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How Will the Millennial Perspective Change our Work?

By Mary Beth Powell on January 21st, 2015

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” – Bill Gates

Before my 21-year-old daughter headed back to school last week for her final semester of college, we had an insightful conversation about her career and life plans when she graduates in May. She expressed apprehension about finding a job, uncertainty about where she’ll be living and wariness about the process of transitioning from a college student to a working professional.

As I provided her with my 30-plus years of career advice, it dawned on me that my suggestions from a baby-boomer perspective may not be all that relevant in today’s world.

Born in 1993, she’s right in the middle of the Millennial Generation, also known as “Gen Y” (with birth years from 1981–2000). Now estimated to be 80 million strong in the U.S., this generation has unique characteristics that will change the way we conduct healthy communities work.

First, according to the Pew Research Center, millennials are “detached from institutions” while “networked with friends.” Often called “digital natives,” millennials are the first generation to grow up with the Internet and personal computers in their homes, which means they’re comfortable using digital technologies and integrating social media into their daily routines. As some of this cohort join healthy communities work, this quality may improve their ability to mobilize community residents to affect policy change and facilitate advocacy efforts. However, it’s worth asking whether this generation’s reliance on digital communication will diminish their ability to interact effectively on an interpersonal level, since much of the community change process relies upon partnerships and building relationships.

Millennials are also driving less, preferring to live in walkable communities rather than in rural or suburban environments. A recent study, Millennials in Motion, suggests that commuting by car has declined for 16–24 year olds, and in a University of Michigan report, that fewer young adults are getting their drivers licenses than ever before. Transportation planners are already altering their road patterns and traffic projections due to the noticeable decrease in vehicle miles traveled. These trends will have a significant impact on land use patterns and real estate development.

Finally, millennials will be more racially diverse than any previous generation. Approximately 43% are non-white, and it’s estimated that by 2043, the full U.S. population will be a non-white majority. While race and class issues seem to be of less importance to this generation, recognizing cultural differences and ensuring health equity will be paramount for any new initiative or policy to take hold.

So what does this mean for our work?

It means we will need to make huge shifts in the way we plan programs, allocate resources, target audiences and conduct business to respond to an increasingly diverse millennial generation. It will require changes in housing, transportation, employment, commerce, recreation and many other institutions, as well as the infrastructure required to support these societal lifestyle changes.

Is your community prepared to address this shift and remain viable? If not, start by inviting millennials to the table in order to learn their perspective. Intentionally recruit millennials to fill seats on your advisory boards and committees. Ask them what they want. Then tailor civic actions or proposals in a manner that will grab their attention, even if it means they receive a text message or Facebook post about an upcoming meeting or an Instagram photo about a new facility. It’s a new day and will require a new way of operating. Get ready.

Mary Beth Powell

Environmental advocate, and die-hard Carolina basketball fan. Former Senior Project Officer at Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living By Design).