This Is Generation Flux: Meet The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business

The future of business is pure chaos. Here's how you can survive—and perhaps even thrive.

DJ Patil pulls a 2-foot-long metalbar from his backpack. The contraption, which he calls a "double pendulum," is hinged in the middle, so it can fold in on itself. Another hinge on one end is attached to a clamp he secures to the edge of a table. "Now," he says, holding the bar vertically, at its top, "see if you can predict where this end will go." Then he releases it, and the bar begins to swing wildly, circling the spot where it is attached to the table, while also circling in on itself. There is no pattern, no way to predict where it will end up. While it spins and twists with surprising velocity, Patil talks to me about chaos theory. "The important insight," he notes, "is identifying when things are chaotic and when they're not."

In high school, Patil got kicked out of math class for being disruptive. He graduated only by persuading his school administrator to change his F grade in chemistry. He went to junior college because that's where his girlfriend was going, and signed up for calculus because she had too. He took so long to do his homework, his girlfriend would complain. "It's not like I'm going to become a mathematician," he would tell her.

Patil, 37, is now an expert in chaos theory, among other mathematical disciplines. He has applied computational science to help the Defense Department with threat assessment and bioweapons containment; he worked for eBay on web security and payment fraud; he was chief scientist at LinkedIn, before joining venture-capital firm Greylock Partners. But Patil first made a name for himself as a researcher on weather patterns at the University of Maryland: "There are some times," Patil explains, "when you can predict weather well for the next 15 days. Other times, you can only really forecast a couple of days. Sometimes you can't predict the next two hours."

The business climate, it turns out, is a lot like the weather. And we've entered a next-two-hours era. The pace of change in our economy and our culture is accelerating—fueled by global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies—and our visibility about the future is declining. From the rise of Facebook to the fall of Blockbuster, from the downgrading of U.S. government debt to the resurgence of Brazil, predicting what will happen next has gotten exponentially harder. Uncertainty has taken hold in boardrooms and cubicles, as executives and workers (employed and unemployed) struggle with core questions: Which competitive advantages have staying power? What skills matter most? How can you weigh risk and opportunity when the fundamentals of your business may change overnight?

Look at the global cell-phone business. Just five years ago, three companies controlled 64% of the smartphone market: Nokia, Research in Motion, and Motorola. Today, two different companies are at the top of the industry: Samsung and Apple. This sudden complete swap in the pecking order of a global multibillion-dollar industry is unprecedented. Consider the meteoric rise of Groupon and Zynga, the disruption in advertising and publishing, the advent of mobile ultrasound and other "mHealth" breakthroughs (see 'Open Your Mouth And Say 'Aah!'). Online-education efforts are eroding our assumptions about what schooling looks like. Cars are becoming rolling, talking, cloud-connected media hubs. In an age where Twitter and other social-media tools play key roles in recasting the political map in the Mideast; where impoverished residents of refugee camps would rather go without food than without their cell phones; where all types of media, from music to TV to movies, are being remade, redefined, defended, and attacked every day in novel ways—there is no question that we are in a new world.

Any business that ignores these transformations does so at its own peril. Despite recession, currency crises, and tremors of financial instability, the pace of disruption is roaring ahead. The frictionless spread of information and the expansion of personal, corporate, and global networks have plenty of room to run. And here's the conundrum: When businesspeople search for the right forecast—the road map and model that will define the next era—no credible long-term picture emerges. There is one certainty, however. The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern. The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos.

To thrive in this climate requires a whole new approach, which we'll outline in the pages that follow. Because some people will thrive. They are the members of Generation Flux. This is less a demographic designation than a psychographic one: What defines GenFlux is a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates—and even enjoys—recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions. Not everyone will join Generation Flux, but to be successful, businesses and individuals will have to work at it. This is no simple task. The vast bulk of our institutions—educational, corporate, political—are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.

DJ Patil is a GenFluxer. He has worked in academia, in government, in big public companies, and in startups; he is a technologist and a businessman; a teacher and a diplomat. He is none of those things and all of them, and who knows what he will be or do next? Certainly not him. "That doesn't bother me," he says. "I'll find something."

The New Economy Is For Real

More than 15 years ago, this magazine was launched with a cover that declared: "Work Is Personal. Computing Is Social. Knowledge Is Power." Those words resonate today, but with a new, deeper meaning. Fast Company's covers during the dotcom boom of the 1990s described "Free Agent Nation" and "The Brand Called You." We became associated with the "new economy," with the belief that the world had changed irreparably, and that yesterday's rules no longer applied. But then the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, and the idea of a new economy was discredited.

Now we know that what we saw in the 1990s was not a mirage. It was instead a shadow, a premonition of a new business reality that is emerging every day—and this time, perhaps chastened by that first go-round, we're prepared to admit that we don't fully understand it. This new economy currently revolves around social and mobile, but those may be only the latest manifestations of a global, connected world careening ahead at great velocity.

Some pundits deride the current era as just another bubble. They point out that new, heady tech companies are garnering massive valuations: Facebook, Groupon, LinkedIn. And beyond the alpha dogs, the list of startups with valuations above $200 million is long indeed: Airbnb, Dropbox, Flipboard, Foursquare, Gilt Groupe, Living Social, Rovio, Spotify—the roster goes on and on.

