In the 1960s, “the generation gap” became shorthand for the differences between those born during the baby boom and their parents who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Then, the puzzling differences between young and old gave a new generation of Americans the label “X.” Now, “Boomers” and “Gen Xers” are scratching their heads at the newcomers, the “Millennials.” These young people were born after 1980, and are posing challenges to and suggesting opportunities for their employers now that they are entering the workforce.

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The culture of the design firm IDEO does not discourage bad ideas, because they can trigger solutions. One of its credos is, “Fail often to succeed sooner.”

What makes Millennials tick and how to integrate them into the workplace has been intensively researched. One landmark study is Generations at Work, by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak (McGraw-Hill, 1999). By examining the influences and characteristics of workers of all ages, these researchers seek strategies for improving communications and management techniques.

When compared statistically with older generations, Millennials are well educated, technologically adept, outgoing, flexible, eager to learn, and adventuresome. But they also tend to be coddled by their parents and may be quick to express an opinion without knowing all the facts. They are impatient with the less-exciting aspects of project production, and are willing to jump to new job opportunities if they feel their careers aren’t progressing fast enough. Knowing these tendencies can be helpful for firm managers as they begin to recruit Millennials.

Gensler and Perkins+Will are two firms that have already experienced these challenges and opportunities with large numbers of young employees. At the AIA Convention in May 2008, Meg Brown, human resources director and principal of Perkins+Will, and Cliff Moser, AIA, vice president of Cadforce, presented “Tethered Millennials,” a seminar on hiring, training, and retaining young workers. They offered numerous suggestions for tapping the strengths and coping with the weaknesses of these recruits. For instance, they advise using a variety of digital media for teaching. Podcasts and Web-based multimedia capture the interest of Millennials better than conventional manuals. Also, Millennials work best with a structured process, clearly stated goals, defined assignments, and lots of daily coaching and feedback.

One important characteristic that eases the generational integration, say Brown and Moser, is the Millennials’ experience and skill in collaboration. This fits well with their willingness to seek advice from their elders. A multigenerational team can work smoothly if everyone recognizes the strengths that others bring to the table. Elders provide the wisdom, while youngsters explain the technology. Because building information technology (BIM) is increasingly accepted as essential in architectural practice, the contribution of those just now finishing professional education can be substantial. Brown notes that young people, even though they have been slow to pursue licensing, have been enthusiastic about LEED accreditation. They understand the urgency for sustainable design, and they are also eager to work for social causes.

Kate Kirkpatrick, Gensler principal and marketing director, has studied generational differences through staff surveys. One such survey revealed that young people are more likely to welcome transfers to other offices, even overseas. So recruiters and managers have begun promoting mobility as a benefit. In addition, says Kirkpatrick, “Gensler’s research uncovered an interesting paradox about learning.” In a white paper titled “Strategies for the Intergenerational Workplace,” she and coauthors Steve Martin and Sandi Warneke wrote: “The older generations complain that the younger ‘think they know it all,’ while the younger lament the older generation’s unavailability or perceived lack of interest in teaching. Providing more interactive environments would help people see that there are learners looking for teachers and vice versa. The right office planning approach and giving staff collaboration and gathering places can allow for mentoring and the transference of knowledge from generation to generation.”

Gensler is increasingly providing training materials in digital form, such as blogs, wikis, and podcasts. Importantly, the young people are asked for their advice in setting up digital communications media. In addition, many young people are taking the initiative, despite having grown up in relatively structured, protected environments. Kirkpatrick says, “Gensler Rising Professionals is a group started in our Washington, D.C., office by three enterprising young women, to specialize in the interests and needs of under-30 professionals. They have made a real impact on how we support professional development, engage in community service, give back to the profession, and connect socially.” For instance, their “Roving Culture” program gets designers out of the office, into the city, to create cultural, sports, and other events. They also bring students into the office for a day of career coaching and portfolio critiques.

There is a large talent pool ready to contribute to the architecture profession if they are given opportunities and guidance. Meg Brown concludes, “Failure to influence the Millennials will lead us into perpetually spiraling costs to acquire talent, while paying the price in lower productivity, reduced employee commitment, and higher-than-necessary attrition.” On the other hand, managing the growth and harnessing the talents of this generation can help improve a firm’s technical proficiency and sustainable design expertise.