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Post-Modern Work: What Millennials recognize and Baby Boomers don't

Modern Office

- Frank Luby

The Economist welcomed us to 2015 with a handful of intriguing articles on the future of work. In “Workers On Tap”, they framed up the growing free-lance economy as a battle in workers’ minds between job security and time flexibility. The article implied older workers (which include me) place greater value on the former while Millennials prefer the latter.

Other recent articles confirm that Millennials want even more than flexibility, they want input and interest. They want to make a contribution which is valuable and valued.

Compare these two passages:

“This tech-savvy, uber-connected generation thinks differently about earning a living. They care more about the content and impact of their toils than how much money they earn or status they acquire. They want to pursue the work they’re interested in while maintaining flexibility.”

“The knowledge worker demands economic rewards, too. Their absence is a deterrent. But their presence is not enough. [They need] opportunity, achievement, fulfillment, [and] values.”

Ah, those Millennials.

Well, the first passage appeared in Forbes in 2014. The second passage was written by the late, legendary management theorist Peter Drucker.

In 1967.

That’s right. The demand for a fulfilling, values-driven workplace is nothing new, and certainly nothing the Millennial mind dreamed up. Drucker saw it almost 50 years ago as a fundamental, inseparable aspect of business.

What has changed since Drucker first published The Effective Executive is the range of opportunities available to fulfill those goals. We now have more extensive insights into the nature of work and its impact on health and effectiveness.

Those insights make it easy to conclude that a “face time” desk job (“9 to 5” or similar) with a commute does not make it easier for a knowledge worker to make a valuable and valued contribution. It makes it harder.

Podio, an online working platform, revealed the daily routines of famous creative people over the last few hundred years. Some were dedicated morning people. Some worked in a 9-to-5-ish way. Some were night owls. Duh. We all have our own peak periods of productivity, and they don’t necessarily correspond at all to those of our colleagues.

Health-wise, the Mayo Clinic concluded that sitting is lethal, and a disease. Even children, sitting at a desk all day, could stand an amended schedule. The American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends that school should start later because kids need more sleep. This is one of countless articles emphasizing the importance of sleep.

Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review recently cited data that meditation and mindfulness physically alter your brain – for the better – and improve decision-making and behavior by making us more adaptable and less stressed. Meditation is probably what people should do on their breaks, if they aren’t going for a walk or napping, or instead of enduring a mindless commute. But how to do that at a “9 to 5”?

Instead, people often turn to caffeine as a way to cope and keep up, and even there the options have risks. Maybe people shouldn’t reach for a vending machine soda when they take a break or need a recharge, at least not if they agree with this information from the Harvard School of Public Health. We also have greater technological capabilities than ever, unimaginably more than when Drucker published his book. The unprecedented ability for anyone to communicate and collaborate in real time nowadays compared to 1967 is liberating in the same way that the traditional 9-to-5 world is confining and debilitating by comparison.

How can one continue to advocate the 9-to-5 (or worse in many industries) desk job as the right answer to the “knowledge worker” challenge which Drucker defined? Better yet, what is the right answer?

Acknowledging the insights mentioned above and designing a workplace around them is not generational indulgence. It is common sense. Based on my experience, defined by over 30 years as a knowledge worker around the world, the right answer is more complex than the simple security vs. flexibility tradeoff the Economist mentioned. My sense is that if there is any difference between Baby Boomers and Millennials, it lies in how the Millennials respond if a firm’s executives are not delivering the kind of workplace which Drucker described and which current knowledge about work and health warrants: they leave. Millennials seem more likely to become their own executive, in charge of their firm, their professional contributions, and their work choices. Hence the growth in free-lancing and the emergence of Generation Gig.

Then again, I have done the same thing. I cannot blame them for making a clean break with the “that’s the way we have always done it” workplace to seek out or create something better. I forged my own path in my pursuit of happiness, and haven’t looked back.

It is easy to blame the younger generation for acting differently, as this rant shows: “I don't know, maybe part of it’s the fact that you’re in a hurry. You’ve grown up on instant entertainment. Instant communication. Instant transportation. Flash a card - instant money. Shove in a problem - push a few buttons - instant answers. But some problems you can’t get quick answers for, no matter how much you want them.”

Do you recall who said that? I would be surprised. It was Sergeant Joe Friday, giving a group of Baby Boomers a tongue-lashing in episode of the iconic TV series Dragnet. That episode originally aired on March 7, 1968. Younger generations, and our opinions of them, really don’t change much at all.

The desire for a fulfilling, opportunity-driven, values-driven workplace is nothing new. But quenching that desire has no quick answer; in fact, maybe it has a million individual answers. One things seems true right now, though: the Millennials seem to be responding better to these new insights into work, health, and flexibility than Baby Boomers.

Power to them.

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. He is co-author of the short ebook “10/10: How to write business content that is memorable and effective”, available on Amazon and other major e-book retailers. Frank is also a Baby Boomer, just barely.

To learn more about Present Tense LLC, please visit us at and follow our regular blogs and posts. You can also follow Frank on Twitter: @FrankLuby

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