Setting aside the fact that the majority of these enterprises, unlike the darlings of the late-1990s, have significant revenue, so what if some companies are overvalued? That still doesn't discount the way mobile, social, and other breakthroughs are changing our way of life, not just in America but around the globe. And in the process, these changes are remaking geopolitical and business assumptions that have been in place for decades. This was not true in 2000. But it is now. Chaotic disruption is rampant, not simply from the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google. No one predicted that General Motors would go bankrupt—and come back from the abyss with greater momentum than Toyota. No one in the car-rental industry foresaw the popularity of auto-sharing Zipcar—and Zipcar didn't foresee the rise of outfits like Uber and RelayRides, which are already trying to steal its market. Digital competition destroyed bookseller Borders, and yet the big, stodgy music labels—seemingly the ground zero for digital disruption—defy predictions of their demise. Walmart has given up trying to turn itself into a bank, but before retail bankers breathe a sigh of relief, they ought to look over their shoulders at Square and other mobile-wallet initiatives. Amid a reeling real-estate market, new players like Trulia and Zillow are gobbling up customers. Even the law business is under siege from companies like LegalZoom, an online DIY document service. "All these industries are being revolutionized," observes Pete Cashmore, the 26-year-old founder of social-news site Mashable, which has exploded overnight to reach more than 20 million users a month. "It's come to technology first, but it will reach every industry. You're going to have businesses rise and fall faster than ever."

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

"In a big company, you never feel you're fast enough." Beth Comstock, the chief marketing officer of GE, is talking to me by phone from the Rosewood Hotel in Menlo Park, California, where she's visiting entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. She gets a charge out of the Valley, but her trips also remind her how perilous the business climate is right now. "Business-model innovation is constant in this economy," she says. "You start with a vision of a platform. For a while, you think there's a line of sight, and then it's gone. There's suddenly a new angle."

Within GE, she says, "our traditional teams are too slow. We're not innovating fast enough. We need to systematize change." Comstock connected me with Susan Peters, who oversees GE's executive-development effort. "The pace of change is pretty amazing," Peters says. "There's a need to be less hierarchical and to rely more on teams. This has all increased dramatically in the last couple of years."

Executives at GE are bracing for a new future. The challenge they face is the same one staring down wide swaths of corporate America, not to mention government, schools, and other institutions that have defined how we've lived: These organizations have structures and processes built for an industrial age, where efficiency is paramount but adaptability is terribly difficult. We are finely tuned at taking a successful idea or product and replicating it on a large scale. But inside these legacy institutions, changing direction is rough. From classrooms arranged in rows of seats to tenured professors, from the assembly line to the way we promote executives, we have been trained to expect an orderly life. Yet the expectation that these systems provide safety and stability is a trap. This is what Comstock and Peters are battling.

"The business community focuses on managing uncertainty," says Dev Patnaik, cofounder and CEO of strategy firm Jump Associates, which has advised GE, Target, and PepsiCo, among others. "That's actually a bit of a canard." The true challenge lies elsewhere, he explains: "In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world, ambiguity is rising to unprecedented levels. That's something our current systems can't handle.

"There's a difference between the kind of problems that companies, institutions, and governments are able to solve and the ones that they need to solve," Patnaik continues. "Most big organizations are good at solving clear but complicated problems. They're absolutely horrible at solving ambiguous problems—when you don't know what you don't know. Faced with ambiguity, their gears grind to a halt.

"Uncertainty is when you've defined the variable but don't know its value. Like when you roll a die and you don't know if it will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. But ambiguity is when you're not even sure what the variables are. You don't know how many dice are even being rolled or how many sides they have or which dice actually count for anything." Businesses that focus on uncertainty, says Patnaik, "actually delude themselves into thinking that they have a handle on things. Ah, ambiguity; it can be such a bitch."

Be Not Afraid

What's "a bitch" for companies can be terror for individuals. The idea of taking risks, of branching out into this ambiguous future, is scary at a moment when the economy is in no hurry to emerge from the doldrums and when unemployment is a national crisis. The security of the 40-year career of the man in the gray-flannel suit may have been overstated, but at least he had a path, a ladder. The new reality is multiple gigs, some of them supershort (see "The Four-Year Career"), with constant pressure to learn new things and adapt to new work situations, and no guarantee that you'll stay in a single industry. It can be daunting. It can be exhausting. It can also be exhilarating. "Fear holds a lot of people back," says Raina Kumra, 34. "I'm skill hoarding. Every time I update my resume, I see the path that I didn't know would be. You keep throwing things into your backpack, and eventually you'll have everything in your tool kit."

Kumra is sitting in a Dublin hotel, where earlier she spoke on a panel about the future of mobile before a group of top chief information officers. She is not technically in the mobile business; nor is she a software engineer or an academic. She actually works for a federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, as codirector of innovation for the group that oversees Voice of America and other government-run international media. How she got there is a classic journey of flux.

Kumra started out in film school. She made two documentaries, including one in South America and India, and then took a job as a video editor for Scientific American Frontiers. "After each trip to shoot footage," she says, "I'd come back and find that the editing tools had all changed." So she decided to learn computer programming. "I figured I had to get my tech on," says Kumra, who signed up for New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. She then moved into the ad world, doing digital campaigns at BBH, R/GA, and Wieden+Kennedy before launching her own agency. Along the way she picked up a degree from Harvard's design school, taught at the University of Amsterdam, and started a not-for-profit called Light Up Malawi.

