The Millennial Connection

May 13, 2016
To succeed with the Internet of Things, it’s important to think like a Millennial—even if you aren't one.

During a panel discussion at a recent automation industry event, the moderator asked for all of the Millennials in the audience to please stand up. In a room with hundreds of people, about a dozen of us stood up, which meant that Millennials made up less than 5 percent of the crowd. The moderator found this number low, and the usual gloom about the state of the industrial workforce and the Millennial generation ensued.
As a Millennial, I don’t believe the picture is that bleak. Of course, I recognize that “high optimism” is a trait often associated with my generation. So, on behalf of Millennials everywhere, I offer my generation’s thoughts on workforce development. Yes, “high confidence” is another trait often associated with Millennials.

Meaningful work

The moderator at the conference posed this question: “What do Millennials want when it comes to jobs in manufacturing and automation?” The answer is “meaningful work,” which also happens to be the same answer for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. What’s more important is to understand the three characteristics that constitute meaningful work:

  • A link between effort and reward
  • Complexity
  • Autonomy

Each of these will mean very different things even to similar people. And each person will assign varying degrees of value to these characteristics depending on their disposition and situation. However, if you provide any person from any generation these three things, you’ll likely have a happy employee. It’s important to recognize this fact as it relates to Millennials because, though we currently make up just 36 percent of the U.S. workforce, in less than 10 years that number will be 75 percent, according to the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation.

Effort and reward

Linking effort to reward can be as simple as a paycheck. For many people, this is often enough. For others, a more important reward is constructive feedback from a superior. For many Millennials, feedback is often the most effective reward. And since Millennials tend to be more task-oriented (getting the job done) vs. time-oriented (putting in the hours), a paycheck alone might not do the trick. Millennials often prefer a bonus that correlates with success.


Scaling up the complexity of an employee’s job responsibilities is something many corporate cultures excel at already. What’s different for Millennials is that we tend to be excellent multitaskers. So instead of just increasing the depth of responsibility, the breadth of responsibility can be widened, too. One reason for this is that, as digital natives, we’re very tech-savvy. In fact, 65 percent of Millennials say losing their phone or computer would have a greater negative impact on their lives than losing their car (according to Zipcar) or even their sense of smell (according to McCann Worldgroup).


Autonomy can be difficult to provide in entry-level positions. However, recognizing the need to nurture autonomy—even in entry-level positions—is essential for any company that wants to innovate. Autonomy and innovation are positively correlated, but for different reasons across generations. Baby Boomers are known for their individualistic tendencies, whereas Millennials are more likely to be team players. This means that Millennials tend to express autonomy differently. For example, 29 percent of Millennials think work meetings to decide on a course of action are very efficient, compared with 45 percent of Boomers, according to CEB Iconoculture research. For Millennials, teamwork is an attitude, not a job function.

The automation connection

The changes we’re seeing today across the automation industry are a result of the flattening of network architectures. The classic ISA-95 hierarchical pyramid is evolving into a mesh network of connected systems. It is no coincidence this flattening of networks is coinciding with the flattening of corporate hierarchies. The same technology that emboldens an entry-level Millennial to email the CEO also enables a sensor on the factory floor to connect with the corporate office. This flattening, courtesy of the Internet, created the Internet of People and their social networks and underlies the Internet of Things and related production networks.

That’s why, as the automation industry transitions into its next phase, an inquisitive nature is more important than ever—whether it comes from Millennials or not. After all, scrutiny is the seed from which innovation grows. Equally important is openness to change, because innovation is a mindset.

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