EDITOR'S NOTE: A POWER OF 21

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Demographic time ticks like a grandfather clock. Its hands move, not at Internet speed, nor with the hasty urgency of Wall Street quarterly earnings reports, but slowly and deliberately. Urgencies arise from looking 20 or more years hence, recognizing that a detail here and a detail there will be different than they are today, and acting accordingly. Demographically, to be wise you need distance, either backward or forward in time. That's different from any other way to be smart in organizations today. The dimension of remove, for time as well as for clarity, is what sets demographics apart from purely statistical disciplines.

Take the importance of 21-year-olds in 2003. There are slightly more than 4 million of them for about the fourth consecutive year. The number of people reaching that age each year will vary insignificantly for another 12 years or so. Between now and 2015, 48 million more Generation Y men and women will be assuming the powers, privileges and responsibilities of adulthood. The reason age 21 today gets its larger-than-life stature, in our minds, goes beyond the fact that individuals who are that age contribute, on average, $45,000 apiece to the nation's consumer economy.

It's more about the metaphor of being 21, of being an About-To-Be. Although many states have established a legal age of majority at age 18, and although many social scientists could make a good case that the True North of adulthood occurs closer to age 30, we'd argue that 21 is the moment people start to exercise their full powers as consumers.

Further, as Contributing Editor Michael J. Weiss notes in this month's cover story, “To Be About-To-Be,� Gen Y 21-year-olds are different. More connected, more worldly-wise, more diverse, more entitled media sophisticates, they're refreshingly matter-of-fact in assuming that marketers of consumer goods and services will bend over backward to court them.

Gen Y 21-year-olds, our About-To-Be's, will change things.

To reinforce that, let's turn back the clock to 1971, the demographically equivalent year in the Baby Boom cycle — four years after the first Baby Boomer turned 21. Then, 43.4 percent of women over age 16 were in the workforce. Now, about 60 percent of women find employment outside the home. What changed when Baby Boomers reached adulthood was just about everything — the economy, workplace culture, aspirations, luxury and the American Dream.

That's where we are as the About-To-Be's step up. So it's especially intriguing to consider Contributing Editor Peter Francese's observation in his “Trend Ticker� analysis that, in earning college degrees, women now outnumber men. Twenty years hence, we'll be looking at how Gen Y re-redefined the economy, workplace culture, aspirations, luxury and the American Dream.

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