The Third Wave Creating the Places We Want to Live

The Third Wave Creating the Places We Want to Live


Staff Writer

How do you start a discussion that forecasts a monumental shift in human history without sounding dramatic?

No, really; I’m truly asking.

What we’re about to talk about boils down to where we’ve been and where we’re going. We’ll touch on policy and economic trends; what needs to be done; and who will be the ones most likely to do it. We’ll also start planning for a world we can hardly even fathom yet.

Without sensationalizing, of course.

The aforementioned shift is digital in nature and rooted in technology, but overall, it’s so much more. It’s a matter of connectivity. Buzzwords like “synergy” may actually apply as we explore an ongoing conscious, societal push to evolve.

The Third Wave
In his book The Third Wave, Steve Case, former CEO of AOL, introduces the idea that we’re approaching a new era. Defined by the internet and those who use it, this stage in our society has the potential to herald in a culture of unprecedented partnership and innovation. It’ll also spell the end for many who fail to adequately prepare. Before we get into that though, let’s outline a few things. Namely, the Third Wave (and the two that preceded it).

According to Case, the First Wave began halfway through the 1980s, and ended at the turn of the century. As many cinematic biographies are now quick to narrate, it was a period dedicated largely to the emerging emphasis on technology. In particular: the internet.

The Second Wave, then, picked up where the first left off, and brought us all the way to 2015(ish). It saw the creation of smartphones and the development of app culture. It took the internet and molded it into something more readily applicable, and increasingly integral, to everyday life.

Which brings us to “the Third Wave.” Still in its infancy, Case defines it as, “The Internet of Everything: Ubiquitous connectivity [that] allows entrepreneurs to transform major, real-world sectors.” The Third Wave will seamlessly integrate the internet, making it a part of daily life rather than an alternative to it. In particular, Case references applications like Uber: tools that facilitate the internet so quickly and instinctively, that it alters the way we rely on, and interact with, one another. This will not only allow for more efficient products and services, but rapidly install the societal software needed to innovate within and between fields.

In short, the First and Second Waves defined the rules, the board, and the pieces. The Third Wave is when we start to play.

From Shining Seas to Everything In Between
Until now, it’s been all about the coasts. We hear about coastal cities constantly—places like New York City; Cambridge; and the San Francisco Bay Area, famously known as Silicon Valley. Progressive in more ways than one, the coasts are the current contenders for major technological breakthroughs. They’re hubs for Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials, seemingly custom-tailored to suit the needs of startups and change-makers.

But the type of work for which these coastal cities have become unofficial incubators is all under the purview of Second Wave developments, designing the pieces now being utilized by everyday masses (regardless of their familiarity with the tech sector). This can mean anything from developments in mobile technology, like tablets and smartphones, to optimized software that allows those things to function and learn. This is not to say that these areas are outdated or any less crucial; it’s just to present the fact that the impending technological shift is going to expand the geographic range of competition within the tech sector.

Case specifically refers to this phenomenon as the “Rise of the Rest”: an inevitably impending trend that will return many of America’s thinkers, makers, and doers to their middle-American hometowns. It’s not an unfounded assumption—in fact, there’s very little guesswork involved. The Third Wave is more a matter of applying existing technology in new ways, than creating new technology. As such, there are fewer geographic limitations. Because the technology that’s been developed is so accessible, every industry will need to make use of it in some way or another.

And those industries are often far from either ocean.

Which brings us to another of Case’s major points: disruption. Perhaps above all, the Third Wave will hinge on its ability to shake things up. Speaking to this, we turn now to Zach Brandon, President of the Madison, Wisconsin, Chamber of Commerce.

An International Phenomenon Through A Local Lens
Brandon’s been serving in his current executive position for just under four years. His chamber represents a population of approximately 500,000 (i.e., the entirety of Dane County) and boasts some 1,300 members—more than half the county’s workforce. Having formed a relationship with Case over the years, Brandon is particularly keen on the progress of the Third Wave, and is an avid supporter of its development both in his own region and in municipalities throughout the country.

During a recent phone interview, Brandon and I discussed many of Case’s points and predictions, but the underlying theme of our conversation seemed always to be that of disruption.

Change is a necessary element of life. It transcends time, geography, and social demographics. It’s a fundamental function of human existence. Think Darwinism; think evolution. Change is preeminent. So when it comes to our economy, especially now that the development and refinement of tech has become such an integral element of success, it’s essential to not only accept chance but facilitate it. Guide growth; seek and influence large-scale trends.

From entrepreneurs to legacy companies, change is something to embrace. And today, embracing change means learning how to leverage the full force of the internet.

