Tuesday, June 22, 2010

T-Rex Towers: Do Offices Face Extinction? (Part Four)

How will the American workforce work in another 30 years? The response to this question has much to do with whether today’s conventionally developed and occupied offices will be replaced by an entirely new paradigm. So, for a “part” or two, I’ll ruminate over this issue of tomorrow’s workers’ behaviors and attitudes, and how work “attitudes” and the norms of labor may change in the knowledge economy.

First, I confess an assumption. The assumption is that tomorrow’s work force will be led by, progressively, Generation Y (aka Millennials, or sometimes the “Net Generation”) and, thereafter, the iGeneration. In other words, my assumption is that there will not be a massive younger - adult “abandonment” of the work force in western industrial societies. Your reaction to the preceding sentence may be “what’s he talking about?” I’m thinking of the phenomenon in Japan of the rise of an underclass of youth and newly middle-aged working persons whose earnings place them below the poverty-line. This recent rise is largely based on the increasing rate of “unconventional” employment, resulting from restructuring within Japanese companies cutting costs and facing the challenges of globalization. An estimated one-third of the total workforce in Japan today is engaged in non-regular or temporary occupations, namely as freeters, as day laborers, part-timers, so-called dispatch workers (temps) and hybrids of these, forming a new “working-poor.”

Japan’s workforce dilemma arose from the now-distrusted relationship called 'kintractship', a form of 'adoption' by the worker’s employer, coupled with pressure on permanent employees to succeed that was manifested in little annual leave, long working hours, massive amounts of 'service-overtime', and death from overwork (karōshi). These are just a few challenges that made some regular Japanese male employees' working lives miserable through the 1980s. When the Japanese economy hit the skids in the 1990s and the now-famous “salaryman” was riffed from the workforce in copious numbers, massive cynicism grew among Japan’s youth. They have come to doubt the loyalty of corporate Japan to its devoted workforce while witnessing the career fates of their (predominantly paternal) parents. What’s my point? I’m assuming that the iGeneration won’t “drop out and turn on,” but instead will succeed the Millennials in the ranks of professional and technical workers in America’s knowledge-economy workforce. (Just to plug any thought-gap, I’m not disrespecting the Japanese via this observation; I’m simply stating that I’m anticipating the workforce in America over the next 50 years will consist largely of persons who are task-oriented specialists if not career-oriented, whether or not driven with lust for the trappings of “success” that seemed to obsess workers in the 1980s in our land, and regardless of whether they elect to work alone, or within or among smaller or larger groups of persons. Whew!)

Second, I need to define the forthcoming generations of American workers, although I’m not sure there’s a bright-lined way to choose “cut dates,” or whether doing that even makes sense. I’m using the working definitions of Millennials as those born from approximately 1980 through roughly 1996, while iGeneration members are and will be those born thereafter. The basis of those definitions is that for those Millennials born about 1980, their teen years were reached during the popularization of Mosaic, which had a revolutionary impact on the World Wide Web. Mosaic's graphical user interface allowed the Web to become, by far, the most popular Internet protocol. When added to the availability of JavaScript after 1995, the interactivity of the Web was assured. With it, users could interact with a page even while data was being retrieved by the browser; so the currency and accessibility of the Web was a foregone conclusion. Millennials became the masters of the Internet, although doubtlessly they are viewed by some among the iGeneration (including the younger brothers and sisters of Millennials) as hopelessly static and their favorite technologies “so last week.”

The iGeneration, born (more or less) since 1997, became preteens and adolescents at the time of the universal availability to industrialized societies of iPods, iPhones and iTunes, among other things (hence the denomination “iGeneration; this is not a pitch for Apple technologies). I am inclined to agree with Professor Larry Rosen - the convention that a new “generation” arises every 25 years is no longer, well, conventional. Technology breakthroughs representing quantum leaps in human communications, once available to mass markets, have the capacity to influence radically children during their formative development years. When game-changing tech tools’ usage becomes second nature to youth, it’s a bit medieval to pretend that there has been no notable transformation between age-based groups. It may temporarily be a difference of degree rather than kind – but differences become magnified each time there’s a quantum leap in accessibility of a new technologies to succeeding groups of youth who embrace them fearlessly and instantly.

Here’s an illustration: Millennials are used to Skype and video conferencing hardware and software for communications with fellow workers, perhaps wary of the limitations of impersonal contact through electronic media. Today’s preteens, on the other hand, being intimately conversant with virtual worlds and online games, see little distinction between online friends and physical friends - some would sooner play with their imaginary friends online as attend a party with classmates from school. Here’s another one: Millennials appreciate the wonder of, and rely on, instant messenger-ing, emails and text-messaging, achieving cost and time-savings in their business and personal communications. They do accept-grudgingly perhaps-that occasionally, although increasingly less frequently, there are bandwidth or wireless limitations on their freedom. Today’s preteens don’t process that; they expect a near – instant response from everyone they communicate with. Finally, there is anecdotal evidence that toddlers increasingly are referring to their parents’ Kindles as “books,” and believe that “true” computers are hand-held devices.

I’ve heard the transition explained this way: iGeneration members have lived, from their first moments of cognition, in a ubiquitous environment of electronic communications. What does that mean for workplace dynamics? In the next post or two, I’ll start explaining my hypothesis of how these differing growth environments inform attitudes, and attending behaviors, may impact the performance (and expectations) of Millennials and the iGeneration in the workforce (the latter haven’t started working just yet), leading to ruminating about how that will affect the way that the workplace functions – or won’t function – for them as the next leaders of the economies of the “white collar” nations that conventionally gathered in offices to perform their labors.


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