Millennials are different? Pardon me while I retch

Are young workers today fundamentally different?

It’s trendy these days to describe the so-called “millennial” generation — those born between 1989 and 2000 — as somehow fundamentally different, especially in their almost instinctive use of technology. Between MySpace, Twitter, cell phones and the ubiquity of the Internet, these kids have never known what it’s like to be disconnected. They multitask all the time. And they really care what their friends think.

All this makes them fundamentally different, or so the theory goes. Tech pundits have made careers advising us that this generation’s unique characteristics represent a fundamental shift in human society — possibly even the start of the singularity. (For those who aren’t aware, “the singularity” is a theory — created by the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil — that posits that at some point, technology’s rate of change will accelerate so quickly that the fundamental nature of humanity will change.) Therefore, business managers in general — and IT in particular — will have to adapt to enable this “new breed” of human to reach its fullest potential.

Pardon me while I retch. As a charter member of the so-called Generation X — the generation born between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials — I’ll admit to a deep skepticism about generational explanations of anything. (Skepticism, of course, is the defining trait of us Gen Xers). And while I find the notion of a singularity intriguing — even possible — I don’t see much evidence that we’ve reached it quite yet.

As far as I’m concerned, people at certain stages of their lives tend to behave similarly — and have since, oh, the time of Alexander the Great. People in their 20s tend to be ambitious and idealistic, and have lives centered on their friends. They love communicating and are enchanted by new ideas. They can be scatterbrained and disorganized, but they’re quick to embrace new technology and generate a disproportionate share of the innovative ideas. (Reread James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson if you don’t believe me — and the period it describes is the mid-1700s.)

In sum, I don’t buy that the Millennials are different — or rather, I do, but only in the sense that every new generation brings a wave of innovation that previous generations can learn from and leverage.

So, IT practitioners who are thinking about how to revamp the workspace to accommodate this “new” generation shouldn’t get too wrapped around the axle about the much-vaunted “differentness” of the Millennials. Instead, we’d do well to look at the ways current and upcoming technologies can make business processes more effective — not just for folks in their 20s, but for workers of all ages.

Some hints? Deploy collaboration as a strategic advantage. Throw smart people together in communities, give them effective tools for collaboration, and let them work out the details collectively. Then field-test outcomes against reality. Do it right, and you’ll get great results from all employees — not just the “unique” Millennials.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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