Ron Fournier: Millennials Are "Generation Disruption"

Professional headshot of Ron Fournier

This is a guest blog post by Ron Fournier.

On the video screen high above my head, an unshaven young man sulks in a corporate board room. “I quit,” he tells his boss. “This job is different than I thought it would be.” Suddenly, out of nowhere, appears a middle-aged announcer. “Stop!” he intones. “Does this situation look familiar?”

It is the opening scene of a popular YouTube parody called, “Millennials in the Workplace Training Video.” I’m watching it from the front row of a hotel ballroom – at the annual conference of a major trade association that invited me to deliver their keynote address. I’m up next. But first, the video: “A new type of worker has entered the workforce,” the baritone announcer continues. “They’re called Milliennials—and they’re terrible.”

I laugh along knowingly with the audience of CEOs, most of whom are Baby Boomers with a shared frustration toward their kids’ generation. But my insides are gripped by anxiety, because I’m about to deliver a speech titled, “Millennials: Generation Disruption’s Influence on Politics, Business and Culture.”

I’m not sure this crowd is going to get it. So I start with something upon which we agree. America is in the midst of a jarring confluence of changes:

  • An economic transition as big as the 19th-century shift from an agriculture economy to the industrial era;
  • The largest technological surge since the industrial era
  • A demographic makeover so dramatic that nation’s collective kindergarten class is majority minority
  • An extended period of war.

(Heads nod in the audience.)

I explain that history has its echoes. A similar set of change marked the Gilded Age a century or so ago and shaped the nation’s founding a century before that.

(Just beyond the stage lights, I notice people taking notes.)

I continue: In times like these, social institutions that bind us together fail to adapt as quickly as people change – small businesses, big businesses, churches, charities, banks, schools, police, courts and the media. The public loses faith in those entities, which either adapt or perish.

(When I offer data on this trade association’s trust deficit, I hear a gasp.)

Of course, no institutions have changed less—or are loathed more—than politics and government. I spend a few minutes reminding the audience of Washington’s dysfunction and the structural changes needed to revive it.

(By now, a pall has come over the room. Is there any hope?)

I tell them to look to a potentially brighter future through the lens of a new kind of politics and a new kind of people.

The new politics is populism. Yes, I know: Populism is as old as America itself, but it’s at its most potent in times like this, when the public gets mad as hell and decides not to take it anymore.

Americans are asking, “What side of the barricades are you on?” The tea party and Donald Trump exploit anger on the far right, while Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stir the pot on the left.

Populism may be the one uniting force in American politics. Across the spectrum, people want the United States to withdraw from the rest of the world and focus on domestic issues, reduce special deal for the rich, curb violations of the public’s privacy by the government and big business, and stem the power of big banks and other large financial institutions.

I ask the crowd: Who are the new kind of people? Somebody answers, “Millennials!” Yes, like the unshaven office worker on the parody video: spoiled, entitled and lazy. I’ll grant you that, but hear me out: These kids are shaped by the times.

They are purpose-driven, having learned at an early age just how fragile life can be in the post-911 world.

They are impatient. They crave change and choices. What would you expect from a generation native to the internet?

They are consensus-builders. After all, they were raised in a shared economy. Even their video games are joint adventures.

They are pragmatic and less ideological than Baby Boomers, their expectations tempered by a weak economy and a lifetime of political dysfunction.

They are civic-minded creatures who crash barriers to positive change. Don’t tell a typical member of this can-do, boot-strapping generation that something can’t be fixed just because it hasn’t been fixed before. They’ll hack it.

In many way, Millennials measure up to the nation’s three past “civic generations:” The so-called Greatest Generation that won World War II, the generation that elected Abraham Lincoln, and the generation of the Founding Fathers. The biggest difference: Unlike past civic generations, Millennials don’t see politics and government as a force for good.

And so they are becoming a generation of social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems.

I give the CEO several examples. I remind them that Bill Clinton said in 1993 that there’s not a problem in American that’s not being solved somewhere in America. He was correct. But he was ahead of his time: Neither government or the public had the ability to connect problem-solvers and bring their solutions to scale.

Two decades later, the radical connectivity of the internet has given a generation shaped by wrenching change the ability to do great things. They are electronically armed populists. For every problem, Millennials have an app for that.

(The audience laughs knowingly.)

In conclusion, I tell the CEOs what it takes to hire, retain, and market toward the largest generation in U.S. history; how they need a purpose beyond profit, and products that provide choice, efficiency, community and the power to solve old problems in new ways.

Yes, a new type of worker has entered the workforce – and they could be terrific.

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