"So many people tell me, 'I don't know what you do,'" Kumra says. It's an admission echoed by many in Generation Flux, but it doesn't bother her at all. "I'm a collection of many things. I'm not one thing."

The point here is not that Kumra's tool kit of skills allows her to cut through the ambiguity of this era. Rather, it is that the variety of her experiences—and her passion for new ones—leaves her well prepared for whatever the future brings. "I had to try something entrepreneurial. I had to try social enterprise. I needed to understand government," she says of her various career moves. "I just needed to know all this."

You do not have to be a jack-of-all-trades to flourish in the age of flux, but you do need to be open-minded. GE's Comstock doesn't have as eclectic a career path as Kumra—she has spent two decades within GE's various divisions. But just because she can dress and act the part of a loyal corporate soldier doesn't mean Comstock is not a GenFluxer. She's got a sweet spot for creative types, especially those whose fresh thinking can spur the buttoned-up GE culture forward. She's brought in folks like Benjamin Palmer, the groovy CEO of edgy ad firm Barbarian Group, to help inject new ideas and processes into GE's marketing apparatus. "We're creating digital challenge teams," she explains. "We're doing a lot more work with entrepreneurs. It's part of our internal growth strategy. It creates tension. It makes people's jobs frustrating. But it's also energizing."

Comstock, once president of digital media at NBC, is now one of CEO Jeff Immelt's key confidants. "I've always gravitated to the new," Comstock says, in trying to explain her comfort with change. "Part of it is who you are. I grew up in media, in news, and developed almost an addiction to go from deadline to deadline. It's intoxicating." And profitable. Comstock is the architect of Ecomagination and Healthymagination, GE initiatives that have helped reconfigure the company during this financial crisis. While it's too early to tell what Healthymagination could produce, the Ecomagination group has to date accounted for $85 billion in revenue.

Nuke Nostalgia

If ambiguity is high and adaptability is required, then you simply can't afford to be sentimental about the past. Future-focus is a signature trait of Generation Flux. It is also an imperative for businesses: Trying to replicate what worked yesterday only leaves you vulnerable.

Baratunde Thurston is a quintessential GenFluxer. When I met up with him recently, he had just pulled an all-nighter. At 1 a.m. that morning, the New York City police had descended on Zuccotti Park to roust the Occupy Wall Street crowd, and Thurston—who is digital director for satirical news outlet The Onion—was called on to help cover the event. He was at home, in Brooklyn, but he didn't jump on the subway or into a taxi to hustle his way to lower Manhattan like a traditional journalist. Instead he fired up his computer. "I found the live streams of video from the site, so I could see what was going on. Then I monitored police scanners, to hear what they were saying. I looked at news feeds and Mayor Bloomberg's statements, and then I accessed all my social-media feeds, screening by zip code what people down there were saying. Some people in the neighborhood were freaked out by helicopters overhead, shining floodlights into their windows. They had no idea what was going on, said it felt like a police action. Which it was, you know."

For three hours, Thurston pieced together what he was seeing and hearing, and rebroadcasted it via digital channels. "I had a better sense of what was happening and where the crowds were moving than the people on the ground," he says. By eschewing well-trod practices and creatively adjusting to a fluid situation, he built an authentic narrative in real time, one that reflected the true story far better than the nightly TV news.

Thurston calls himself "a politically active, technology-loving comedian from the future." He works for The Onion, does stand-up comedy, and has a terrific book coming out this month called How to Be Black. "I was a computer programmer in high school, but I discovered I wasn't very good at it—it was too tedious," he says. "I was a philosophy major. I did management consulting right out of college. But then I started doing comedy, and I love it. People say to me all the time, 'What are you? You need to focus.' Maybe so. But for now, this smorgasbord of activities is working."

Thurston is telling me all this over lunch at Delicatessen, a restaurant in SoHo on the corner of Prince and Lafayette. "I'm the mayor of this corner on Foursquare. Last night, the Occupy crowd walked right by here, and I tweeted them: 'That's my corner. Sorry I'm not there, I promise I'd be a better mayor for you than Bloomberg.'"

Thurston is not bashful. At 34, he's not a kid (though he says, "I have the technological age of a 26-year-old"). And he's cheering on the pace of change. "You can knock on the doors of power and make your case for access. That's the way it's usually done. Or you can be like Mark Zuckerberg and build your own system around it." Thurston is utterly lacking in nostalgia. "I was talking to some documentary filmmakers at a conference, and they all just talk about loss, the loss of a model. I can empathize. But I'm not upset that the model is dying. The milkman is dead, but we drink more milk than ever. Do we really want to return to a world of just three broadcast channels?"

Nostalgia is a natural human emotion, a survival mechanism that pushes people to avoid risk by applying what we've learned and relying on what's worked before. It's also about as useful as an appendix right now. When times seem uncertain, we instinctively become more conservative; we look to the past, to times that seem simpler, and we have the urge to re-create them. This impulse is as true for businesses as for people. But when the past has been blown away by new technology, by the ubiquitous and always-on global hypernetwork, beloved past practices may well be useless.

