Networks by Generation

I think there is a big generational gap between how Gen-X (born 1961 – 1980) and Millennial’s (born 1981 ~ 2005) see their relationship networks. Since getting laid off in January, I have been reaching out to my professional network quite a bit. That got me to thinking about the nature of networks and how, as a Gen-X’er, I think of my network in a very specific way. Although sites like Facebook or LinkedIn allow you to catalog your relationship network, I am talking more about how I view the nature of that network.

Gen X Networks

To me, a relationship network is made up of a bunch of connected individuals. Although the network seems larger than the sum of its parts, I still see it as made up of a bunch of parts. The value of the network is in those parts and how they are connected to me. The whole glob of the network is just a little too much to think about and is not really worth the effort for me.

Six Degrees of Separation, a concept popularized in the 1990’s, demonstrates this view of networks very well. The idea is that any one individual can be linked to any other individual by no more than six discrete steps. The reason why I say it demonstrates the Gen-X view of networks is that it is about the individuals. Connected enough of them and you are connected to someone else. [it does not really matter how those people are connected, through a church group, through family, through coworkers, just the fact they are connected]

Let’s take an example from my professional network. Let’s say I am looking for work at Google. I consult Linkedin and find all the people in my network who currently work for Google. In my case, the closest are 2 degrees from me (although I know several former Google employees directly). So then I can pick on that looks like a good connection to a particular position and get introduced to them through someone who knows me directly. I have used this service in the past very effectively, but that is not the point. The key insight here is that the network, for me, looks like a bunch of discrete nodes connected by little lines.

It may sound terribly mercenary, but I often see each of these connections as direct one to one exchange of favors. If I do something for someone else in my professional network, I have created a connection which I can call upon later if needed. In a strange paradox, even if I ask a favor of someone else I have created a connection that can be called upon later. But these connections are again based on individual exchanges, having little to do with larger groups.

There are certainly exceptions to this view for X’ers, but I really do think they are exceptions. If you are an X’er, think of a time when you really felt like you were part of something larger than yourself or your immediate family. Probably not an easy thing (okay, the Obama campaign doesn’t count) for most of us. Even though I have been deeply involved in my kids’ schools, I still have a tough time seeing them as something larger than myself. My motivations are very personal, tied directly to the welfare of my children.

In a visual representation, it might look a little like this (that’s supposed to be me at the center):


Where I am at the center, with my job contacts in blue, college contacts in red and hometown contacts in yellow. Maybe they know each other, maybe not. But when I go looking for work, I might lean on a college friend to give me a contact at a specific company from his network, which might span out into the job world:


Of course, each of my contacts has their individual networks, but it quickly becomes just too much to keep track of, event the first circle looking something like this:

There is a bunch of overlap, but it is still about individuals. I can make my way almost anywhere on the network (six degrees of separation) but travel is always node to node.


I think this is a fairly typical view of a relationship network for a Gen-X’er. I don’t think it carries over to the Millennial Generation.

Millennial Networks

My kids are both Millennial s but are quite young (ages 8 and 12), so most of what I am going to say here comes not from direct observation but rather to what I have read. So I am open to other possibilities.

The craze of social networking really took off with MySpace, a website that still looks like total chaos to an X’er like me. What is the point of that uncontrolled chatter? How do I know how well you know such-and-such, or what is the nature of your relationship? It’s just a big hairball of information to a discrete networker like me. Facebook was at least a little more palatable, with the ability to control the flow a little. But there is one concept in Facebook that I have never really gotten around to liking: networks.

The basis of joining up on Facebook is that you belong to some group (aka “network”). Years ago when I first tried to join I was denied because it was only for kids in college. Once they opened it up, I still needed say I was part of the “Portland, OR” network to get in. “What is the point of that?”, I thought. Portland was just where I lived, not a group that I was part of. I figured that Facebook misinterpreted geography and sociology in some way.

Of course, being part of specific networks is critical to Facebook (and many other social networking applications). It can determine whether I can converse with others on Facebook and what they can know about me. The nature of Facebook and Myspace reflect two major Millennial beliefs about networking. The first is teamwork and the second is what I call “The Noise is the Signal”.


One well-known characteristic of Millennial s is that they thrive on teamwork. They enjoy a sense of belonging that started from childhood. For the most part they are attached to groups and work hard to further the aims of those groups. So part of their view of a network is really about teams.

