After getting tired of writing about and characterizing the baby boomers and generation X, trend spotters and researchers have focused in the last few years on the next in line – generation Y, or the Millennials. Who are you people and what you want from life? are the questions everyone is trying to answer. The latest attempt was by three scholars whose prognosis was that the Millennials are the MacGyvers of business, or, in other words, “like MacGyver, the resilient DIY generation believes in doing more with less.”
Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja, the authors of the book Jugaad Innovation explained in an article on the Harvard Business Review blog that “we’ve come across many innovators in the U.S. who are using the jugaad mindset – a frugal, flexible, and feisty approach to take on the country’s major socioeconomic issues. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the innovators we met were Millennials, many of whom are cynical about large corporations.” Reading their article, I started wondering if this is actually the case here – is MacGyver really the best character to identify this generation with?
First, I have to admit I love MacGyver and, unlike most Millennials, I actually watched him during the 80s winning over the bad guys by creating inventions from simple items, using his famous Swiss army knife and duct tape. MacGyver is, of course, not the only TV character that endorsed resourcefulness – many characters we’ve enjoyed over the years honed the craft of creating clever solution from simple items, from members of the A Team to Michael Scofield in Prison Break. Yet, there’s no doubt MacGyver made it into an art.
So the question is, can this sort of resourcefulness characterize generation Y? One indication that the answer is positive is the involvement of this generation, which includes the more than 70 million Americans born 1977 to 2002, in the sharing economy. A survey of Zipcar that was released last November found that “Millennials welcome the collaborative consumption movement.” According to this survey, their willingness to participate in media, car and home/vacation sharing programs is higher than any other generational age group.
The Millennials are not just users of the sharing economy, but also the people behind many of the businesses that shape this economy. Look at businesses like Kickstarter, CouchSurfing, Etsy, Airbnb, RelayRides, Zimride, and others and you will see that the majority of their founders are Millennials. You can also find a great number of Millennials among the founders of innovative social enterprises like D.Light (Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun), Medic Mobile (Josh Nesbit) and Embrace (Jane Chen). These are actually also examples of clever solutions that were crafted in a resourceful and innovative way.
Yet, something still doesn’t seem right there. For every resourceful Millennial like Goldman (32) or Nesbit (24), you have Boomers like Martin Fisher (53) and Nick Moon (57) of Kickstart or Xers like Blake Mycoskie (36) of TOMS. After all, resourcefulness seem to be part of the DNA of (almost) every entrepreneur who tries to look at a problem from different angles and challenge existing assumptions. Age can be a factor, but if you look at lists like Inc.com’s Green 50 or Forbes’ top 30 social entrepreneurs, it looks like MacGyverism is shared by entrepreneurs of all ages, especially when it comes to sustainability.
Well, if MacGyverism is not necessarily an exceptional asset of Millennials, is there any other characterization that can best describe them? From our green perspective I believe the answer would be that a) Millennials believe in the power of business to make a difference and b) they truly believe in the need to make business more sustainable.
These conclusions can also be found in Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2011. In this survey, Deloitte came up with couple of interesting observations – 92 percent of Millennials believe that success of businesses should be measured by more than profit. Responders were asked to select terms that encapsulate their view of the purpose of business and the most common responses among the Millennials surveyed were innovation (56%) and societal development (51%). In a reply to the question ‘which sector will achieve the greatest impact on solving society’s biggest challenges?’ 52 percent of Millennials replied “business.” Another interesting point was regarding the biggest challenges facing society over the next 20 years – Millennials surveyed believe these are resource scarcity, aging populations, and inequality of incomes and wealth.
While it looks like Millennials are an innovative group and certainly have awareness to resource scarcity, the term MacGyverism seem to fit them no more than it fits almost every other age group. In my opinion, it’s more accurate to describe these young and smart people as a group that might be more sustainable-friendly than any other group because it understands the problems we’re facing and is open-minded to the changes we need to embrace to sort them out. In many ways, Xer Liz Lemon might be a better fit to describe generation Y than Boomer MacGyver. After all, who carries a Swiss army knife and duct tape anymore?
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.