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Technology, Unlike Youth, is not Wasted on the Young

August 28, 2015

I recently got invited to speak at Brooklyn 1.0, a conference of “design, people and technology” to be held this autumn in the borough that is New York City’s hipster hothouse. I accepted because preparing for the talk would force me to think more about an important topic: what’s up with the kids today?

The common answer at present seems to be something like, “Oh my, so much! The millennial generation is like none before it. The members of its tribe are more idealistic, more altruistic and more entrepreneurial. They’re already changing the world, and the best is surely yet to come.”

Breathlessness like this quickly activates my skepticism (and, if I’m being honest, my grouchiness). Haven’t we always been saying this about young people, and haven’t they always responded by, well, growing up? The Woodstock generation created and enjoyed the summer of love (lucky them) but then turned into the ageing boomers of today who, now that they are in charge, seem to be engaging in sclerotic politics, running rapacious companies and listening to bad music just like their fathers, and their fathers before them.

So what forces, if any, might prevent today’s millennials from becoming stodgy and conventional, and joining the System with demographic predictability?

The biggest [change]I can come up with is technological progress. Modern techs let young people live lives and create careers that were simply not possible a generation ago. This is already causing important changes, and I expect them to continue.

Let’s look at lifestyle first. This great video from Best Reviews shows how all the contents of a 1981 office fit into a laptop and phone in 2014. But even this underestimates the changes. A connected young person today can communicate endlessly around the world for free (OK, at zero marginal cost, which is close enough to the same thing). She can also maintain robust social and professional networks, and stay abreast of work conversations and workflow with tools such as Slack. If she actually needs to go somewhere it’s trivial to find and pay for a cheap flight, a non-traditional place to stay and a ride across town. There are also plenty of online marketplaces, both general and specialised, to help her find a job, at gig, a co-worker or a little help.

It’s possible, of course, to make too much of these developments, but I think the bigger mistake is to underestimate them. They combine to enable a life where the longstanding trade-off between fluidity and productivity is greatly eased.

Walter Frick provides the best evidence I’ve seen that young people are already changing the business world. He looked as carefully as possible at the ages of the founders of the so-called “unicorns” — private companies valued at more than a billion dollars. While there were a few holes in the data, Mr. Frick’s startling conclusion was that at least half the founders were almost certainly younger than 35 when they launched their companies. This is a remarkable amount of success and value creation among people who in earlier times would still have been at the beginning of their careers. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is an extreme example of a more general phenomenon: the rise of young tech moguls.

We haven’t seen the last of them.

Large start-up communities around the world — from San Francisco to London, Berlin to Tel Aviv, Shanghai to Singapore — are buzzing with energy. And young technologists are doing much more than writing apps these days.

They’re biohacking, extending the blockchain that underlies bitcoin and learning to make almost anything. Pharma and biotech, financial services, and manufacturing will be at least somewhat shaken up by their work.

So the kids are, in fact, all right. I look forward to hanging out with them.

This blog first appeared on the FT site August 13 here.