Rather than seeing an organization as a bunch of discrete individuals connected by circumstance, Millennial s see a team with a common purpose, which they likely are trying to further. Working hard for a company is probably about more than making money or hanging with friends. It is also about being a special part of something you truly believe in for Millennial s.

The visual representation of this would be something more along the lines of:


Where I am part of something much larger (college in the case above). Now if I went looking for a job, I might think of the extension of this network like this:


And if I could include other networks as well:


If you compare this directly with the Gen X view, you can see the similarity: Both have three groups with overlap. But the key difference is how the individual at the center sees themselves relating to that group. Are they part of that group, or connected to individuals in that group?

But what really happens when that theoretical Millennial looks for a job by asking for help from their college friends? Probably the same thing that happens for a Gen-X’er: one friend calls another who puts them in touch with someone else. But the feeling a Millennial gets from this is very different than an X’er. They get the feeling they are part of something even bigger, rather than feeling like they are individuals navigating a twisty and difficult network. These feelings are not made up, they are real, because they are shared by an entire generation. Giving a helping hand for a Millennial means something very different than for an X’er. Teamwork is a strong value.

The Noise is the Signal

Another way to view these sorts of interactions is how transactional they are in nature. Many of the personal interactions I have are very transactional, particularly in business. I send an IM to someone asking for a specific piece of information or to take care of a task. I might email them with a brief explanation of something that needs to get done and then expect a return message asking for clarification or adjustment. While I find I can connect well with other Gen X’ers by phone or in-person, these electronic mediums seem better for handling transactions of one sort or another.

This is definitely not the case for many Millennial s. Sending 100 text messages a day, most with “? RU” or something similar is probably fairly common. You can see this sort of constant chatter on Facebook and Myspace (and Twitter before that). The transaction is not the important thing here at all, it’s like a constant casual conversation.

While a Gen X’er like me sees much of this as noise, for Millennial s the noise is the signal. It’s like a pulse of their community (as wide and diverse as that may be). As an X’er I am pretty well blind to it, and I am waiting for the transaction (which will probably never arrive).

What does it all mean?

I started by mentioning two online social networking tools, Linkedin and Facebook. In many ways these tools are good examples of the contrasts between these two generations. Facebook was created by a Millennial, LinkedIn by a Gen-X’er. On Facebook you are part of big networks (hometown, college, etc…) and LinkedIn is all about the individuals that you know. But both can be very effective for making connections, depending on what you are after.

To sum up:

  • Gen X’ers see a network as connected individuals
  • Millennial’s see a network as a community

The important thing to understand is that they are both true, regardless of the network you are talking about. Just because a Gen X’er can’t see the forest for the trees in a community, it does not mean the community does not exist. And both generations can learn from each other when it comes to relationships and community. Gen-X’ers are independent and may seem mercenary in their attitude, but we understand the dynamics of a network very well. Millennials can benefit for working with Gen-X’ers to see the individual goals in an organization. Gen-X’ers can learn a greater sense of trust in community and organizations from Millenials. Let the lessons begin!

16 thoughts on “Networks by Generation”

  1. Dave,

    Interesting thesis, and I guess I sort of agree.

    But what surprised me is that you identify your kids as Millennials. I have an 8 year old (and a 6 year old, since we’re sharing), but I wouldn’t call either of them Gen Y or the other names. As a true Gen Xers, the Douglas Copeland kind that is from the gap years between booms, not the once defined as anyone younger than a boomer and often extended to 1980s born kids, I am from a small, left-out-of-the-boom generation. The group that followed me, even by five or ten years, had many more advantages of the size of their generation (“I am not a target market”). My kids, well, I don’t know what their generation will be called, but they are definitely not Gen Y, but rather the thing that will come next. I wouldn’t lump them together with a 22 year old currently in the workplace, which is what I consider to be the average Gen Y at the moment.


    1. @Carla, thanks for your comment. I realize that many people see the 20-somethings at the true Gen-Y or Millennial generation, but true generations span 20-25 years. Millennials started showing up in 1982 and probably span all the kids born until about 2005. Although there are always attempts to break generations down further, they don’t help us understand the future in a meaningful way (see my post about Generation Jones for more on this topic). Certainly the character of my 8 year old will be different from a 26 year old, but they share more similarities in generational qualities than differences.