Nostalgia is of particular concern to GE's Peters, keeper of the company's vaunted leadership training. Since 2009, she has been aggressively rethinking the program; last January, she rolled out "a new contemporized view of expectations" for GE's top 650 managers. That's a mouthful, but basically it's a revolution to the way execs are evaluated at the company known as America's leadership factory. "We now recognize that external focus is more multifaceted than simply serving 'the customer,'" says Peters, "that other stakeholders have to be considered. We talk about how to get and apply external knowledge, how to lead in ambiguous situations, how to listen actively, and the whole idea of collaboration."

Not everyone at GE is excited about the shift. "Some people question changing our definitions," Peters says. "When they do, I ask: How many of you use the same cell phone from five years ago? The world isn't the same, so we need new parameters." At GE's Crotonville leadership center, in New York, "we are physically changing the buildings, to make it better for teams," she says. A large kitchen has been installed, so teams can cook together "with all the messiness and egalitarian spirit involved." Managers who are uncomfortable playing second fiddle to more culinary-inclined staffers "can sit on the side and have a glass of wine," says Peters. "But usually, after a while, they realize they're on the sidelines, and they get in the game." And then there's the building known around campus as the "White House," which dates back to the 1950s. "It's where executives would go after dinner to have a drink," Peters explains. "We're gutting it, replacing it with a university-like all-day coffeehouse. Some colleagues who've been here for 20, 30 years, they tell me, 'This is terrible.' I tell them, 'You are not our target demographic.'"

So much for nostalgia. At this year's meeting of GE's top executives, presentation materials will be available only via iPads. "Some are scrambling to learn how to turn one on," Peters says. "They just have to do it. There's a natural tendency for some people to pull back when change comes. We're not going to wave a magic wand and make everyone different. But with the right team, the right coaching, we can get them to see things differently."

Thurston is less forgiving of the iPad-challenged. "It's irresponsible not to use the tools of the day," he charges. "People say, 'Oh, if I master Twitter, I've got it figured out.' That's right, but it's also so wrong. If you master those things and stop, you're just going to get killed by the next thing. Flexibility of skills leads to flexibility of options. To see what you can't see coming, you've got to embrace larger principles."

There Are No Perfect Role Models

Bob Greenberg, chief executive of digital advertising agency R/GA, doesn't do the comb-over. Nor does he crop his hair short or shave his scalp, in the way of so many modern admen. Instead, beyond the patch of baldness on top of his head, his hair is long and flowing and bushy. It's as if he's saying, Look, I am who I am. So deal with it.

I met with Greenberg several times this past fall to talk about how he's managing a growing business in an industry experiencing total upheaval. The first time we sat down, in September, he dropped that his company had dozens of job openings. The agency, Greenberg explained, had grown 20% since the start of the year, from 1,000 staffers to 1,200. And to net those 200 additions, Greenberg had hired 500 new people. That math doesn't exactly add up, I pointed out.

Here's the rub: R/GA's young GenFlux staffers are leaving at such a steady pace, sticking around for such short runs that Greenberg finds himself constantly replacing them, endlessly slotting one talented young person into another's place. Many CEOs would react to this news with alarm: What are we doing wrong? Why can't we keep our young talent? Greenberg talks about this intense transition with nonchalance. He's not upset by it; he's not fighting it; and he assumes this is the way life will be for the foreseeable future.

But that doesn't mean he's standing still. Despite strong business momentum, he's pushing R/GA into a radical reorganization—the fifth time he's hauled the firm into a new business model. "If we don't change our structure, we'll get less relevant," Greenberg tells me. "We won't be able to grow." This time, he's integrating 12 new capabilities, from live events to data visualization to product development, into R/GA's platforms. "People talk about change and adaptation, but they don't see how fast the competition is coming," he says. "We have to move. We have no choice."

R/GA's flexibility is instructive for large firms and small. Many businesses are struggling to recast their strategies, with top execs hunting desperately for successful models that they can replicate. (Which might explain why you've probably heard the phrase, "We're the Apple of . . ." once too often.) But there is no new model; you may well need to build one from scratch. "Command-and-control hierarchical structures are being disintegrated," says danah boyd, a social-science researcher for Microsoft Research who also teaches at New York University. "There's a difference between the old broadcast world and the networked world."

In a world of flux, what succeeds for one industry or company doesn't necessarily work for another; and even if it does, it may not work for long. One reason Facebook has thrived is that it is continually changing. Users and pundits routinely carp about new features or designs. But this is the way Facebook has been from its inception—including the critical decision in 2006 to open its doors to those not in college. Mark Zuckerberg knows that if he doesn't keep Facebook moving, others will come after him. Steve Jobs applied a similar approach at Apple: He disrupted his own business in dozens of ways, from refusing to make new products compatible with old operating systems to dumping the iPod's successful track wheel to embrace touch screens—ahead of everyone else.

Just because a specific tactic worked for Apple doesn't mean it is right for your business. Maybe the world's best marshmallow maker just needs to keep churning out the best marshmallow (even if it should have its own Facebook page and a Twitter feed). Every enterprise needs to find—and evolve—the structure, system, and culture that best allows it to stay competitive as its specific market shifts. Business leaders need to be creative, adaptive, and focused in their techniques, staffing, and philosophy.

