Teaching old tropes new tricks: Community-building with a 21st-century twist

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During the middle of the 20th century, the social fabric of community unraveled. Families fled to the suburbs, where they lived isolated lives. Baby boomers became hyper competitive – almost a necessity of being part of such a huge generation – and then baby boomers raised latchkey kids, and Generation X felt so isolated from community that it actually defined the generation.

So it’s no surprise the pendulum is swinging the other way right now. Generation X is consumed with their families and integrating them into the community. Fund-raisers know that if you want to get money from Gen Xers, talk with them about local, grassroots action they can be a part of. (via Giving Back)

Generation Y is the teamwork generation. The majority of these young people did community service as a high school graduation requirement, or, for the overachievers, which is most of them, a way to spruce up their college application. But they discovered that community service is rewarding in itself. This is a group that is so team oriented that they are not comfortable doing things on their own. The teamwork in school means soccer, but in adult life it often means community.

It’s a great time for new ways of thinking about community and how to make life better for yourself and those around you. Here are five new ways to think about community:

1. Schedule community time because frequency matters.
This comes naturally to people in college. Daniell Ouellette, a junior at Northeastern University, and her friends live together, eat together, and even watch the World Series together. When college is over, people tend to separate from their friends and making new, close friends is very difficult.

But it’s worth it. When you belong to a group that meets each week, you are likely to live longer than people who don’t. And a Gallup poll, published in the book Vital Friends, found that if you have a few good friends at work it’s nearly impossible to not like your job, because a group of friends can absorb so many bad feelings about the office.

It’s a tall order to find these people, but remember the key is not picking the perfect friends, the key is getting together with them regularly.

2. Find your community first, then find a job.
Today, people place so much importance on community that Rebecca Ryan, a frequent consultant for city governments, finds that the best way to stem brain drain from midsize and smaller towns is to focus on the fabric of community. In her new book, Live First, Work Second, Ryan finds that people today want diversity, culture, and gathering places – the core community aspects we lost during the flight to the suburbs.

3. Become an influencer by growing a community.
Paul Gillin, author of the book, The New Influencers, describes how blogging has allowed leaders to emerge in communities that used to be closed to new leaders. Gillin marvels at the amount of influence a blogger can have by growing a large community of readers. What is remarkable, though, is that the premise is community. The influence brokers today trade on grassroots community building rather than power coming down from the top.

4. Get flexible work by leveraging your community.
Michelle Goodman, in her book The Anti 9 to 5 Guide, describes the steps people take to get out of cubicle life. She has handy chapters about negotiating and temping, but the biggest value of her book might be the underlying theme of community. The best way to get control of your life is to figure out how to integrate yourself into a community and get work and ideas from the people around you. The book is full of ways to learn from other people, help other people, and weave your own community fabric to meet your career goals.

5. Use community roots as a way to make a smooth transition.
One of the most stifling parts of college is that everyone you hang around is at the same place in life you are. And one of the hardest parts of making a life transition is trading one community for another. Northeastern addresses both these problems with the cooperative education program. Students take longer to finish school but they work intermittently during their stint at college. Ouellette is part of this program and she sees it as a way to get a foothold in the local marketing community before she goes out into the work world.

And this, perhaps, is the newest aspect of community: Community used to be a way to hold you back and enforce rules. But today it’s a way to create new roots, find freedom, and follow a dream. No wonder community is such a popular buzzword with young people.

13 replies
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Wow! Could you stereotype even more generations that you have already. I’m sure you speaking of only about generational differences in Caucasians. I would like to know how you would try to stereotype generational differences in minority groups.

    Everyone is different. We cannot be define ourselves by our belongings to a group whether that group is a generation, family, race, or religion.

    I would stop listening to psychologists and sociologists. There intentions are good but their research (if one was to call it that) has no bearing in the real world due to their prejudice judgments.

    * * * * * * * *

    Hi, Kevin. For one thing, there is no way to talk about how people should react in markets (in the case of this blog, a job market) without talking abou trends. And trends are, by nature, generalizations.

