Disruptive by Design: Millennials Rewrite Workplace Rules

May 1, 2017
By Sarah Christensen

Entitled. Self-centered. Disaffected. These are just a few of the divisive and disparaging words used to describe millennials. The largest generation in U.S. history—an emerging consumer powerhouse—is making significant cultural changes centered around revolutionary, life-enhancing technologies. Tomorrow’s successes are sure to stem from millennials who are pushing the limits.

Perhaps fewer ecosystems can benefit more from this work force’s M.O. than cyberspace, experts shared during the recent debut of a Young AFCEAN panel at West 2017.

“How do we harness the wave of millennials as we identify skill sets that leaders at all levels need to address in managing this operational domain?” asked Sherri Hanson, panel moderator and executive director of the 24th Air Force, Air Force Space Command, Joint Base San Antonio–Lackland, Texas. “What is the right balance of operations and technical insight?”

In 2015, millennials surpassed Generation X as the largest group contributing to the nation’s work force, and their ranks are expected to grow thanks to young immigrants, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Millennials, roughly those born between 1981 and 1997, also make up about 25 percent of the federal work force but could represent up to 75 percent by 2025, Forcepoint research shows. Predictably, this shift has generated much discussion and comparison of the two groups. After all, it is pretty much a rite of passage for older generations to deride their successors.

Mock away, but it is foolish to ignore the marked cultural shift brought about by millennials, who were ages 18 to 34 in 2015. They want autonomy and the opportunity to truly master skills, and they seek a purpose to their work beyond earning a salary. Buying into the mission is important for this generation, whose ideal work environment includes great benefits and state-of-the-art technology. As one panelist described, millennials grew up with technology at their fingertips, and they expect from their employers the same level of technology or better than what they have at home.

For their entire lives, millennials have lived in a cyber world. The constantly evolving digital environment leaves them ready and even eager to accept the next challenge, panelists offered. Andrew Santell, a chief engineer at Space and Naval Warfare Systems (SPAWAR) Command, said members of this generation must understand that cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility. It is no longer the purview of a select few specially trained in this arena. “We need mission awareness,” Santell said. “The questions we need to answer are what, so what and why?” 

The ultimate cyber warrior embraces today’s rapid cultural and technological changes without fear of stumbling through challenges to strengthen America’s cyber future. But how can these warriors be developed and supported?

One simple step is to start scrutinizing work schedules. Workers today spend too much time multitasking rather than devoting attention to one project at a time to make it the best it can be. Agencies should earmark more time and money for training and continuing education, too often treated as superfluous and the first on the chopping block when budgets are tight. Yes, millennials tend to change jobs every few years, making it a costly endeavor to invest in training only to have them pull chocks. There are creative solutions to this challenge, such as shared work forces between industry and government. Perhaps millennials would be less likely to jump ship if they had a rotating cast of work colleagues, changing responsibilities and meaningful challenges. 

Other cultural elements also need scrutiny. Does the work force get time off to recharge? Can employees access proven technology to get their jobs done? Are talented employees rewarded? 

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone gets participation trophies—the widely ridiculed fake honors linked to this generation—but businesses that celebrate and reward employees’ achievements come out ahead among millennials. That is especially true when managers let them take risks and implement new initiatives. Like their parental counterparts, hovering helicopter managers need to come in for a landing. 

Encourage employees to take time off from work. Those who feel as though they cannot tend to underperform—or worse—leave. We need those working in cyber, particularly, to be at the top of their game.

And now for the obvious: Invest in technology. Millennials want to leverage the latest and greatest gadgets. If you don’t have them, then they will find another employer that does.

If we want to develop a deep pool of the ultimate cyber warriors, then first we must look at changing the work environment. Keeping millennials onboard means showing appreciation, offering flexibility and nurturing engagement with opportunities for career growth. It’s not rocket science, but it does take rethinking the factors that motivate people in the workplace. 

The Young AFCEAN Advisory Council extends a huge thank you to the panelists for “Disruptive by Design—Building the Ultimate Cyber Warrior,” including Eric Gleed, principal project manager for the Information Assurance Program Directorate at Parsons; Andrew Heo, a cyberspace operations instructor at Delta Solutions and Strategies assigned to the National Security Space Institute (NSSI) at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado; Andrew Santell; and moderator Sherri Hanson.

To suggest topics for the next Young AFCEAN panel, contact Sarah Christensen, Young AFCEAN
outreach coordinator.

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