But what does that have to do with disruption?

Both Case and Brandon argue that building off the current digital landscape requires a high degree of critical thinking.

During our interview, I asked Brandon to elaborate on the nature of this disruption, and outline how his county is seeking to prepare for it. He gave me the following example:

Insurance, being a sizable industry in the Madison region, is a major contributor to the local economy. When the CEO of Ford announced that his company would be aiming to have self-driving taxis on the road by 2021, it became apparent that Madison insurance agencies would have to think big, and do it quickly.

“If you’re in the insurance industry,” Brandon said, “and cars don’t crash anymore, or so infrequently that it’s sort of unheard of, how do you insure against that?”

This is a moment of disruption; it’s a distinct challenge that calls into question an industry’s value, and sustainable relevancy. So how do they respond? By continuing on their current trajectory, they can almost guarantee an escalated decline. Though still a viable service now, should they refuse to get creative, they will almost certainly find themselves out of a job, having been rendered entirely irrelevant, within just a few short decades.

Alternatively, if they embrace the challenge and make methodical efforts to meet it, they’ll likely emerge with renewed vigor and purpose.

So perhaps it’s a matter of investing—supporting the thing that’s coming for you. Additionally, there’s the option to create new models. Rather than sell personal plans, perhaps the agencies can outline a policy that applies to manufacturers. No matter the solution, the key is to think proactively, and to open the floor for discussion. In Brandon’s words: “You can either be disrupted, or you can disrupt yourself. And what we’re positioning our companies to do is be the disruptor.”

But how? It’s one thing to talk about strategizing, and another to actually do it. In Madison, though, they’re living true to Brandon’s word.

“We’re changing the Chamber model,” Brandon said. “[It’s] no longer about selling you a membership so you can get a discount on your office supplies. … It’s about understanding what makes our economy work.”

Another thing that Brandon and Case agree on is that what “makes our economy work” in fact involves two major factors: creating environments that attract and retain up-and-coming Millennials, and addressing the kinks in our economic structure that hinder social and fiscal mobility

Strength In Numbers: The Millennial Factor
According to the Millennial Impact Report, Millennials are by far “the most populous generation in the country.” (We’ll come back to these findings in just a moment.)

In addition, Brandon adds that “their purchasing power and behaviors are already having a seismic shift on the economy.” But it doesn’t stop with what Millennials are buying, because they’re now old enough to have begun comfortably integrating into the workforce.

“The shift from Baby Boomer to Gen X is going to leave about ten million jobs open,” Brandon explained. “There’s just not enough Gen X to fill the Boomer positions. So Millennials are, in many ways, a generation that’s just going to have to move faster and be more willing to accept economic responsibility. … [T]hey’ll be moving into positions of influence and decision-making faster than any previous generation.”

So because of their rapidly increasing responsibility, the growth of many (if not most) economies relies on appealing to Millennials. Despite the meme-like urge to roll your eyes at the idea of another overly-sensitive kid in sneakers and a beanie, that beanie’d 20-something actually represents an enormous amount of potential.

Not only are Millennials extensively educated (they are frequently cited as the most educated generation in the country’s history), well-rounded, and eager to build up their experience—they’re also more charitable with their time and resources than one might expect, given the alleged “sense of entitlement” so often assigned them.

The Millennial Impact Report also cites Millennials’ general desire for the opportunity to “do good.” That said, their 2016 findings project that “the majority … have little or no trust that the government will do what is right.” This doesn’t translate into inaction, though. Instead, this skepticism manifests in the Millennial generation’s focusing of its collective energy on volunteerism, cause-work, and career pursuits that they feel make a positive impact.

Brandon agrees with this assessment, saying that Millennials’ values are geared strongly towards equity, diversity, and philanthropy. He (and Case) believe this value set has played a significant role in the success of the coasts. “The coasts have benefitted from that … because [they] have largely felt the same way,” Brandon explained. “The challenge will be as Middle America has to adjust for things that maybe they didn’t ever really think about [before].”

What Brandon is referring to are topics that we traditionally consider to be social issues; topics like LGBTQ awareness, and immigration; the issues that seem to come up, ruefully, at every Thanksgiving dinner (much to everyone’s chagrin). These social concerns are becoming increasingly more economic in nature, though. With each passing year, Millennials take on more responsibility and are put into a greater number of decision-making roles. If a demographic this big is driven by needs for social justice, then that drive is going to manifest commercially.

Brandon’s “for instance,” in this case, comes in the form of Madison’s examination of social mobility. After bringing author and historian Richard Reeves in to speak to more than 1,000 chamber members, those at the Madison Chamber have grown acutely attuned to the “in’s and out’s” of the issue of social mobility.

