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!