it used to be by recent advances in technology. (Anyone remember typewriters?)
      • BUT! That means any given opportunity will have more people bidding for it, which makes getting that opportunity EVEN THAT MUCH MORE competitive! And so the cycle continues and feeds upon itself.
    • We have to continually show that we’re better than whomever else you might hire/accept/grant/award, which requires us to have a sharply defined sense of what “better” means.
      • Not to mention a healthy sense of self-confidence. After all, if we’re going to go into an interview and tell you that we’re the best candidate for what you’re offering, we’d better believe it ourselves.
    • If we are pre-disposed to look for and recognize examples of superior performance, is it any surprise if we get impatient when examples of it on our part go unrecognized by our superiors?
      • Is it any surprise, in that situation, that we find ourselves looking outside of our organization for the recognition that we’re failing to get from within it?
  • So to sum up,
    • Generation Y is not smarter than anyone else.
    • But the specific members of Generation Y populating your office probably are.
      • And if they are, that’s a testament to your hiring skills! Nice work!
    • Not only that, they probably have their eyes on bigger things than mail merges—because, in fact, they are capable of bigger things.
      • Which is good! Wouldn’t you rather have talented, multifaceted people on your team than folks who are satisfied doing one thing sort-of well?
  • Finally, if you’re reading this and find yourself overcome with intergenerational resentment, you can comfort yourself with this thought:
    • However uncomfortable this may be for you, it’s going to be far worse for us when it’s time for Generation Z or AA or whatever to enter the workplace. All of those trends towards “more” are not likely to let up anytime soon, after all.
    • That’s why it’s critical that we reform our organizations NOW to take proper advantage of great ideas and constructive feedback wherever and whoever they come from, so that we won’t find ourselves in the exact same position 20 years from today.