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Chamber Executive Article Archive

Changing Generations Mean a Changing Workplace



By Josh Dukelow

Summer 2014

No matter how many years you’ve been employed, your workplace recently changed dramatically, and you may not have noticed yet.

New technology now makes it simple and inexpensive to meet and collaborate with coworkers all around the world. Your inbox vanished from the corner of your desk and reappeared in that phone you carry everywhere, which means you can’t leave those messages behind when you head home from the office.

In addition to technology, generational shifts are reshaping the workplace, and the effects of these changes are just beginning.

Workplace culture is being turned on its head by the arrival of the newest generation of workers. You may know them as Millennials, Generation Y, Digital Natives, or First Globals. No matter the moniker, one thing is for sure: they are changing the face of work in ways equal to the Baby Boomer and Generation X cohorts who came before them. But unique aspects of their up-bringing (such as sustained prosperity and progress, and terrorism as the new global threat) make this generation very different from those who came before.

Recent polling and research by the likes of Zogby and Pew have established comprehensive findings about the attitudes and opinions of Millennials and how they differ from their predecessors. The newest generation is more connected (Instagram), more indebted (student loans now exceed consumer debt), and less politically active than other generations. Broadly speaking, they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, making partisan labels difficult to apply. While they are fiercely independent, they have closer relationships with their parents than any Gen Xer could imagine. They are passionate about making a difference and contributing to their community, which many define as Planet Earth.

While some of these findings may correlate to the “idealism of youth,” there are other trends that are undeniably changing the workplace in profound ways.

Location First: Researchers such as urban theorist Richard Florida have told us that the “creative class” will find the place they want to live first, and then worry about finding a job there. This makes community development and quality of life a top priority for regions that want to compete for scarce talent. Employers, chambers, and local governments are teaming up to cultivate the kind of experiences and opportunities that will attract the new generation of highly mobile workers. But don’t be something you’re not – more than anything else, Millennials want authenticity.

Untethered to the Desk: New technology frees us from the office. In fact, young entrepreneurs find settings such as coffee shops or co-working spaces (see the Millennial Glossary sidebar) preferable to traditional offices. They can get calls, email, and documents on their mobile devices, and attend webinars or Skype calls on their laptop anywhere they have a wi-fi signal. If you don’t offer your employees remote access to email and files, some job-seekers might keep looking for an employer who does.

Flexible Schedules: Given their embrace of creative places and the power of mobile technology, a top consideration for young workers choosing an employer is a flexible schedule. Late mornings, mid-day yoga classes, early evening happy hours, and late night brainstorms are normal for Millennials (not usually all in one day!), and none of these have to get in the way of productivity. Their passion for results and “making a difference” means they are just as motivated to get things done as any other worker; they just want to get it done at the time that is convenient for them.

At ACCE’s Key Issues Summit in Burlington, Vt., in May, leaders from chambers across the country discussed and debated the best ways to engage this growing demographic group in our important work. Key insights include the distinction between the needs of a young professional (skill development, networking) and a young entrepreneur (start-up capital, professional services). Catering to these groups with specially designed programs and outreach through Young Professional (YP) Networks offers a portal for Millennials to safely enter the chamber world.

Another important point was to make sure these up-and-comers don’t get stuck at this entry point. They have a lot to offer, but feel the need to have “ownership” in their projects and work. Developing intentional pathways or tracks into additional chamber volunteer and leadership opportunities – including seats on boards of directors – will ensure that what starts as a useful resource for a young business owner can grow into a lasting connection with mutual benefits.

Whether you meet these trends with glee or dread, one thing is certain: they aren’t going away. Chambers that figure out how to incorporate these realities into their work culture will leverage the immense power and energy of the next generation of employees and leaders. Chambers that don’t will find it very difficult to attract them at all.

The Millennial Glossary

Autonomy – Identifying the destination, but not the route to reach it.

Co-working Space – A desk in an office for a person without an office.

Slacktivism – Supporting a cause or advancing a movement by doing #virtuallynothing.

LifeHack – Solving a problem using what’s available at hand, a la MacGyver.

Facetime/Skype – Remember the video phone from the Jetsons? It’s like that.

Fail Fast – Just do it; it’s better to try, fail, learn, and try again, than never to try in the first place.

The Cloud – Access to all of your music, cat videos, and selfies from any device, anywhere.

Innovate – Using wild ideas to solve the world’s problems.

Disruptive – When everything changes all at once. You’re welcome.

Crowd-Funding – Financing your startup with money from many small investors. In essence, digital begging.

Ear buds – You might call them headphones.

Tablet – It doesn’t have anything to do with medicine; the light, flat wireless computers that are taking over the world.

Drone – Small flying machines; in the Army they shoot missles, but here they are used to shoot video.

Josh Dukelow is V.P., public policy and leadership, at the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Appleton, Wis.

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