An instructive analogy comes from the world of software. In a recent book called Building Data Science Teams, chaos expert Patil explained how software used to be developed: "One group defines the product, another builds visual mock-ups . . . and finally a set of engineers builds it to some specification document." This is known as a "waterfall" process, which was practiced by large, successful enterprises like Microsoft that, on a designated schedule, issued large, finished releases of their products (Windows 95, Windows 2000, and so on). Today that process is giving way to "agile" development, to what Patil calls "the ability to adapt and iterate quickly throughout the product life cycle." In software, such work follows the precepts of "The Agile Manifesto," a 2001 document written by a group of developers who stated a preference for "individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; [and] responding to change over following a plan."

It's not just the apps on your iPad: The entire world of business is now in a constant state of agile development. New releases are constant; tweaks, upgrades, and course corrections take place on the fly. There is no status quo; there is only a process of change.

But if your business is primed to be adaptable, flexible, and prepared for any shift in the economy, isn't it also primed to be whipsawed by constant change?

I visited Nike CEO Mark Parker on the company's campus outside of Portland, Oregon, and I asked if he had ever considered having Nike-branded hospitals, or Nike-branded doctors, or Nike-branded health food. After all, Nike is dedicated to improving its customers' health. The health-care business is in tumult, and presumably an innovative new entrant could make a lot of money. Parker replied that, however tempting those business opportunities might be, they didn't intersect with Nike's core focus on sport.

That doesn't mean Nike is avoiding new areas—including ones that touch on health. Spread across a couple of buildings on the west side of its campus are the employees of Nike's digital sports operation. This burgeoning startup is focused on remaking how casual athletes train, stay motivated, and connect with one another. More than 5 million people interact on the Nike+ website, which connects to sensors in your shoes, phone, or watch to provide GPS-linked data about your exercise, as well as health facts such as heart rate and calories burned. By deploying new technologies and tools in the service of its long-term mission, Nike has deepened its customers' brand experience—and reinforced, rather than fractured, its sense of identity.

The key is to be clear about your business mission. In a world of flux, this becomes more important than ever. Netflix's recent troubles with its ill-fated Qwikster product is a telling example. Netflix's core proposition has always been delivering a better, simpler, cheaper consumer experience. CEO Reed Hastings rattled video stores like Blockbuster with his no-late-fee DVD-by-mail model; he then obliterated them with his embrace of online streaming. But along the way, Netflix began to see itself as a first-mover technology leader more than a leader in consumer-focused experiences. That's when the company stumbled, by forcing its customers to go somewhere they didn't want, more because it made sense for Netflix's business model than it did for them.

The twist to all this: Given the need for more frequent iteration in our age of flux, missteps like Netflix's may become more prevalent. And over time, we'll become more forgiving as a result. That will encourage even greater embrace of innovation by businesses, as the costs of failure decline. And in the process, flux will destabilize—and energize—our economy even more.

Lessons Of Flux

Our institutions are out of date; the long career is dead; any quest for solid rules is pointless, since we will be constantly rethinking them; you can't rely on an established business model or a corporate ladder to point your way; silos between industries are breaking down; anything settled is vulnerable.

Put this way, the chaos ahead sounds pretty grim. But its corollary is profound: This is the moment for an explosion of opportunity, there for the taking by those prepared to embrace the change. We have been through a version of this before. At the turn of the 20th century, as cities grew to be the center of American culture, those accustomed to the agrarian clock of sunrise-sunset and the pace of the growing season were forced to learn the faster ways of the urban-manufacturing world. There was widespread uneasiness about the future, about what a job would be, about what a community would be. Fringe political groups and popular movements gave expression to that anxiety. Yet from those days of ambiguity emerged a century of tremendous progress.

Today we face a similar transition, this time born of technology and globalization—an unhinging of the expected, from employment to markets to corporate leadership. "There are all kinds of reasons to be afraid of this economy," says Microsoft Research's boyd. "Technology forces disruption, and not all of the change will be good. Optimists look to all the excitement. Pessimists look to all that gets lost. They're both right. How you react depends on what you have to gain versus what you have to lose."

Yet while pessimists may be emotionally calmed by their fretting, it will not aid them practically. The pragmatic course is not to hide from the change, but to approach it head-on. Thurston offers this vision: "Imagine a future where people are resistant to stasis, where they're used to speed. A world that slows down if there are fewer options—that's old thinking and frustrating. Stimulus becomes the new normal."

To flourish requires a new kind of openness. More than 150 years ago, Charles Darwin foreshadowed this era in his description of natural selection: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change." As we traverse this treacherous, exciting bridge to tomorrow, there is no clearer message than that.

Meet GenerationFlux

Read the full profiles.

[Photos by Brooke Nipar]

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87 Comments

  • Jose

    I'm still talking about this article after almost two years from the time it was published. I think that this article is relevant now more than ever because it defines a very special group of entrepreneurs that have had to find very creative ways to succeed in today's highly competitive environment.

    Robert mentions that being a GenFluxer goes beyond demographics and is more of a state of mind. It's too bad that Burton did not appreciate the article simply because he does not connect with GenFlux. The existence of Generation Flux is undeniable no matter what one's opinion is of its social relevancy. The fact is that many extremely successful entrepreneurs fall under the GenFlux definition.

    There has been many other "groups" that don't fall under the mainstream, or socially accepted, behavior for business people. We all have the right to be however we want to be and Burton has the right to express his opinion. That's what makes America such a great Nation!

  • Anthony Reardon

    Alright Robert, you just about got me, but I refuse to be labeled "Generation" anything, lol!

