Malcolm Gladwell: A Generational Tipping Point Is Coming

Gen Y Makes the Most of a Down Market
Stockbyte | Getty Images

There's a seismic generational shift under way as more and more of the millennial generation enter the workforce, author Malcolm Gladwell said in a presentation at the TD Ameritrade conference on Thursday.

Where Baby Boomers organized the world into disciplined hierarchies, the Gen Y, or those born after the late 1970s, organizes the world around the open, flexible and decentralized networks, Gladwell said.

"The millennial generation has never known a world without cellphones, Internet, texting and Twitter and that has profoundly shaped the way they see things," he said.

Using the example of social movements to illustrate his point, Gladwell noted that when the Baby Boomers think of civil rights, they think of a clear ideology, structure and a leader in Martin Luther King.

But the Occupy Movement, what Gladwell called Gen Y's answer to the civil rights movement, was much more amorphous. There was no clear leader, the ideology was vague beyond addressing income inequality and there was no structured organization behind it. (Read More: Gen Y Makes the Most of a Down Market)

It did have a profound impact, nonetheless, Gladwell said, and the question of income inequality came to permeate the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

With two competing world views colliding in the workplace and elsewhere, The Tipping Point author, said "It's important to understand that one of these models isn't better than the other. They're just different."

The networked model has given the world things like Wikipedia – where people look to their peers for information updated in real time. That's a vast improvement over the old bound encyclopedias where people looked to experts who updated their work once every few years.

But it has its drawbacks. Discipline is hard for Gen Y, Gladwell said, and that has turned many off from math, science and engineering at the college level – areas where the U.S. needs more graduates.

"Collaboration and sharing are not good for finishing your organic chemistry problem set," he said.

It's also at odds for what makes a successful investor. Good investors need patience, must think strategically and have some deference to authority, things Gladwell noted "that do not come naturally to" Gen Y.