A tall woman with short, frothy hair holds a mobile phone to her ear outside a coffee shop. With her charcoal sweater, wide-wale corduroys and weathered backpack, she could be a hip young professional in any number of urban settings. But this is Milwaukee – Rebecca Ryan’s home.
In the spring of 1998, Ryan was at her fifth job in four years. She was frustrated and restless. Working for others wasn’t working for her. She figured she could do better.
“I always felt severely mismanaged, that I had so much that I wanted to bring to the table but for whatever reason managers would kind of cut you off at the pass or take your ideas and run with them,” she recalls. She’s inside sipping coffee now, her phone tucked away in her backpack.
As she saw it, her post-college job-hopping wasn’t so much her fault or the failings of her bosses. She blamed it on a generation gap – a disconnect between her Generation X and the baby boomer employers who hired her. From that frustration, a business was born.
Ryan is founder and president of Next Generation Consulting, a five-partner firm that counsels employers and communities across the country on how to appeal to young people. Next Generation’s mission, Ryan says, is to help organizations build their futures on youthful terms.
“I started the business to just translate between the generations. I felt like there was this huge generation of baby boomer managers who could really benefit from seeing the world through the eyes of a Generation Xer,” Ryan says.
Ryan “is doing cutting-edge work on how places can become magnets for creative talent,” says Richard Florida, a professor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University who is an authority on the subject. “She is a huge asset for Milwaukee and for this entire country.”
Ryan, who is 31, is riding the wake of the baby boom, that demographic swell of workers now between the ages of 39 and 57. As those workers retire in droves over the next couple of decades, the next generation will have much fewer replacements to offer.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest keen competition ahead for younger workers. Today, the number of workers between the ages 25 and 34 outnumber those 45-54 by about a million, but by 2010, the older group will be 30 percent of the work force while the younger group will be 28 percent. That’s a turnaround from 1990 when 35 percent of all workers were 25-34, and the older group accounted for just 20 percent of the work force.
In Ryan’s backpack is a library book she has been reading: Peter Drucker’s “Managing in the Next Society,” in which the 92-year-old management guru predicts that a chief challenge ahead for business leaders will be dealing with worldwide shortages of young workers.
“Our product is competitive intelligence about the next generation of workers,” Ryan explains. “The market is setting us up for success because any company or community that wants to remain competitive and relies on talent needs to know their labor pool is shrinking and what they can do better.”
The approach of Next Generation is to find out what makes young people tick and then to apply that in helping clients identify and improve upon their appeal to those workers. Insights include the notion that young workers tend to first move where they want to live and then seek a job. With that in mind, Next Generation devised its Hot Jobs-Cool Communities Web site (www.hotjobs-coolcommunities.com), which ranks cities as Gen X-friendly based on such factors as crime rates, commute times, cultural diversity, parks and night spots. (San Francisco ranked first, Milwaukee 10th, between Chicago and New York.)
Begun on April Fool’s Day, 1998, Next Generation is on course for its first profitable year, Ryan says. She projects revenue at $600,000, up from “a lot less” last year, when she says 85 percent of the company’s income came from her speaking engagements.
On the platform, Ryan is a spellbinder.
At a recent breakfast meeting in Madison, Ryan had 175 business women alternating between tears and peals of laughter as she wove personal anecdotes into motivational advice on how to be receptive and responsive to chances for a more fulfilling life.
She told how she missed her shot at playing college basketball but then hooked up with a professional team while she was on semester abroad in Hungary. She spoke of her reluctant participation in a marathon for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society only to learn soon afterward that her father had been diagnosed with blood-related cancer.
“Sometimes the world has a bigger dream for you than you have for yourself,” Ryan told the women, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union.
Ryan’s standard speaking fee is $10,000 and remains a large part of her business, but she says the outlook for Next Generation is improving because she took out a small-business loan to invest more in the consulting end. Among the organization’s prime clients so far are bankers, health-care providers, insurance companies and community developers. Ryan expects consulting fees to grow from 15 percent of the company’s revenue last year to about half this year.
Ryan has business partners – three baby boomers and one other Gen Xer – in Madison, Nashville, Tenn., Boston and Northport, Mich. But Ryan is the face and personality of Next Generation.
Even off-stage, Ryan has an engaging intensity. Her confidence both draws attention and puts others at ease. She listens thoughtfully and focuses her blue eyes on others as they speak. Those who know her refer to her “energy” and “passion.”
Ryan sees her life as the underside of a tapestry – a multicolored tangle of knots and strands that don’t seem connected until you turn it over and look at it from the other side. No longer the mismanaged employee, Ryan still recalls her frustrations so that other young workers might be understood. And the family ties that brought Ryan back to metro Milwaukee are creating a flattering reflection on the area.
“Milwaukee is very blessed to have an individual like that in our community,” says Dean Amhaus, president of the booster group Spirit of Milwaukee. Amhaus was so taken with Ryan that he arranged to get her on his board of directors.
Jeff Sherman, president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com, calls Ryan an ambassador for the nascent youth movement in Milwaukee.
“Rebecca’s energy and enthusiasm kind of make people realize that what young people want in a community really is what everybody wants. And that’s a huge shift in thinking,” Sherman says. “She helps get people jazzed and enthused, and that’s what we need more of.”