    I took a personality profile test in college, and while it came so close on many respects, I strongly disagreed with the ultimate conclusion. Took the same test when I got out of the Corps about 5 years later. This time I refused to answer half the questions because I didn't agree with how they were phrased or would not describe myself by any of the given answers. Sure enough, I got the same result.

    For sake of discussion: Surprised to be the first to comment here, especially since this article is over a year and a half gone. Came across it by chance and still seems pretty current to me. I've concerned myself with the "nascent dynamics"- what it takes to compete as a modern business for the modern environment. This is something I would gladly discuss extensively with you or anyone else interested. For all that resonates in your article, in my experience finding people that can keep up is rare. I will certainly enjoy exploring your Generation Flux.  

    For sake of disruption: In terms of my work in social media, you've just made it to the top of my list of people I'd like to meet. However, I'd rather be playing soccer. In fact, I'm a huge fan of Nike Soccer, and if I had it my way I would do a lot to revolutionize the sport in America. The steps forward so far have been O.K., especially what Nike has contributed, but overall way too slow. Much more needs to be done and exponentially faster/ better. The untapped market potential of that industry is one of those billion dollar bars IMHO. So right above you, I would like to meet Mark Parker. After reading your insights, I get the feeling we would hit it off.

    Best, Anthony

  • Former RGA Employee

    Incorrect. There is always a pattern. Always.
    But there is allot to learn and know, including the origins of human motivation, before one can perceive what the pattern is.

    The pattern today, is truth wins deceit crumbles. Transparency will become more and more important in all aspects of life, awareness of the way things really are driving change for the better.

  • Elaine Starling

    Interesting article about the pace of change...  Enjoy increasing your skills and adding value.

  • brian piercy

    I'm no spring chicken. (52.) But I, for one, welcome the chaos. Bring it on!

  • Kyle Billings

    Great article! But are we really still on this conversation? As a digital native of 23 years old and a new business owner in the branding industry I feel that this conversation was great to talk about 5 or 6 years ago but in internet time that's exponentially longer.  I feel that, with older people, this conversation will continue until the digital immigrant generation of corporate america retires. Then we can talk about real innovation and change at the pace we need to be talking about it. It's great that the media is warning people about the generation of flux, but generation flux doesn't see this as a relevant conversation. I think we're more interested in how you're adapting rather than the dangers of not adapting. I feel like if people were really interested in truly growing they wouldn't worry so much about the fact that it's changing and they be more interested in the future. We can obviously see where technology is and how it's changing. We can look at the environment in which technology develops and it's goals and we can adjust accordingly. It's really an organic growth patter that communication technology has taken

    I understand that global conglomerates and big corporate America changes more slowly and that it's being run by digital immigrants, that makes this article relevant. But for me, I feel we need to be talking more to digital youth and seeing through their eyes what the future holds. I'm just saying that we're all aware of the change that needs to occur, we're just more interested in what changes are actually occuring. Which is why I love FastCompany magazine. I'm frequently blown away at new articles on the co.Design blog. 

  • James Fauscett

    This has some validity about keeping up or losing relevance, but making instant business decisions (affecting hundreds or thousands of employees and/or stockholders) hinging on the perception that things change overnight is guesswork and could cause a mad panic in the business as well as the free market.  However, I agree that knowing and taking into account the potential for instant change is imperative for success. 

    Lumping people together into categories based only on the heroes of your article is a very narrow perspective and somewhat baseless.  Along those lines, your article's subject(s) that have come up with the next big thing will constantly be under tremendous pressure to again come up with the next big thing or they'll be watching from the sidelines (read:  desperation). 

    Further, asking only people with multiple success stories about the validity of "Generation Flux" is is like asking ONLY the greatest NFL players ever why the NFL was such a great place to be.  Ask the one-gamer riding the pine, the guy who never graduated from the practice squad or Barry Sanders, you might get a different story.

    Ultimately, for businesses to succeed, they have to *sustain* business.  I've seen frenetic consultants breeze in to companies, throw down a hundred ADHD ideas (that either required tens of millions to execute or a completely baffling partnership/alliance with an unleveraged partner in an unrelated industry), and then leave in a huff when they fail, citing the company's inability to embrace change.  If this is Generation Flux, then doom on us.

  • Kestrel Jenkins

    Looking forward to watching how we, the GenFluxers, can infiltrate the business world with social and environmental endeavors, amidst the chaos.

  • steven wartofsky

    While I like the enthusiasm and embrace of chaos the article represents rhetorically, I'm afraid I've seen this kind of breathy, frothy kind of piece before, frequently.  To be precise, right before the dot-com meltdown of 2000.

    It's interesting that the prose style, the rhetoric, the sense of inevitability and confidence behind the article is so resonant that way.  It might well be a harbinger.

    The problem with "always on, always now" is that, without any serious attention paid to context -- deep context, often known as history, in the highest sense (not just your browser's cookie collection) -- you can generate a lot of excitement around superficialities that sound fantastic, and lead to..... nowhere.

    It is quite true that change is always with us, and always happening, and occurring more globally, and at a faster pace.

    However, as I think some very smart people (Jaron Lanier, for instance) might counsel in the midst of that fact, the productive reaction is in fact NOT to get caught up in the froth, but to enjoy it with patience, persistance, and most importantly, the incredibly powerful perspective that comes from deep, systematic, scientific, sustained immersion in a particular subject, be it in college, in grad school, in your passion/hobby, or in your first job.

