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Are 18 to 35 year-olds the innovation generation?

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A widely-held belief is that younger generations drive innovation, but new evidence suggests that people aged 18 to 35 are impacting technology far more than the teenage generation that follows them.

A widely-held belief is that younger generations drive innovation, but new evidence suggests that people aged 18 to 35 are impacting technology far more than the teenage generation that follows them.

An article in the New York Times details the immense growth of Twitter, which many falsely believe is the result of adoption by the text- and instant-message-happy generation who are currently teenagers, sometimes called Generation Z, or the "Internet Generation."

In reality, Twitter is exploding thanks not to teenagers but to rapid adoption by the generation of 18 to 35 year-olds called Generation Y, or the "Millennial Generation."

"[The 18-year-old's] reluctance to use Twitter, a feeling shared by others in her age group, has not doomed the microblogging service. Just 11 percent of its users are aged 12 to 17, according to comScore. Instead, Twitter’s unparalleled explosion in popularity has been driven by a decidedly older group. That success has shattered a widely held belief that young people lead the way to popularizing innovations.

Though teenagers are responsible for the early growth of social networks, today they account for just 14 percent of MySpace's users and only 9 percent of Facebook's, according to the article.

"The notion that children are essential to a new technology’s success has proved to be largely a myth," Claire Cain Miller writes in the Times.

It's no secret that Facebook began with college-age students and grew from there, while Twitter began with tech-inclined media types and spread to other industries (and demographics).

Fascinatingly, Generation Z is showing a completely opposite effect from the broadcasting, self-marketing tendencies of Generation Y: according to the article, the public nature of Twitter is "particularly sensitive for the under-18 set."

Does social media really appeal more to adults, or are teenagers just fickle and disloyal to technology?

Or are 18 to 35 year-olds the "Innovation Generation," driving change as they age over time?

An argument could be made for both.

But I wonder if there isn't something formative in the time in which Generation Y grew up that would infer such behavior. Generation Y came to adopt technology as it began to have mass-appeal, neither testing it in its geekiest infancy (1970s supercomputers) nor taking it for granted as a de facto part of life (ubiquitous Internet in 2000s).

Did that timing provoke Generation Y to more aggressively adopt and gravitate toward technology?

Will those aged 18 to 35 continue to drive innovation as they age?

As author Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his recent book Outliers, perhaps it's just fortuitous timing.

Here's a passage from the second section of his book that immediately comes after a list of the seventy-five richest people in history:

Do you know what's interesting about that list? Of the 75 names, an astonishing 14 are Americans born within nine years of each other in the mid 19th century. Think about that for a moment. Historians start with Cleopatra and the Pharaohs and comb through every year in human history ever since, looking in every corner of the world for evidence of extraordinary wealth, and almost 20 percent of the names they end up with come from a single generation in a single country.

Here's the list:

01. John Rockefeller, 1839.
02. Andrew Carnegie, 1835.
28.Frederick Weyerhaeuser, 1834.
33. Jay Gould, 1836.
34. Marshall Field, 1834.
35. George Baker, 1840.
36. Hetty Green, 1834.
44. James G. Fair, 1831.
54. Henry H. Rogers, 1840.
57. J.P. Morgan, 1837.
58. Oliver Payne, 1839.
62. George Pullman, 1831.
64. Peter Widener, 1834.
65. Philip Armor, 1832.

What's going on here? The answer is obvious, if you think about it. In the 1860's and 1870's, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest transformation in its history. This was when the railways were built, and when Wall Street emerged. It was when industrial manufacturing started in earnest. It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy functioned were broken and remade. What that list says is that it really matters how old you were when that transformation happened.

Gladwell is speaking about wealth in this passage, but the transformative timing is what I intend to highlight: a short period of history can have an immense impact on a generation.

Or can't it?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure