Rebecca Ryan quickly cemented herself as a voice for new and emerging generations when she moved to the Madison area in 2004.
That’s because the futurist and economist was just as much a nomadic educator back then as she is now — authoring literature, delivering keynote speeches, leading workshops and advising clients about how the world should embrace the ideas and values of young people.
In 2004, she advocated for Generation X. In 2021, its the Millennials’ and Generation Z’s turn.
The West Bend native also owns a business management firm that she launched just over two decades ago. Madison-based NEXT Generation Consulting has grown to help its clients forecast their future with data-driven economic trends, Ryan said.
Ryan previously attended college at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where she studied economics and international relations until graduating in 1994.
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She went on to earn her certificate in “strategic foresight” at the Texas-based University of Houston in 2013.
The consultant has also served on the board of directors for both the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and Madison-based environmental advocacy nonprofit Sustain Dane, among other Madison involvements.
How has your consulting firm evolved its mission in the two decades since its founding?
We’ve gone through three evolutions. Version one was keynotes and training on how four generations can work together.
Then, I read an article about demographic changes that showed how young people were moving to cool cities to look for work. This was the opposite of their parents, who often followed jobs to new communities. I wrote my first book, “Live First, Work Second: Getting Inside the Head of the Next Generation.”
Version two involved indexing and consulting. We developed the “Cool Communities” index that measured a community on seven indexes that mattered to young professionals. We developed a similar index for companies and ran Madison Magazine’s “Best Places to Work” survey for several years.
The current version entails strategic foresight. During the Great Recession in 2009, I reinvented the business. My partner and I both earned certificates in strategic foresight at the University of Houston, and we reimagined the company as a foresight firm to help clients anticipate and shape the future.
Based on the framework you developed to help companies embrace the ideas of new generations, what are the six things that currently matter most to Madison’s younger crowds?
I don’t have a scientific answer, but three things that are true over time for younger generations is that they want opportunities to learn and grow, they want autonomy — which often includes flexibility — and they want to feel that their work matters.
Additional research done by Washington, D.C.-based analytics and advisory company Gallup since the pandemic began has showed that having a sense of purpose is now more important than compensation.
You wrote your most recent book, “ReGeneration,” before there was a pandemic. How do the ideas of that book apply in 2021, even though it was published in 2014?
The major premise of the book is that America is seasonal and we’re in winter, from 2009 ~ 2030. During winter, things feel stuck or broken.
But spring will come again. We’ve been through three previous winters, including the American Revolution, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Great Depression.
Tell us about other notable pieces of literature you’ve authored and presentations you’ve given.
“The Next Big Things: The Future of Local Government” and my TED talk are probably my best known publications besides my books.
I also write a regular SIGNALS newsletter and workshop my ideas on my blog.
What are the major takeaways from those in 2021?
This is the year of the Ox. Oxen don’t “pivot.” They keep their heads down and make steady progress.
Another lesson is that the economy is easy to “shut off” but difficult to turn back on. Our global supply chain interconnects us, and we can’t just “turn it on” and be back to normal. Our economy is interconnected.
What do you want Madisonians to consider about the region’s business community and economy at this point in time?
If workers can work remotely for any company around the world, why should they choose to live in Madison?
Why should we care about the future overall?
A couple reasons come to mind: First, we can shape the future, but not the the past.
Second, our kids and grandkids are counting on us — especially when it comes to climate change and economic mobility, as well as current generations have some course corrections to make to ensure we pass along a planet worth inheriting.
And finally, people get excited about building something ambitious for the future. What legacy do you want to leave?
"This is the year of the Ox. Oxen don’t 'pivot.' They keep their heads down and make steady progress."