    There are exceptions of course, but the crowd of real, long-term movers in human history have come from precisely THAT pool; not the pool of "blown away by the moment, jump on the next trend mentioned in the most recent Tweet."

    The latter generate a lot of hot air and narcissism among themselves (the unhealthy kind), and risk distracting the rest of us from a more sustained and engaged effort to patiently go with the flow. :)

  • Sundown

    "People ask me, 'Are you afraid you're going to get fired?' That's the whole point: not to be afraid." Apart from the fact that with your resume you wont be fired, ot at least you don't have to worry about it.But. Looking at your age, you probably don't have children, no mortgage, no college fees to pay for your daughter and you don't have to worry that with 48 you're 'too old' Such a naive BS. Wait 15 years my dear and see if you still support your own statements.

  • Matt Kapp

    Should the CEO, or at least CMO, be from Gen Flux? If so
    where’s the governance.

     

    The forecasts tools for our future are there if you know where to look and are willing to accept the
    outcomes.

     

    The article gave an excellent generative vision defining a
    community to be tapped into. Gen Flux can affect better influence and steerage
    to adapt businesses into the new economy.

     

    I hope the current economy CEOs are in the Gen Flux
    psychographic designation, and if not that a digital savvy CMO is in the wing
    and capable to lead. In fact it would be possible to use Semantic A.I. and NLP
    to data mine the interest graph discovering this psychographic signal within
    the social media communities today.

     

    Whilst Baratunde Thurston less than empathetically “can’t
    wait for the middle management to die off and the next generation gets in
    there”, Gen Flux can bring leadership for the skills, beliefs, and knowledge to
    create the network effect in our organizations today. The opportunity to
    envisage the road ahead is there and it’s a responsibility to be picked up.
    It’s just a matter of attention.

     

    I don’t buy into DJ Patil’s assessment that it is
    unpredictable chaos. Having technology savvy and understanding the network
    effect, you can anticipate many opportunities and threats and the direction in
    which they will ripple. Combine new technology impacts with understanding the
    cycles driving economics, demographics and you can get a pretty good grip on
    what the outlook is if you are willing to accept it . Just read http://www.amazon.com/Great-De...

    By Harry Dent

     

    “Command and control hierarchical structures are being
    disintegrated”, renewed to give us more innovative and effective structures
    that benefit commerce and better consumer experiences at every touch point.
    With recommendations through social media, steering consumer influence, gone
    are the days that companies can deliver mediocre products and or service with
    marketing $ applied to buy consumer attention. 
    However, lets not sit on the sideline and watch in glee because whilst
    the future is bright the transition could be destructive to way too many, who
    are not at the helm to manage otherwise. 
    Business leadership bears responsibility and if it can’t adapt it should
    step aside to those that can both adapt the business and its organization – “People”.
    This is a business responsibility and a social imperative that needs
    attention.  It’s irresponsible to cast
    out an organization of people that were practiced into the companies’ mission
    to be efficient through command and control industrial cultures. A company that
    is successful with connected consumers will need to be authentic to its brand
    and that means being empathetic and having heart. Steely decisions from
    management, unable to adapt their organizations through leadership and trying
    to replace them with a more in tune generation and cool university like coffee
    shop will miss the point and fail. They simply are the wrong management at the
    top. I’m not suggesting that all people will adapt.

     

    Passion for the future and new experience is admirable,
    essential, but do it with soul and try to take people with you. Don’t abandon
    and leave them behind even if you have to make them very uncomfortable making  it clear there is no other option but to take
    the hand extended. After all it was the Jack Welsh era that wrote the book on
    structures and process for the industrial age rather than steering us to build
    a more generative culture that can adapt and deal with ambiguity.

     

    “The milkman is dead, but we drink more milk than ever”.
    What a great metaphor. Meritocracy and cultivated entrepreneurship allow new
    constructs to quickly build around old ones that won’t or can’t adapt. This is
    possible because today we stand on the shoulders of giants that allowed meritocracy
    and enabling technologies to exist. Gen Flux can lead the way for others to
    adapt existing businesses to deliver sustained value. I understand that it’s
    hard but dealing with change is.  Gen
    Flux comes without demographic borders but with insight that brings
    responsibility to people and communities. I can’t imagine that the heart of
    some new economy manager of today who was waiting for the old economy manager
    to die off, can inspire the right experiences in people and customers that
    create sustained engagement and loyalty?

     

    We should all inspire to gen Flux. Don’t be afraid, don’t be
    nostalgic but move fast, learn the enabling technologies, look this shift in
    the eye, get uncomfortable, lead and adapt new constructs onto value that
    should shine on through supporting the new economy. Take people with you. Don’t
    leave them behind.

  • Tom Atkins

    I remember reading much of this in Tom Peter's book, Thriving on Chaos, probably 20 years ago. Made sense then, makes sense now. 

