It's the stuff of fear and loathing, prompting envy on a generational scale. The phenomenon of young dot.com millionaires has turned the world upside-down. In the new economy, you don't need to serve an apprenticeship.
You just do it. The speed of change is disconcerting, but it's also exhilarating.
Prospects in 'legacy' firms may have taken a nosedive, but breath-taking horizons are opening up. All hinges on whether you have the Y factor.
What is the Y factor? Clearly, young people have it in shedloads. Y is for youth - and all the qualities that come with it. Stamina, an open-mindedness about the way the world works.
A willingness to take risks, a readiness to break rules.
As so often, California has been the pathfinder. Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, was a billionaire in his twenties. Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, has witnessed the power of peer-group pressure within a generation. 'When you see people your own age become millionaires, this creates a gold- rush mentality, especially among those with specific IT skills or with business aspirations.'
The stampede of young people into the e-conomy is global. In Japan, young e-trepreneurs like 34-year-old Hiroshi Mikitani are creating the green buds of a new economy amid the ruins of the old economy. Mikitani has set up Rakuten, an e-shopping and auction service, to undercut Japan's notoriously inefficient distribution and retailing sector. In India, companies such as Infosys Technologies are on a roll as they take advantage of the country's abundant supply of young science graduates.
Today's 20 and early 30-somethings may be piling into the e-conomy, but they have advantages other than youth. The Y factor comes with being a member of the Y generation. In Japan, as in many other countries, the mid-1960s are seen as a watershed, with the generation born after that time breaking with the tradition of lifelong corporate attachment.
New technology is under the skin of today's younger generation.
The Y factor is also about business confidence and the opportunities that come when the economy is booming. Professor David Storey, a specialist in small businesses at the Warwick Business School, has analysed the age of people starting up new enterprises over the past decade or so. He highlights the huge contrast between the boom year of 1988, when young people predominated, and the slump year of 1991, when their share in start-ups plummeted. 'In every boom, young people are disproportionately significant as a source of start-ups. What makes the difference this time is the sheer public profile of the dot.commers, it's this that's raised public awareness about young entrepreneurs.'
That profile comes from the huge fortunes that the young dot.com entrepreneurs are amassing, making today's boom conditions different from those of the late 1980s. For cheerleaders of the new economy like Julie Meyer, this reflects the revolutionary nature of the internet. She claims young people have been quick to grasp that 'the fundamental rules of the game are changing, there's an opportunity to get in at the ground floor by hustling and moving fast. It's getting really Darwinian out there.'
Venture capitalist Tom Teichmann of New Media Investors also thinks that this is a unique period when old corporate structures are cracking up and the old rules no longer hold sway. He points to a vital element: the willingness of investors to back new-economy firms. 'The stock market opening up has let young people access capital on an unprecedented scale, there is now scope for people with fresh thinking to come in with a bright idea and take the world by storm.'
Where does this leave older executives in older legacy companies? Sobbing into the ashes of their careers, you might think. But you'd be wrong.
Teichmann detects a new trend for 'bright young sparks with an idea and design for a web site turning to more experienced people in the old economy'.
Ronald Cohen of venture capitalist firm Apax Partners, which has dollars 3 billion invested in the new economy, points out that 'seeing the space and the opportunity and then executing a strategy to take advantage of it are two different things. Increasingly, young entrepreneurs are coming in and asking for experienced people; increasingly they're realising that they need this to get the business to the stock markets.'
So what's the Y factor for executives seeking a stake in the new economy?
For a shortlist of key personal qualities and attributes, I turned to tech headhunter Nick Marsh at executive recruitment firm Odgers International. The first is understanding: 'Go out and grasp what this new technology is about, don't stick your head in the sand.' The second is flexibility: 'How can the new ways of doing business work?' The third is creativity: 'Think lateral.' Fourthly, be positive and seize the chance. Finally: 'Be honest and realistic about your willingness to take on risk.'
Judging by Odgers' experience, a lot of managers out there believe they have the Y factor. Marsh says the past six months have brought an upsurge in the number of middle managers aged 35-55 looking for opportunities in new-economy firms. 'The great thing about dot.com is that it liberates people in middle management to go off and become a leading light in a dot.com start-up, as a chief finance officer, a chief executive officer, a chief technology officer or a top marketing director.'
In the final analysis, the Y factor is a state of mind, open to people of all ages. Stephan Schambach, the 29-year-old East German founder of Intershop, says that the ability to learn and adapt to an ever-changing environment is key in IT. 'Certainly, this is easier when you're younger.
However, I know many people who have been consistent achievers throughout their career. What made the difference? They never gave up learning.'
Ray Kroc, the salesman who turned McDonald's into an international legend, was in his early fifties when he started his first franchise. Neil Jenner, managing director of Senioragency, a new advertising agency dedicated to the over-50s, says that 'until people suffer a major physical reverse, they are eternal Peter Pans'.
Looking ahead, the Y factor will continue to count provided that the dreams of a new economy turn into reality, but only a fraction of new start-ups will grow into heavyweight performers. The big firms that emerge will be enormous, predicts Japanese management guru Kenichi Ohmae, who calls them 'godzilla companies'. With size will surely come the need for management experience and a return to more familiar corporate hierarchies.
The Y factor has moved centre stage because the economy is currently in ferment. But beware: revolutions always end up devouring their children.
Enjoy the Y factor while you can.