  2. Dave, unlike these other commenters, I couldnt agree more with your take on the Myspace stuff—total chaos to me, too!

    My kids are 11, 8, 5, 3 and infant and they are most certainly millenials. You wouldnt belive the computer savvy, the way they “network” the way they view the internet—and they dont get it fromk “school”, they are homeschooled…which to me is a cool control group in itself.

    Anyhow i think your diagrams made alot of sense.

    1. The weird thing about generations is that you don’t even need to be fully immersed in a society to end up deeply influenced by it. My brother-in-laws kids are homeschooled as well, but they are definitely Millennials as well. Somehow the times they were born in influence everything about them. Our kids go to Waldorf and have limited exposure to media and computers. But over Thanksgiving we were at my sisters place and they had a Wii. It was amazing to see how my 12 year old just picked the thing up like he had been playing all his life. Just part of what they are born with in this generation.

  3. Hi there,

    While I have to disagree with you about the usefulness of breaking down sub-generations–I am from the xy generation, and it fits me far more than X or Y alone does–I think your points are pretty brilliant. There are two ways of seeing networking, and your graphs illustrate them beautifully. That said, one of the things about the sub-generation I feel I belong to, is that we are “bilingual” in the two kinds of networking. Both seem “right” and “real”, and can be used interchangeably, and sometimes affect our outlook simultaneously. I would be interested to explore the long-term uses of such an overlapping view of networking. Generation X and Y, I think, have a lot to get together on, and sometimes I can’t wait until we are the only two groups on the field–I think we will be able to team up a lot more than we expect right now, for some real innovation. I hope that as someone balancing on the cusp of the two generations, I can experience that teamwork firsthand.

    Cheers on the interesting blog!

    1. @Vi, I think there is a certain “in between” sense to everyone born on the cusp of various generations. I wrote about this in my post about “Generation Jones“. Although I don’t buy into creating a new generation for these cuspers (because it just complicates an already difficult theory), it’s somewhat like being a swing voter: you can see both sides which can lead to either confusion or, hopefully, diplomacy. I expect you will get the chance to see X’er and Millennials working together in the future. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I wondered why LinkedIn just made so much more sense to me! I find Myspace kind of repulsive – a kind of “mental hairball” is a good image. What I find troubling is that many of these initiatives start off well, and then spiral downwards as the “lowest common denominator” of trolls and/or the terminally vacuous take over.

    1. @susan – I like that “mental hairball”. Hehe. I remember reading an article by a Gen X’er about how chaotic Myspace was and that he tried to design a nice webpage for his Millennial child, but she thought it sucked. Guess they can handle the hairball better than us 🙂

  5. Am I just out of touch with my generation? I’m 22 and I find MySpace annoying and useless, constant texting inane and baffling, and can’t say I feel any particular connection to the ‘group’ I selected when I joined Facebook. Then again, I’ve found myself joining in in all these things through peer pressure…. hmm.

  6. This is my current research on the generational matter :

    Generation(s) Concerns
    1. Boomer 1939-1958 Personal Ideal
    2. Jones 1959-1970 Global (Universal) Practicality
    3. X 1971-1984 Global (Universal) Equality
    4. Y 1985-1995 Global (Universal) Identity
    5. Z 1996-2008 Universal truth

  7. My personal research is focused on the character building of a person that shape how they view and face their approaching life which its crucial phase starting as early from 7 years of age to 21 years of age and could stretch to the late of his twenties. And these character building phases heavily influence the development of crucial unique abilities from how they have and learn to cope individually through the formal and informal education (examples, medias) received during the childhood and teenage years. The 'home' factor and 'external medias' along with its 'medium' (technology) during the growing years (7-21) plays a critically vital role in influencing the mold shape (confidence, values and perception) of the person as to how they would later act in their early adult life and more importantly their parenting role. These (home and growing phases) is what I perceivably believe as to the be the main source for the generational character differences in the likes of the veterans, boomers, jones, xers, yers and also the zers. And it seems that such generational pattern could be irreversably cyclic of nature along with its uniquely positive and less positive attributes. It worth to be researched into and could be successfully delivered by a any purposeful neutrally discerning minds.

  8. You really cannot use dates to define a generation. ANYONE can be a millenial if he/she is tech – savvy, open – minded to ALL kinds of diversity, and is into the latest music and entertainment. I was born in '79 and all these characteristics describe me, so that makes me gen y.

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