  • Thomas Körtvélyessy

    How much longer will we have the luxury of trying to understand the next wave of "be open to adapt", while all resources available are being ever more spoiled by carelessness and abuse?
    Think fracking, GMO's, oil-spills, general radioactivity increase, draughts, hunger, wars, open neo-feudalism and oligarchy on the rise, speeding up and wrecking ever more beyond short-time repair -- all in all I'd say a fair challenge to the optimism of this article, which reeks a bit to me of the Yuppy-hype of the 1980s. Those who could afford, were always optimistic and open to change, even  in the 19th Century or whenever. From a different position, it seems quite medieval to not have gotten our act together yet with these ever more pressing threats, as a species, having formed and living among many on this planet. I mean who needs an ipad, when there is no more electricity, you constantly fight deformations from environmental damage (anyone checked on the newborn in Iraq, Fukushima, Tchernobyl lately?) or having drowned in floods, or when you are lucky to have to eat?
    Yes, we need flexibility. But, I believe, on wider levels, the bath-water is nearly out already. Let's think again and further.

  • Daniel S

    I spent too much time in engineering school to ignore the start of this article.  You can absolutely simulate the trajectory of a double pendulum.  Leonhard Euler and Joseph Louis Lagrange are turning over in their graves right now.

    Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I disagree with the advice suggested by this article.  We should not simply accept that things are changing.  We need to take appropriate actions to curb those changes and retain employees otherwise we will just end up with a jack of all trades society with no masters.  The problem is not that people are changing.  The problem is that employees are demanding more from their employers and the demand is not being satisfied.  If you look at the turnover rates at the best companies to work for you will find people are not leaving.  Take a company like Google that hires some of the best talent in the industry.  Their turnover is nearly zero.  This argues that people are leaving for the sake of leaving but how do you explain the Google phenomenon?  People aren't leaving companies for the sake of leaving, they are leaving because they are searching for a job that satisfies their needs and when they find it they will stay.  Many older corporations have poor benefits, force their employees to work archaic schedules and then fire them before they are eligible for a pension.  No person in their right mind would stay at a company like that but so many companies are still organized like that.

  • Marina Theodotou

    Fantastic article! Hits the mark - even though it is ever moving...Thank you! 

  • Dyan

    I think it's great to be confident about one's skills and the world at large and what it has to offer or what you see that you can partake of.  It helps to navigate the terrain.  Still, in the face of what we just witnessed there seems something terribly wrong with the way things are being glossed over.  We just watched lives get destroyed.  Who by the way had nothing to do with what went down.  I'm talking about the people who woke up to find that their government, their banks, their employers and their pension officers had all made other plans and left them high and dry.  On top of that they were told that they would be bailing them out: like it or not.   Do we just close our eyes and write off the millions who have been cast aside.  If they did it to them certainly they will do it to you regardless of how bright and positive you are.  Isn't there something to be concerned about when the millions of poverty stricken keep on ticking up.  How safe can it possible be if you and a few others are surrounded by the disenfranchised.  Isn't the Arab Spring; Libya; and currently Syria to name a few good examples of what can happen when a country has a disproportionate number of poverty stricken people waiting for a retooled social structure that is all inclusive.   How soon before those who to no fault of their own refuse to be walked over and ignored.  They just need to retool themselves?  Do they need to be more creative more forward thinking and accepting of the current trends?  Surely current and future generations will find a way.  Is that the new paradigm?  Isn't this fluxality somewhat delusional? 

    One sign of serious geo-social problems on the horizon is the fact that some emerging economies are asking that potential expats show up with seed money in order to move in.  I'm talking amounts like 250k or 300k.  I think they get that people are getting desperate enough to move to another country; learn a new culture and language to escape destitution.  The US is experiencing a wealth drain.  Sure some of them participated in the looting but others see the American Dream is becoming a nightmare.  They don't intend to be taxed to death.  People are desperately trying to figure out what to do.  How can that kind of paradigm be healthy, wealthy and wise.

  • Marie Heartwood

    The view 25 years from now is relatively clear. The view 10 years from now is hazier. The view 5 years from now is absolutely opaque.

    Ignoring the past means that you aren't aware that what is happening now is very similar to what has happened before. We call them paradigm shifts. We are coming to the end of the "Modern" paradigm which started with the Renaissance which was the shift away from the "Medieval" paradigm. What is being described here is "Post-Post-Modernism" which started to take hold in 1913.

    And this is why it's easier to see where the world will be 25 years from now than it is to see where the world will be 5 years from now. What will we call this new paradigm? The word "Modernism" wasn't coined until half way through the period, so I think we'll just leave it at "post-post-modern" until someone half way through the era comes up with a good term.

    And I'm glad you've included in the list someone (Bob) who is older than me.

    But as they say "the more things change ...". How was the modern era different from the Grecro-Roman era? The truth is, it wasn't very different.

    The agricultural revolution occurred in at least 5 different locations independently and not simultaneously. The industrial revolution was wide spread, but still happened in different areas at different times. But the information revolution is occurring around the globe. We are seeing a sharing of ideas and knowledge across languages and cultures like has never been seen ever before.

    As one who was in on the start of it, I hope to still be around in 25 years to see how it all turns out. (I'm a 47 year old IT professional who
    has been on a global information network since well before Tim
    Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. Nothing happening today is new to me, it's just being done better on better hardware. [e.g. Compare WoW to NetHack. Same idea, but the graphics in WoW are so much better.])

  • Edgardo Santiago

    Comparing WOW to Nethack, props to u the man and a guru. Blessings, good vibes and wishing you great health from the bottom of my heart. Prob the best comment on this article. Hope you live to see 25 years from now and so do I. 99% of ppl I know don't even know what Nethack is and to read a 47 yr old man talk about the best videogame ever and comparing it to WOW makes all this mess seem worthy of living.