I’m a member of the Net-Generation, people born between 1978 and 1997. At first glance, my cohort seems tailor-made for a decentralized and “flat world,” so we shouldn’t care so much about the place where we work. After all, the internet, like no other technology, has lowered geographical and temporal barriers for communication and collaboration, and N-Geners, like no other generation, are the most comfortable and capable working, learning, and communicating online. Case in point: I recently found myself collaborating on a project with two college pals on Skype (the free online video phone application): one in Palo Alto, California, the other in Alaska, while also chatting and sharing photos with a friend who was in an internet café in rural Vietnam.
However, while technology has lowered barriers and allowed people all over the world to participate in the global economy, it’s a mistake to suggest now that ‘place’ is no longer important for today’s emerging creative workers. Indeed where one works matters now more than ever.
Whether interested in finance, law, politics, computer programming, consulting, or medicine, young friends and colleagues of mine are drawn inexorably to the epicenters and major nodes of their respective fields; in cities, suburbs, and exurbs that also happen to score very high on the creative class index. This is certainly true for my friend in Palo Alto, a city straddling the area between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. He is a talented computer programmer working for an internet start-up. But what about my friends in Vietnam and Alaska, you ask? Did Google just open a server farm in Juno? Is rural Vietnam the new Silicon Valley? Why do your friends want to live there? Truth is they don’t.
My Alaska friend was working for Mark Begich, a Democrat, who defeated the incumbent Senator (and convicted felon) Ted Stevens. If ever there was an appropriate time to say “got out of there like a bat out of hell,” Jeff’s escape from Alaska after the big victory was it. Jeff is passionate about politics, and he is now in Washington, D.C. looking for full time work. Truth is he would rather struggle for a little while in D.C. than be instantly employed anywhere else. After all, every politically engaged young person he and I know wants to be in the U.S. Capitol and, as a result, a burgeoning social scene of smart, creative, and ambitious young people has flourished there. Dave, my friend in Vietnam just graduated from McGill’s School of Management and is wandering Southeast Asia barefooted and bearded trying to ‘find himself,’ but really he’s just on vacation. Like me, he will soon find himself up to his elbows in financial statements and spreadsheets. He is returning to Toronto to work at a boutique private equity group. Jeff was drawn to the epicenter of the political world. Dave, a former business student with an entrepreneurial streak, will return to Toronto- Canada’s financial capital, because he knows the city offers great opportunity for a person with his interests (it also helps that he is a die-hard Leafs fan). In both instances, the where did not merely influence their decisions, it determined them. If anything, their stints in Alaska and Vietnam simply reinforce the notion that the Creative Class, and young people in particular, travel and move throughout the world with increasing ease.
Though not identifying it as the “Net Gen” specifically, Richard Florida presciently foresaw the emergence of a new generation of the “Creative Class” in The Rise of the Creative Class, a theme that has surfaced in ensuing works. His experience interacting with students at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University revealed that young people are drawn to certain hubs, crowding together in thriving and diverse places where like-minded individuals share lifestyles, cultural tastes, and work interests. While the moniker ‘Creative Class’ is not generation-specific, by 2018, when all members of my cohort will be of working age, the Net Generation will, simply put, dominate the creative class. As Boomers retire and Generation Xers fill the ranks of senior management, there will be an overwhelming demand for these young, highly educated people. Attracting them to companies and regions where they can thrive and prosper will be the next great imperative for today’s corporate leaders and politicians.
I encourage everyone to share your thoughts and opinions with me. If a conversation begins, I will be happy to engage in it with you.