    That said, I think a lot of people share your sentiments — they don’t understand the point of talking about generations. Ben Casnocha wrote about this on his blog. (He has a great blog – very smart.)


    I like my response to his post about generations so much that I’m copying and pasting it here for you:

    I was a history major in college, and one of the most exciting things to me was when I realized that as information became more accessible and more real-time, we could do more talking about history as it happens, instead of waiting for grand-scale hindsight.

    Studying history is an amazing way to understand ourselves. And making generalizations about current generations is a way to understand our own history as it’s happening.

    Like studying history in school, studying generations is not a way to understand your personal history but it’s a way to understand where your personal history fits.

    I think each of us — no matter how uniques –also wants to know that we are part of something larger than ourselves. And that, I think, is history.


  2. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    You make it sound like ALL of Generation Y is altruistic and focused on family and community. Maybe the ones you know are because of the online techie crowd that is part of your circle of influence, but I beg to differ that it is as generalized as you make it sound.

    I have met more than my share of young people who are greedy and expect the community and their families to cater to them….not the other way around. They are as much a part of the “ME” Generation as their baby booming parents.

    So my question is this – Is the younger generation really ALL this into serving others, or is it that it has become trendy to give lip service to such things in this demographic…so they talk a good game?

    I believe that there is a subset in every age demographic who is self-less, and a group that is self-ish,…and the rest fall in between. That middle group is the majority. I think that in the younger group they are just more vocal about the half of themselves that does community service and family oriented projects because they have the ability to be heard with todays online social media outlets.


    ** * * * * * *

    Well, writing about generations requires generalizations, and generalizations are, by nature, realative. So, for example, baby boomer selfishness is common to write about, but it is always relative to, say, their parents who fought selflessly in WWII.

    Gen Y has a lot to give becuase a)their parents were so giving to them and b)they graduated into a great, great job market. It’s easier to be giving when the world has been good to you. At this point in the history of Gen X, things were so bad — umemoployment, lonliness, isolation — that they could barely take care of themselves, let alone the world around them.

    I know these are generalizations. Someone who cannot take generalizations should probably not read about generational trends. But I think it’s endlessly interesting to watch.


  3. wayne
    wayne says:

    I really liked this article. I see some people taking issue with the generalizations, but everything you said about Gen X is me to a T. And ditto of the Gen Y’s that I know (1 of my 2 best friends is 13 years younger than me – a Gen y). Thom did make a point when he said their are Gen Y who “are as much a part of the "ME" Generation as their baby booming parents”. Most of the “good deads” done by the Gen Y’s I know where done in order to surve a self serving purpose (to spruce up their college application) rather than to help their fellow human. While they are a teamwork oriented group, I think it’s because many 20 somethings are accustomed to alot of hand holding and attaboys. They need alot of attention and can’t go it alone like the Gen Xers can.

  4. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    I think a lot of what gets people annoyed with Gen Y is mostly life-stage related. The oldest of them are still in their early 20s. Many of them do imature things – didn’t you at their age?

    There are three things that impact the communication/behavior of a generation – formative cohort experiences, current lifestage, and the current state of things (i.e. the economy). For instance, if you look at Gen X, yeah, they listened to grunge music and took a bit of beating in the 90s, but we need to stop bringing up what happened 15 years ago. I don’t think the Babyboomers would like to be hit over the head with “Don’t trust anyone over 30” for the rest of their lives. In general,compared with Boomers at the same age more Xers have a college education, make more money (when adjusted for inflation), and owned their own home sooner.

    There is a lot to be learned from the study of generational communications. I think generalizations are okay – but we need to stay away from the stereotypes.

  5. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    Thanks for recognizing the importance of community. Someone once told me that religion is less about promoting shared beliefs and more about cultivating community.

    I’m glad you pointed out that theme from the Anti 9-to-5 Guide. I read that book last month, but I hadn’t put together the common thread of leveraging the power of communities. I love that book because it is inspirational, practical, and realistic.

