Futurist David Houle looks at the ways younger generations of Americans differ from their elders—and what it means for the future.
I speak to audiences all across North America and around the world. That means I speak to parents and grandparents. I have had countless conversations with adults about their children. These conversations are a combination of amazement and concern. We are amazed at how our different young people are from us and from the way we were at their age. We are concerned that our younger kids are growing up with a digital distractedness that seems superficial.
Our children represent two different generations that will change the world. The millennials are young people, loosely in their 20s, who have come of age in the first decade of this new millennium. The digital natives are those roughly 18 and under who are the first generation to have been born in the digital age.
The significance of these two generations for the United States is that together they will be approximately 2 million more in number than the baby boom generation. This means that as the baby boomers were the demographic "pig in the python" of the past 50 years, these millennials and digital natives will determine the social, cultural and economic future of the United States for the next 30 to 40 years. To look at them and understand them is to take a look at our future. That age-old saying "look to the young" is perhaps more true than ever before.
In this, the first of two columns, we will look at the millennials, our children who are young adults. In the next column, we will look at the digital natives. (Given the limitation of space here, we can only touch on some highlights of each generation.)
The millennials present a conundrum to CEOs and managers today. On the one hand, they come across as entitled and desirous of a balanced life, where work is but one element of their life. On the other, they are much more collaborative and technologically savvy than their elders.
Where does this sense of entitlement come from? Their overbearing parents, of course—us. This generation grew up with everyone making the team, everyone getting a trophy; that new award called a "participation ribbon"; and graduation ceremonies not only for high school and college, but also for preschool and grammar school. How could they not feel entitled?
I remember a crisp fall day long ago when, as an incoming high school freshman, I sat on the ground as the soccer coach said something like: "There are 33 of you sitting here. I have 22 uniforms. Which means that, while I thank you all for coming out, 11 of you will not make the team." (I made the team).
The millennials never heard such words. Instead, they heard, "Since there are 33 of you here, we will field two teams so everyone gets to play." So they have grown up entitled.
The truly good news is that they are much more collaborative than either the baby boomers or the X generation. They have grown up not dating, but doing everything in groups—always a pack of three to seven of them together going to the mall, to the movies, even doing homework. They have grown up making collective decisions about what to do, where to go and how to do it, all facilitated by texting each other. They have gone through an education system that is much more collaborative than decades ago. This is a great attribute for today and the future as the nature of work increasingly requires creative collaboration and making fast, consensus decisions. Generally speaking, five millennials can come to a decision much faster than five baby boomers, and that makes them better able to navigate the ever-accelerating, ever-shifting workplace.
Millennials also are generally much more technologically skilled than their parents. How many times when they were growing up did their parents turn to them for tech support? They are intuitively more comfortable with technology—particularly anything having to do with computers and the Internet—than their parents because they have grown up with it. Their parents had learn it as adults.
A few months ago, when speaking about this to a group of CEOs, one particular CEO laughingly interrupted me to tell his fellow CEOs a true story about his company. He said that his chief technology officer, who was 47, had told him that to migrate his company from one major software platform to another would take two weeks and cost $6,000. He looked at his fellow CEOs and said: "Do you know what I did? I gave a 22-year-old $100 and a case of beer, and he got it done in a day!"
The millennials have two qualities essential for the workplace of the next 20 years: fast collaborative decision making and a high comfort with and knowledge of technology. As a futurist, I predict that future historians will view the millennials as the generation of leaders and managers that faced and successfully solved many of the large problems we are leaving to them. To paraphrase a famous song by the Who: Our kids are all right!