Millenials — Ignore Them At Your Peril
I am a political news junkie. I came by it honestly because my family always discussed political events at suppertime, I was a student activist in high school and college, I majored in political science and history, and now I'm somewhat involved in local politics where I live. So I guess it's no surprise that my eyes and ears have been glued to CNN, The Washington Post, The Economist and just about every weekly news and business magazine I can get my hands on during this political primary season.
And how about that campaign???? For me, the democratic race has been amazing. At first, the debates were all about Iraq. But after the surprising Iowa caucuses, the discussion completely changed. Literally overnight — it's a totally different campaign season now. If you are a political junkie like me, you have to ask "Why? What happened?" Here's the short answer: The Millenials struck.
The Millenials, also known as Generation Y, were born between 1980 and 2000, and are about 43 million strong in the US (as compared to the 70 million Baby Boomers). Interestingly, the Millenials have been turning out in droves for Barack Obama, helping shift the discussion from Iraq and other topics to the need for change. Now, all the politicians, including the Republications, have picked up this change mantra. In fact, Business Week just ran a cover story called "The Economics Driving The Youth Vote" that examined why the Millenials want and even need change so badly. The magazine cover actually tells the story when it says "The Facebook generation worries about jobs, health insurance, student loans, and credit-card debt. Now it's forcing candidates to pay attention."
"Forcing" is a good way to describe it. Even before every blasted TV reporter in America started saying it, I noticed that Hillary Clinton was flanked by baby boomers, including her husband and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, when giving her election night speech after the Iowa caucuses. In marked contrast, Barack Obama was surrounded by college kids and twenty-somethings during his victory speech that same night. Right away, everything started to pivot; all the politicians now talk endlessly (and mindlessly) about change and Hillary made sure she was surrounded by a younger crowd at the New Hampshire victory speech — even if it was older women voters who put her over the top.
What does any of this have to do with technology and business?
Here's the answer: the same Millenials hankering for change in the political environment are your new employees and colleagues. They are the future managers and executives at your company. And you will need these Millenials to fill senior positions, even faster than you may realize because large droves of boomers will retire or start working part-time in the very near future.
What do Millenials expect in the work environment?
Well, I'm guessing on this one, but I think Millenials will not tolerate the way most software applications work. If you take a hard look at some of the enterprise software apps we use every day in business, they are shockingly bad from a user experience perspective. Most boomers just soldier through these hard to use screens and get the job done using this awful software; I'm thinking Millenials won't. They'll go work somewhere else, or do something different. They'll be able to have their pick of jobs because 43 million workers can't fill the shoes of 70 million aging employees. Think about it: Millenials have grown up with a remote control in one hand and a mouse in another, and they expect a more TV/multimedia-like or computer game experience from software apps. I believe they will clamor for change, and systems will need to be designed differently to meet their expectations.
We also know definitively from our research that they learn differently. Millenials won't like to attend classroom training, and they won't even like taking online courses. Instead, Millenials want to learn on the job and have the systems teach them when help is needed. Claire Schooley has written extensively about the informal learning approaches needed to support Millenial expectations.
They'll also be socially connected while on the job. Who knows what software companies will emerge or get bought in this space over the next five years, but no matter what the vendors are named, the Millenials will use all sorts of mashups and social networks and collaboration/knowledge management software to stay connected and create/share their ideas. That means we need to start now developing new policies about content creation and intellectual property protection, identify trusted sources of information outside the company, and figure out the best way to herd the new social computing applications "cats" that keep popping up all the time without shutting down innovation in the workplace.
I think its time to start experimenting with virtual worlds — like Second Life. After all, the Millenials have grown up with MTV, and are much more right brained, visual thinkers than prior generations. Plus, if any of you are parents of tweens, you know that Webkinz have spawned a whole generation of children who think virtual worlds are a typical, normal experience rather than something unusual. This isn't to anoint Second Life the winner of the barely started virtual world race. In fact, I think Second Life's role in the virtual world/3D internet is somewhat equivalent to AOL when the internet was born, and that Second Life probably isn't the long term answer. Erica Driver and I believe that within the next five years, the internet as we know it will go 3D and virtual worlds and visual interfaces will be the norm when we sit down to work at computers and collaborate with others. In the meantime, Second Life and other products are great ways to get hands-on experience creating new business tools like those that Millenials expect and even demand.
That's it for now — gotta run. Wolf Blitzer's latest analysis of the South Carolina primary is about to air. I'm headed to the Situation Room.