I was recently with my 22 year old son talking about “the future”. His future, to be specific. Not one of those “now son, it’s time you got serious and started to plan everything for the next fifty years” conversations, but more about how he imagines things might develop for him having recently embarked on the first stage of what I would describe as his first career.
His response was interesting, and not altogether surprising to me. I’ve had similar responses to this enquiry from several people of his generation over the last few years. In essence, he said he has no clear idea of how things will pan out for him beyond the next 4 years or so, and, (and this is the important bit to my mind), he’s not worried about it. He’s focused on what he’s doing now and when the next stage of his career comes across the horizon he’ll make his choice about what to pursue given the opportunities that are presented.
Things are going to change so quickly in the meantime, both in the world of work and beyond, that there’s little point in trying to plan beyond holding some fairly loose ideas.
This is the fluid generation.
The term has been coined to refer to the rejection of gender as binary: male or female. While most of us find the idea of gender fluidity at best confusing and at worst dangerously threatening, most of my son’s friends have absolutely no difficulty with it, and I admire them for it. Indeed, they find it curious that we struggle with such a notion.
The idea of fluidity for millennials, I suggest, is not confined to gender. I think young people are fluid, open, non-committal about just about everything of importance in their lives.
Granted, when I was in my twenties I couldn’t tell you what my long-term plan was so that’s nothing new. What is different is that when I was in my twenties I had a sense that I was on some kind of linear path in life – that each step would lead inevitably to the next. That model of thought was predominant for my, and probably previous, generations. I also saw work in binary terms: employed or unemployed; waged or self-employed; working hours and non-working hours; weekday and weekend. Again, I’m not saying that these distinctions have completely disappeared, but I don’t think they are as defining for millennials as they were for me. A week that comprises some hours of work, some hours learning, some in the gym, some volunteering, plus the inevitable every moment in between online, so that ones social life is conducted more or less continuously throughout the day, regardless of the primary activity, is standard.
Moreover, in my day it was rare for anyone in their twenties or thirties to work on a freelance basis. Nowadays many young people work that way, and as a freelancer working hours are very much more fluid than 9 to 5. My daughter is not yet 24 yet has worked on several projects as a freelancer, and that’s not counting internships. Self-employment is the norm for her and she’s doing this alongside her studies.
Why is it that those people just now becoming economically active see the world in much more fluid terms?
We can’t discount the pace of change in the world. Things have moved on significantly in the handful of years since the millennials left school. Technology is their touchstone, and they know better than anyone how quickly ideas, apps, games, etc., become old. They are completely used to obsolescence in every aspect of their lives.
Perhaps political uncertainly also plays a part? Unpredictability in world affairs, environmental collapse, and in the breakdown of the left v right system may all be feeding a sense amongst young people that it is foolish to predict what their world will look like in the medium-term, let alone the long-term.
In other words, there’s no point in my children and their friends planning for the future because that future is so unpredictable. Actually the future was always unpredictable, but my generation and those before me thought they could predict it. Instead millennials living much more in the moment, seeking satisfaction from what is available now, taking advantage of current opportunities, and wherever those opportunities lead, that will be their path. They are not confining their decisions to work opportunities, but to life opportunities, because work opportunities are no more valuable, have no more potential to lead to a “good” life, than any other opportunity.
Again, my generation also responded to opportunities. People I work with in their forties and older talk me through their careers and many jobs taken are responses to opportunities rather than the result of planning. Why did you go to work in Australia? I was in Singapore and met an Australian, we got married and I went to live there for the next 20 years, might be a typical case, but that’s still a different situation to what I’m noticing today where people don’t even have a clear path from which to deviate.
I think that ten to fifteen years down the line we are going to see a significant cohort of people who have drifted, but that drifting will not be a bad thing, it will simply describe the way people move through life, settling down to something for a while and then upping and moving on to something else.