I recently met an enterprising 16-year-old at a robotics tournament in Portland, Oregon. This kid had previously never seen a CNC machine, yet he and two friends had fabricated a perfect robot—completely self-taught. These young adults were totally unencumbered by fear of a new technology that older adults, myself included, might be.
That fearlessness is endemic to these younger generations, both millennials and generation Z, and I think that’s something to admire. As these up-and-comers start making their way to the workforce, existing professionals can look at them in one of two ways: either as entitled whiners with questionable work habits or as fearless upstarts in search of new challenges. I choose the latter view.
After all, millennials are already changing the workplace (whether anyone likes it or not) through their use of social media, their zeal for collaboration, and their openness to new technology. People well into their careers don’t want to be embarrassed by new technology, but younger workers wear that naiveté like a badge of honor. The millennials I have worked with take on challenges without question—and with a boldness that reminds me of the Greatest Generation.
The Greatest Generation produced the folks in the 1960s who put a man on the moon in less than 10 years. The task was hard, and they didn’t have great technology. (In fact, the lunar module was pretty clunky.) But they climbed inside that module and flew it anyway, because their attitude was, “Hey, why not? We’re going to do this.” They didn’t fear failure or the unknown.
Being unafraid to fail and willing to try new things are the hallmarks of today’s greatest entrepreneurs. Consider Elon Musk: He created companies to fly rockets and build electric cars. But did Musk know anything about cars or rockets? No. Did the Uber founders have a history in the taxi industry? No. But in both instances, they were willing to ask the question, “Who says we can’t do this?”
And in Musk’s case, traditional automakers were saying no to the electric car; it was far too hard, couldn’t be done. It was as if they were trapped by their own orthodoxy—they knew too much to accept the risk. The older and more experienced leaders in any industry, from automotive to construction, are the least open to taking risks. But in time, they will be bypassed by those who aren’t beleaguered by excess knowledge or experience. Sometimes, lack of knowledge is actually a good thing.
I think it’s a very good thing for millennials and the generation Z kids. All of the worries that seasoned workers have about everything from mobile computing to cloud simulation leave these new generations completely unfazed—because they are simply willing to figure things out for themselves. The effect that millennials and beyond are going to have on the workplace, both in their comfort level with technology and fearlessness in employing new innovations, is the real disruptive force in many industries.
So when I consider global challenges with water, energy, housing, and overpopulation, my thoughts go to the 17-year-old next door who is already saying she can build a nuclear-fusion reactor in her garage. I know that she and her peers are the ones who will stand up and say: “Who says we can’t solve these problems?”