August 19, 2012

Artists vs. Engineers: Millennials (and Virtuals) in the Workforce

Further thoughts on the coming generations.
A recent post about Millennials in the workforce was as notable for what it didn’t say about that generation (from the perspective of a Boomer)  as for what it did. Indeed, to me it highlighted the fact that the Boomers really, really do not understand the Millennials, just as they didn’t understand the GenXers after them. This is perhaps not surprising - the Internet and the resulting explosive connectivity changed the very language of business, and to a great degree that difference can be summed up in the aphorism “If the Boomers are the ME generation, the Millennials are the US generation.”
First, the motivations that drive Millennials are VERY different from the ones that drove Boomers, and in a number of ways are different from thoset that drive GenXers. First and foremost, there’s a lot of pent-up anger out there in the Millennial generation towards corporations in general. When the Boomers came of age, most corporations consciously or unconsciously emulated the command and control structures of the military, because the young men that fathered those boomers had come right out of World War II, and had brought back with them not only GI Plan schooling but a very clear idea about how large organizations should be structured, which served well as the United States became the primary supplier of goods to the world in the aftermath of the destruction of WWII. The Boomers entered universities that had a similar command and control structure, and while there may have been protests and the like, once Boomers entered into the corporate world they took to it like a duck to water. 

For the GI generation, the idea of being employed for life at the same corporation you started with in the mail room to the time you finally retired was pretty much a given. For the Boomer generation, ascent was in 8-10 year arcs with different corporations, each arc providing you with counter experiences to your previous job, until ultimately you ended up as senior management with the job you finally retired from. For GenXers, you were more likely to be a freelancer or consultant, in between speculative startups. Job segments were shorter and riskier, you could make a lot of money, but job security was always an iffy thing, and not surprisingly, ours is much more of an engineering generation than the Boomers ever were. As we enter into the end game of our own careers, we’re looking at uncertain futures (retirement? huh?) and typically are ending up as senior academics, heads of consultancies, researchers, senior engineers and systems architects. 

The Millennials grew up with the Internet, and are easily the most connected generation ever. Their notion of corporations are informed by Google and Facebook, not General Electric - relatively small and autonomous working groups under a larger umbrella group, team oriented but with small, spatially-disparate teammates that communicate largely via electronic means, as often as not outside cubicle walls. They have a far greater job mobility, and the distinction between employment and unemployment are far fuzzier. The corporation that they work for is less important than the team they work, and the distinction between employee and contractor - so significant to the power games of the Boomers - is pretty much meaningless to the Millennials. Money is a motivation - especially in these times - but for the most part it’s not at the top of list of motivations, but simply a reflection of the fact that to stay connected they need to have the tools to do so, and need to have a place to sleep at night. Ironically, one benefit that this generation has is that they are likely to be great savers, because not only do they have the object lesson of the Greater Recession, but beyond improving their communication gear they really do not have a big need for materialistic possessions per se. 

To Millennials, the Boomers are hopelessly materialistic, not because of any reflection of their moral failings (indeed, Millennials consider most Boomers to be sanctimonious) but because materialism does not translate well to mobility. Sales of mobile homes are actually increasing among this generation, even with the high cost of gasoline, because a lot of Millennials are accustomed to going to where the work is (or at least where a steady internet connection can be found) and see physical homes as liabilities. Millennials are also getting married much later in life, are having kids much later, and are having fewer of them (if they decide to have any at all). Marriage itself is increasingly seen as optional, and both of these have a huge impact upon business, as it means again that one of the biggest factors that tend to stabilize a person’s career is the presence of a family. 