Reeves breaks our economy into quintiles, or five distinct classes, with the first being abject poverty and the fifth being, essentially, “the One Percent.” While we’re often mired in gaping over the difference between the first and the fifth, Reeves argues that it’s far more important to focus on incremental movement among the quintiles in between: the first to the second, to the third, to the fourth. And it’s especially important to allow that focus to speak demographically.

With Reeves’ help, Brandon now strives to educate members of his chamber on this kind of social mobility. During our interview, he gave yet another illustrative example, saying: “If you are a black person in this country and you make it to the third quintile so essentially middle class, there’s a 74 percent chance that your offspring are going to slide back. … [That’s] completely anti-American Dream.”

Brandon then goes on to talk about the “fend for yourself” attitude that so often accompanies those awkward holiday throwdowns; the voices insisting that “natural selection” (more or less) will decide who succeeds—and nature will always choose the smartest, the fastest, and the hardest-working. “But it’s not that simple,” Brandon noted. “When you take it all the way out and you think about it from an econom[ic standpoint], you can’t do that. You can’t write off whole pieces of your economy.”

In his opinion, then, upward, economic mobility is “not really a social issue anymore. It’s not specifically about racial equity. …[It’s] about ownership and a belief that [everyone] has a seat at the table, and a role in the decision-making, [which] is very much a business methodology.” This is something that deeply resonates with the Millennial generation. According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, there are clear trends in what they support and work toward, what they consider valuable and consistently worthwhile. Of these is a commitment to supporting people, rather than institutions. Millennials support individuals and causes; they raise awareness for issues as opposed to organizations. And they do it together.

Further, Millennials are openly influenced by one another, and are drastically more likely to volunteer or donate at the request of a co-worker, than at the suggestion of a manager or CEO. To this effect, the Millennial Impact Report states, “87 [percent] felt encouraged to volunteer or participate in their company’s cause work and community initiatives. … 77 [percent] preferred to [participate] with groups of fellow employees as opposed to independent projects. … 62 [percent] preferred to work with friends in their own departments.”

The numbers go on and on, but they consistently return the same kind of message: Millennials want to do good, but find that to be better achieved through impactful work and benevolent company initiatives. They blur the lines between social and professional spheres, and “treat their assets (time, money, networks, etc.) as having equal value.”

Bright Future; Shades Required
This is a lot of information to process, and perhaps it even sounds skewed by a certain perspective. But in the words of Zach Brandon (yet again), “This isn’t ‘Liberal versus Conservative.’ This isn’t ‘Republican versus Democrat.’ This is about the economy.”

Case’s book reaffirms this understanding again and again. The technology we’re seeing is already affecting our economy in ways that would have been unfathomable in the not-too-distant past. The same can be said of its impact on our culture and society—and that trend is only going to continue. It’ll further permeate the country the more we shift from tech-centric, to tech-enabled mindsets, and, Case writes, “the key will [ultimately] be to to replace a culture of standardization with a culture of personalization.”

Right now, we have a lot of broken systems and inefficient policies. This is due largely to the fact that we have yet to tailor our resources—fine tune them, so to speak—so that we’re capable of using what we’ve built to help individual regions, businesses, and citizens with enhanced precision and efficacy.

As we continue to move forward, the most important thing to remember is that change is a beautiful and inescapable part of our collective existence. You can either initiate it, or succumb to it, but either way: you’ll have to confront it eventually.

For chambers of commerce, navigating impending change is a matter of re-evaluating the role you want to have in your community. If you remain a protective force, your members will continue to enjoy certain benefits. But if you adapt to include a more pioneering attitude, they may not only sustain, but flourish. Consider adopting new educational themes, and taking up challenging “social” issues like class inequality and economic mobility. How might you promote movement through your region’s quintiles? In what ways can you work to promote Millennial recruitment? What could your area add or remove that might create a competitive environment for young talent looking for the right opportunity?

Similarly, businesses (regardless of scale) need to be thinking of their individual attitudes and contributions. What kind of culture are you creating? Are you actively experimenting with new ideas, and taking the time to plan for future challenges? If Millennials are looking for companies that can “do well and do good at the same time,” as Case writes, how can you improve the impact you’re making both in your own community and on larger scales?

The Third Wave asks as many new questions as it affords answers, and if we’re being honest—it’s definitely a bit heavier on the former. There’s a lot we don’t know, and a lot that’ll be overwhelming to plan for. But thinking this way now is instrumental in pushing through it later.

The Third Wave is upon us and, as Case puts it, “this is not an event you can afford to ignore.”