Popular culture loves to mock millennials for being avocado-toast-eating, hipster-beard-flaunting technophiles that challenge the status quo, but this crisis may pose an opportunity for many in this generation to shine. Employees of all industries find themselves reliant on at times new and unfamiliar technology to remain connected and continue to conduct business as usual despite highly unusual times. The world around us professionally and personally shifted radically due to the disruptive impact of COVID-19, and the resulting shift to remote working and reliance on technology will likely persist far beyond the pandemic.
Younger employees who grew up with mobile devices, email, social media, and video chat are often finding this transition substantially easier than employees who did not grow up as digital natives, and in many cases this creates an opportunity for more junior team members to level up and raise visibility. Whether they are suggesting new technology or approaches to bridge gaps caused by the work from home (WFH) revolution COVID-19 has inspired, or simply helping more senior colleagues learn how to effectively deploy existing tech, millennial employees are often finding themselves more crucial to business continuity and with higher visibility.
What is a millennial?
The world around us has dramatically shifted in a shockingly short period of time, leaving businesses and employees scrambling to maintain business as usual in highly unusual times. This is where the generation of employees who grew up with a laptop, the internet, and an ever-expanding cadre of personal devices can step up and step in. While pop culture seems to separate the world into two broad categories, millennials and Boomers, that breakdown is not accurate. Millennials are the generation of people who came of age in the new millennium, the year 2000. According to Pew Research, anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 24 to 39 in 2020) is considered a millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of Gen Z.
Millennials may be disproportionately affected
The vast majority of millennials are extremely or very concerned about the coronavirus and its impact on the economy (74% and 82% respectively). While the jury is still out on the physical impact of COVID-19 for millennials, this fear may not be unfounded from an economic standpoint. A recent survey found that 61% of millennials said they had either lost their job or had their hours or earnings reduced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis compared to 44% of Baby Boomers and 52% of GenX.
This is not the first time that millennials have faced a world-shifting crisis. The older cohort of millennials watched the Berlin Wall fall in primary school, saw the Twin Towers fall from their dorm rooms, entered young adulthood as the great recession reshaped the global economy and now are facing this global pandemic. No strangers to disruptive chaos, as a recent National Law Review article put it, “they’re the generation that doesn’t own, but rents; holds down jobs, not careers; and pays off student loans, not mortgages.” Despite this vulnerability, millennials may be able to amplify their visibility and job security in these challenging times.
While millennials are indeed economically vulnerable due to the back-to-back economic collapse in the Great Recession and what is currently unfolding, they also have some unique strengths in this unprecedented time. From varying levels of growing up as technology-native and fluent to an outside-the-box adaptable approach, the millennial generation has been innovating and adapting since before it was cool or frankly mission critical. Millennials as a broad group do things differently across all areas of life, while this has often garnered them the label of snowflakes, in this unprecedented time that may be exactly what we need.
The generational divide
As the world had to pivot on a dime and shift from brick and mortar to virtual offices and technology-powered collaboration, the impact has been broadly felt, with certain groups adapting more resiliently. Some Boomers, classified as people born from 1946 to 1964, are finding the shift to business powered by Zoom, Skype, Slack, Teams, and that ilk challenging — whereas the generations that had access to laptops, mobile phones, the internet, and all the various apps on the market in their personal lives have made the shift more seamlessly.
This is not to say that every Boomer is a Luddite and every millennial or the successors in Gen Z are all technophiles like Tony Stark. Rather that fluency is more easily attained when you grow up with access to various technologies early and often. This may manifest itself with a senior manager struggling to get the settings right on a Zoom meeting, stay abreast of the dozens of Teams or Slack channels, or use new hardware.
How millennials are stepping up
While it is tempting to laugh at the memes of folks (Boomers and otherwise) struggling with remote work, it is important to note that for as many as 38% of people, this is their first experience working from home and the challenges may not feel minor. It is also relevant to note that in looking at the breakdown across seniority levels, it is less likely for senior level executives to work remotely. This translates into an opportunity for more junior team members in the millennial or Gen Z cohorts to step in to provide ideas on how to facilitate the migration to virtual workforce as well as offer to assist if members of the team and leadership are struggling to adapt.
In one instance, a junior team member suggested using WhatsApp as a way to bridge the international divide of a global ediscovery program spread across dozens of countries. From that simple suggestion he became a person the larger team reached out to for brainstorming the pivot to remote and he got a seat at the table that he would not have otherwise had.
How Gen X helps bridge the gap between millennial and Boomers
Millennials are not the only tech fluent generation in most organizations. Gen X sits between Boomers and millennials, and has the unique insight of having become tech-fluent despite not being tech-native (i.e. they knew life before and after the internet and smartphones). This enables many in the Gen X generation to translate between the tech-native younger generations and the non-tech-fluent older ones. They understand the learning curve for adopting and becoming fluent in new technology and can help moderate the messaging and ensure the pace of transition is not overwhelming for those who are newer to tech-enabled work.
How you can shine in these unusual times
While no one wants to become the go-to tech support for senior leaders struggling with technology, there is a way to raise visibility and value in these uncertain times. Millennials and tech-native staff are creating nuggets of innovation to adapt to this brave new world. The key is to share your insights, how you have adapted, and help upskill and bring along those that are struggling. Some ways to bridge the gap include:
- Suggest and/or run virtual events and happy hours internally and externally
- Help upskill peers that are struggling (with Zoom, collaboration tools, etc.)
- Share best practices, trips or tricks that are helping you WFH
- Speak up and share outside-the-box ideas
- Share insightful articles, videos, or webinars with peers
- Volunteer to identify and help assess current WFH tech stack
Is this new normal here to stay?
If we look only to the past crisis to understand the stickiness of the virtual revolution we are missing a few key points. Namely that the technology today and the tech-fluent staff in organizations is better able to bridge the gaps between IRL and virtual. Additionally, there was a trend prior to the outbreak towards increased need for WFH options to retain key talent, offset facility cost, and entice the younger generation combined with increased cost-consciousness of clients.
This push for WFH combined with the growing volume of experiential evidence that productivity actually increases with remote work options bodes well for the virtual revolution extending beyond the pandemic. Taken in sum, it is likely safe to say that the sprint back to open floor plans, cubicles, and offices will likely be substantially slowed. Some of the rapid pivots organizations took in the wake of COVID-19 are likely here to stay and as a result the millennial moment may expand substantially to a long-term leveling up opportunity. Whatever generation you or the members of your team belong to, there is a unique opportunity to work closer together and learn from each other as we continue to adapt.