  6. Swaroop Bhushan
    Swaroop Bhushan says:

    IEEE’s tech community is unbeatable. National fairs, regional and sectional gatherings, all the way down to student chapters at colleges. It’s a fun way to keep your org skills in shape, be professionally networked, and still have pizza!

  7. Jeremiah
    Jeremiah says:

    It amazes me when people absolutely refuse to accept generalizations. I know it is wonderful to think that we are all these exceptional, unique individuals but the truth is that there probably THOUSANDS of people with very similar experiences in life as yours. This article is about the trends of various generations for the entire country; not just your neighborhood, city, circle of friends, etc.

    To speak on my experience, my last 2 years of college (’05 b-school grad) consisted of almost entirely of team projects; community service is always being vaulted as a great way to gain experience in what seems to be a job market where a BS is as common as a high school diploma. Popular topics like synergy, making isolated business functions “strategic”, mash-ups, and Web 2.0 all are about how things can work together.

    So please, just stop a minute and think of this information in context of everyone and not just you.

  8. Dale
    Dale says:

    Community is by nature a sticky artifact of life. What I mean by sticky is that the more one becomes a part of a community, the harder it becomes to leave it. Note, most immigrants are young and have less of an emotional commitment to the community they leave. True, this is a generalization, and true there are other factors at play in immigration decisions, but by and large it holds true that the last to leave a community are those that have existed within it the longest.
    Now, having offered that snippet of observed behavior, I should say that the pendulum swings in the other direction once the transplant arrives at his or her destination. We become ardent citizens of our new community or rather a part of it (usually among other transplants like ourselves, often with those from our specific place of origin). This being said, it is extremely easy for me to see how a generation programmed to work in teams and value the group, would relish the formation of community as a mandate of emotional wellness. It just makes sense, but that too is a generalization:)

  9. John Joseph
    John Joseph says:

    I’ve probably posted 20 times in my entire life but this article compelled me to make a few brief points:

    1. The focus on generalizations or lack thereof is misplaced. It is implied in most generalizations that the trend in question does not apply to each member of the demographic generalized. Focus on whether the trend exists, not the generalization inherent in most discussions of trends — particularly generational trends.

    2. I think the trend toward community is real and will grow stronger. In my opinion, our generation — at a gut level — realizes there are large forces at work that are having a very real impact on our lives. Of course we will immediately think about globalization, but that’s just a framework to understand the trends.

    3. This trend is a good thing. Achievements and accomplishments in this life are undoubtedly satisfying and fulfilling, but they lose their luster if not connected to an impact on or relationship to others. We do not exist in isolation or in a vacuum; we exist relative to other people.

    * * * * * *
    Thank you for this comment, John. I especially appreciate your number one – very clear on the topic.


  10. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    I’d be curious as to any thought anyone has on how to get young people involved in institutional forms of community action. There are organizations–like ypcommons.org–of young professionals and of course there are all sorts of new media avenues for involvement like blogging, etc. But how do you interest younger people in joining churches and serving on town committees?

    What I hear, time and again in my community, is that having kids is the key. Once you have kids in school, you have all sorts of activities–mainly sports–that really hook you up with the rest of the town. When we went trick or treating last night with our toddlers, we found that our neighbors were either senior citizens or young families. I think the dark houses were people without kids who are at work, like I was at their age, at 7pm on a weeknight. Or maybe they were upstairs blogging in a dark room :)

  11. Renata Ferraz
    Renata Ferraz says:

    Hi Penelope:

    I’ve read so many of your posts, but this one rings especially true. Among my seemingly disparate areas of interest are urbanism and urban planning. However, that only started after I immigrated to Toronto and experienced urban sprawl first-hand in a GTA suburb.

    For a while, I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live this way. Having read your post, it now makes a whole lot more sense to me why 1) I will never subscribe to the suburban way of life, and 2) why I’ve started an online group for my downtown condominium and will run for the board.

    I think mankind (here’s a generalization to make you grin) is done searching for meaning – there’s just way too much information out there. People are looking for context. And that’s what generalizations, and therefore trends, accomplish – they put things into context, into perspective – just like history.

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