(This op-ed was first published in C-Suite Quarterly Magazine in 2016, during the beginning months of Helena’s development, by Helena CEO Henry Elkus).
Our newly connected world has brought us unprecedented opportunity. The digital age, manifested in the form of breakthrough technologies and platforms, has democratized information itself. More knowledge is available to more people, in more places, than at any time before in all of human history. Yet, spin the globe today and the problems we face – geopolitical, environmental and technological – are only a click away. Some seem intractable: incessant financial crises, hydra-headed terrorist organizations, looming ecological catastrophes. And they’re being handed to the Millennial generation to solve.
We’re obsessed with “millennials.” They are the focal point of the world’s new digital reality, and if you aren’t one, chances are they confuse you. The media has asked every conceivable question: Why don’t millennials spend their money like we did? Do they care about God? Are they having more sex than us? Why can’t they like golf? The private sector has joined in on the frenzy as well. In an effort to “decode” millennial behavior, Fortune 500 companies are shelling out up to $20,000 an hour, and even Goldman Sachs is publishing infographics asking: “Who are they, exactly?”
Vast energy has been spent to understand the behavioral minutiae of this massive and diverse population. Mark Zuckerberg is a millennial; so is a fourteen year old. This demographic is too broad to group together. And even after thousands of years of trying, older generations have yet to make much progress in understanding the young. Armchair assertions that the younger generation is fundamentally “this” or “that” have a deep and amusing history.
A 2013 Time cover story said the “cold, hard data” proves that young people have high rates of “narcissistic personality disorder.” Perhaps they interviewed Horace, who was saying much the same in 23 BC.
As the quick-witted GK Chesterton observed, cross-generational understanding is a challenge. “I believe what really happens in history is this: The old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him.”
Attempting to discover “who” millennials are is unproductive. The alternative is simple and powerful: Accept and include the younger generation; empowering them to jointly pursue solutions to the problems of our age. That requires a shift in thinking. But the shift is worth making – because while the world has been busy investigating who millennials are, they’ve been accomplishing the extraordinary.
A Shift Worth Making
Over the past year, I’ve been hard at work with a team of incredible partners to create Helena. It’s a small group of leaders that meet consistently to materialize ideas with the potential to create positive change. Every member of Helena is a leader from a different field.
We’ve been fortunate enough to fill Helena with some amazing people: Fortune 500 executives, actors, technologists, explorers, geopoliticians, and a Nobel Laureate. Across the globe, Helena’s members meet to strengthen relationships and create ideas that improve the world.
There is one element that stands out more than others, however. Half of the group begins their time in Helena under the age of 25. It’s not the image you might have in your head when you think of a “global leadership” network, but we believe it should be.
The connected age has enabled representatives of the under-25 generation to become bonafide world leaders. They have built multibillion-dollar companies, influenced hundreds of millions of people through social media, become hyperpolyglots and tastemakers, pioneered decentralized currencies, and taken home the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is truly unprecedented. Never before has such a high concentration of young leaders inhabited positions of influence in such a wide range of fields. These individuals are not “in development” or “on the rise.” Empowered by the networks of the digital age, they are current counterparts to the leaders of our time. Yet, when it comes to global summits and networks, they rarely find themselves with a serious voice.
That model needs to be reconsidered. Over half of the world’s population is 25 years old or younger. If you are going to hold a discussion on a given global issue, chances are it will impact the youth more than any other demographic. The monumental global dilemmas of our age are being passed to the young today; they are a crucial part of our response to these threats. This is especially true in technology and science, where the under-25 crowd has played a deeply significant role. Cryptocurrency, pluripotent stem cell technology, virtual reality, artificial intelligence; all are fields where young leaders are integral.
At Helena, we’re honored to talk with some of these leaders each day. They’ve quickly become the group’s core, showing a knack for combining ideas that don’t typically intersect. From the early development of artificially intelligent ‘avatars’ to the conceptualization of mind-reading ‘think-to-text’ machines, the process has been eye-opening. Often, these discussions represent the first time that a leader from one generation or field has seriously sat down with a younger counterpart to ideate.
After dozens of Helena meetings, the power of this concept – leaders from different generations collaborating as peers – has become obvious. In order to develop the best ideas, we include bright and capable leaders from each generation in the room. Doing so allows us to pair insight with experience; creativity with wisdom.
Every member of a Helena meeting has a deep knowledge of their own vertical. Providing the horizontal, connective tissue between those verticals means uniting previously unrelated concepts in all new ways. According to Yale Professor Jonathan Feinstein, this connection is the very essence of creativity.
It is this remarkable fusion that drives the community we’ve created. The results have been exciting.
While we are not the only ones lucky enough to leverage youth in this way, the practice is uncommon. We hope this will change. To create long-lasting, positive work, other organizations – companies, governments, and NGOs alike – should bring young voices to the table.