Millennials, which the Pew Research Center defines as being born between 1981 and 1996, are now from 21 to 38 years old, making up almost perfectly the youngest half or third of American workers. It also means that most are hardly new to workplaces. Yet, somehow, articles keep coming out on how to get the best from them and their companies. Here are two.
The oldest is Mark Hall’s November 8th Forbes “What The Ideal Workplace Of The Future Looks Like, According To Millennials.” This effort offers only bits and pieces, using a broad brush more suitable for assessing a generation barely understood than for people on the job for over a decade already. Perhaps “by 2025, roughly 75% of the global workforce will be millennials,” but not in this country, where the population pyramid looks like a Jenga stack. Hall reported that three-fourths of this cohort “thinks that a “work from home” or “work remotely” policy is important,” as if that distinguishes them from others, and that they rather unsurprisingly “prefer communicating electronically at work.” More worthwhile was his thought that virtual reality has more current appeal than videoconferencing did decades ago, when no matter how good the technology it still felt like a telephone call, and airline bookings for conferences continued to increase. Yet we aren’t exactly on page 1 of this book.
The newer one was “Why Businesses Need to Work to Retain the Next-Gen Workforce,” from William Craig, on January 16th and also in Forbes. After tipping his hat to the Winning by Default Years (“There was a span of several decades in America when job creators could take employee loyalty and retention for granted”), he used “next-gen” synonymously for millennials, and pointed out that they “already are, actually” “tak(ing) the economic reins in a pretty big way.” He fell into the skills-gap trap, but partially redeemed that by saying, right afterwards, that “simultaneously, it’s not uncommon to hear young people complain about the lack of decent jobs.” He mentioned the desirable-to-millennials workplace attribute of having a “pro-social context,” that they often “begin job searches on company websites themselves” meaning that “they want your culture to impress them” (italics his), that they “are inquisitive and eager to learn,” and are “way past rigorously regimented company structures and immutable job descriptions.” A worthwhile summary, but hardly breaking information.
A third article, “The workforce of the future is already here: are you ready?”, published on March 9th in CIO, took one more shot at generational workplace evolution, but was targeted toward employees instead of employers. We need to be aware that “emerging technologies like IoT, AI and machine learning” are not only making headlines but “seeing rapid adoption” in cubicle jobs, even if their connections with “big data analysis and the cloud” should surprise no one. The piece is geared more to the future than the present, focusing on changes taking place “as more young generations join the workforce as digital natives,” which referred to the iGen, those born after 1996, instead of millennials. It touched on the issues of robots replacing human workers, and that “human beings adapt” (even if they may not be hired), but took pitfalls on “fewer than 5 percent of occupations today can be entirely automated by existing technology” (when the human-needing job tasks can be consolidated into smaller numbers of new positions), and the idea that “engineering and artificial intelligence” will provide “massive potential for job gains” (if headcount could not be cut overall, they wouldn’t bother automating). The need to “commit to lifelong learning” is not news, and “staying intellectually curious, confident in your skillset and willing to stay informed on new emerging trends,” while a good idea, is not by itself enough to “help ensure that your future stays bright, regardless of what 2030 looks like.” Still, the unbilled author gets points for providing a good synopsis, whether intended as that or not.
Perhaps I have been too critical of these pieces, as what we might call “generation lag” has been happening for decades. Into the 1980s people wrote as if masses of young men were still growing long hair, saying countercultural things, and protesting wars. One author about ten years ago wrote as if Generation X, then a minimum of 28 years old, was just arriving in the workplace. And all too many have conflated the 1960s and 1970s. Yet we should be more careful about running generations together. It is tempting to think of younger people as being in one solid group, but we should consciously avoid that. It is also easy, as we get older, to fail to realize how much time has passed, and that what seemed like a new generation yesterday isn’t anymore. The average millennial, using the definition above, is now 29, older than my father, who served in World War II, was in 1955. If we are still searching to understand what those in established generations are likely to want, then we, whatever it is, are doing something wrong.