This means that Millennials view employers as clients to be serviced rather than overarching structures that provide long term meaningful careers. They are loyal to a fault, but they are loyal to their circle, not to any large institution. They distrust marketing and corporate spin, find the political games and infighting in large organizations, and yet are more inclined to act by creating temporary alliances between different groups to provide a united front to meet a crisis than they are by trying to subsume those same groups.
This is one of the reasons why the dominant innovation of the Millennials thus far is the Flash attack, in which action tends to percolate quietly in the background, often well below the current mainstream, then suddenly overwhelm the media with a seemingly large and monolithic front. Boomers are used to campaigns, much like military planners preparing for the next battle. Millennials are more like guerrilla fighters - snipers coming out of nowhere then disappearing into the background. This agility is both a strength and a weakness - it can get things done very quickly, but sustained action becomes problematic, and this tends to manifest in business focus as well. Millennials are the ADHD generation - they tend to be easily distracted from long term goals by immediate needs or crises, and consequently can get bored when projects extend beyond a certain window.
Of course, the flip-side to that is that Millennials also tend to be very innovative, especially with regard to social innovation. They are reinventing “media”, moving it far outside the box that their parents envisioned, seeing news, entertainment and education as all effectively just part of a single broad digital experience. The iconic image of the world for Boomers was the Mercator project map of the world, for GenXers is “The Big Blue Marble” and for Millennials is Google Earth. Carrying this point further, Google Earth is the world as entertainment - it is fundamentally interactive, is contributed to by a large community providing different layers of information, is generally not formally curated, combines temporality, geophysical location, images, media files and hyperlinks, and more importantly turns everything we know about geography “applications” on its ear. Millennials are not working out of the box, they are creating their own tessaracts and throwing the idea of box out altogether.
Most Millennials are also remarkably optimistic about the future. Unlike the GenXers, who for the most part have had to deal with the disintegrating remnants of the concept of “job” that came from the Boomers, Millennials are redefining the very concept, and are doing so in ways that are increasingly moving away from the institutional view. A job is something that you do for a couple of months to perhaps a couple of years, wrap it up and move on to the next job (or perhaps jobs). More and more of that work is virtual - Boomers generally have shied away from telecommuting, as their focus has always been the office. GenXers began to embrace it, but  the generation itself tends to be more introverted than their (highly) extroverted parents so working in a solitary fashion with the occasional interactions with work was more natural to them. Millennials are like their grandparents - highly extroverted and social as a rule - but overall so tuned into the connectivity of the web that their socialization (both personal and business) tends to take place on that medium in preference even to physical interaction. Ironically, this means that commercial real estate is going to stay depressed for a long time, even as “business” picks up, because as the Millennials increasingly become the dominant workers, the need for dedicated business spaces for people will diminish dramatically.
And what of the generation after, the Virtuals? They will likely share some of the characteristics of Millennials (certainly the connectivity aspect), but will also tend towards introversion (this cycling of extroversion and introversion seems to be a generational characteristic), and all that implies. At the moment, the leading edge of the Virtuals is 12-13 years of age, so it is difficult to generalize, but there are several intriguing signs. Test scores for Virtuals in mathematics and science have been going up in comparison to those of Millennials (which went down in those areas when measure at the same age), and interest in those fields is rising.
The Virtuals generally have a higher number of Aspergers and high functioning Autism than the Millennials did per capita, which usually manifests as social retardation but higher focus or intensity in specific areas. They are not as media driven, and ironically they are more inclined to play strategic games and build applications than communicate with their peers over computer or smart tablet environments. They are more avid readers, however, and tend more towards non-fiction or speculative fiction than their Millennial brethren did. If SMS and social media were the iconic symbols of the Millennials, for the Virtuals it’s tablets, and likely virtual glasses as they start rolling out towards the end of 2012 and into 2013. Their world will be immersive - the web will simply be an overlay on everyday life, and everything in that world will have information and context. “Traditional” academia will also be crumbling pretty dramatically by this point, and it is likely that the Virtuals will far more likely be self-educated and auto-didactically skilled - education will be unable to keep up with the disruptive changes and challenge to its authority that the coming era of Big Data augers, and while Virtuals will be considerably more knowledgeable (and potentially skilled) in specific areas than any previous generation, they will largely be building the edifices which would nominally be educating them. 
As a generation, they will be entering the workforce at a time when there will be massive upheavals in the corporate and political world as Millennials become the prime shapers of social policy and direction. Indeed in many respects they will be the primary agents by which these radical reforms are actually implemented (just as GenXers built the web that was largely envisioned by Boomers). The office of the future (circa 2030) will be notable primarily for being non-existent. Businesses will still exist, but retail will be a far reduced shadow of itself (and malls will likely end up being repurposed as work hotels where spaces get rented out as needed, if they don’t get torn down outright). Big box stores will become fulfillment centers for online retailers from grocers to clothiers to automobiles. Work will be done by ad hoc groups working distributed, with perhaps half of those working from home. Manufacturing will shift to mass cottage industries (pay very close attention to 3d printers), and zoning will have to take into account the rise of new residential/light industry sectors.
Note that I suspect this will be the case perhaps even more if we are in a diminishing resource environment. Short of a complete catabolic societal collapse, which is possible but unlikely, what will more far more likely happen is that society will adapt to a mode where driving an hour each way to work every day will become prohibitive, where work will likely be either immediately local or will be far enough away that travel on a regular basis to it is not feasible (it’s also worth noting that the Millennials are the first generation since the 1930s in which driving does not play a prominent role, and this will carry through in their approach towards work … if they have to drive any significant distance to get to it, they won’t be interested in taking the job).
On the other hand, this is also a generation where marriage occurs late and child rearing occurs later if at all, and this means that the Millennials will be far more likely to hop - migrating from one city to another to take on a job for a certain period of time, then moving to the next city. Ironically, this mode doesn’t necessarily involve a car - the Millennials will tend to travel very light (a tablet, a couple of changes of clothes and toiletries), will travel by train or bus, and will rent a car as needed rather than own one outright. They are also growing up distrusting big business and big government simultaneously, and this means that they will tend to be very conservative both in their spending and saving.
Finally, Millennials are already defined by the cohesiveness of their extended networks as compared to older generations. This is a generation of specialty convention goers, and many of their closest relationships will be shaped by common interest rather than by geography. From an outsider’s perspective they may appear somewhat childish, but these conventions serve much the same purpose as bars did to an older generation - a place to meet others and establish new relationships (romantic and otherwise). This generation is also less likely to do hard drugs or become alcoholic than previous generations did (as demographic trends seem to be proving out).
The combination of living light (which places a far lower demand on finances than maintaining a house, car, furnishings, and so forth) and demand for mobility means that work will tend towards transient relationships as well - it simply will not play as big a role in the lives of Millennials compared with their social life. (They also will tend to stay “in the nest” far longer than preceding generations.) That doesn’t mean that they will be beggars - that same mobility will translate into a penchant for saving rather than spending, and when they do finally “settle down” towards the end of their 30s, they will likely be far better off than the preceding GenXers at that age. 
It’s hard to say what the longer term characteristics of the Virtuals will be - the oldest is now twelve, but there are a few indications. Expect Virtuals to be home-bodies - they will establish nests, workshops, and other bases of operation fairly early, will likely not be anywhere near as transient as Millennials, and may be somewhat more materialistically inclined. They will see Millennials as flighty and somewhat inconsequential, too hung up on media and rather spoiled. As children, they will have grown up during fairly harsh times, and as such Virtuals will likely also be thrifty, but in different ways than the Millennials - they will be inclined towards saving as a defense against potential downtimes vs. saving as a consequence of a light living style. The Millennials will envision the social foundation for the century, the Virtuals will be ones to lay down the infrastructure to support that - the artists vs. the engineers.

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