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Millennials: They're Here. They're Wired. Get Used to Them

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By Anne Laurent March 24, 2008

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As the 53-year-old editor chiefly responsible for the controversial photograph of a young woman with a nose piercing on the December 2006 cover of Government Executive magazine, I straddle the workplace generational divide. My gray hair gives me street cred among aging boomers. My regular use of YouTube videos on my blog, my Facebook page and my Second Life avatar give me cache among those born after 1980.

So I feel comfortable saying to those of you in my demographic and older: Millennials are here. They're wired. Get over it.

Especially in matters technological, millennials are changing the workplace whether boomers approve or not. And often, we don't. Take last week's story here on NextGov about millennials as computer security risks. You can almost see the raised eyebrows through the lines in Symantec's finding that millennials pose a risk to network security. Just about all the IT managers interviewed grumped about millennials' freewheeling Internet practices, such as checking their personal email and Facebook pages and banking online while at work.

But while the tech czars grumble, those who manage millennials or struggle to lure them into government, are mellowing. They are finding young digital natives to be an asset, not a pain. The Army, for example, was an early adapter with its computer game recruiting tool America's Army. In late 2006, the CIA's National Clandestine Service set up a Facebook group to recruit new employees. NASA, NOAA the CDC and other agencies have entered the virtual world, namely Second Life, in part to meet milennials where they live.

And in a January white paper, "On Learning: The Future of Air Force Education and Training," the Air Education and Training Command proposed creating a virtual base, called MyBase, an obvious allusion to the so-five-minutes-ago millennial hang-out MySpace.

What's fun about MyBase is that it originated in Boomer angst. The paper is based in part on research about millennials done by Art Fritzson, a Booz Allen vice president. He was commissioned by "a senior officer who had been appalled to discover a number of junior officers using the . . . Facebook Web site for the purpose of organizing their. squadrons" This according to a piece Fritzson wrote along with Lloyd W. Howell Jr., another Booz V.P., and Dov S. Zakheim, a former Defense comptroller now at Booz. Their March 10 report, "Military of Millennials" appears on Booz' Web site, strategy + business. The authors point out that Generation Y, born between 1980 and 2001, is just about as large as the baby boom, lives on the Internet, and views knowledge not as power, but as something that "belongs to everyone and creates a basis for building new relationships and fostering dialogue. . . . They have grown up seeing the thoughts reaction, and even indiscretions of their friends and peers posted on a permanent, universally accessible global record."

Yes, this does call for a more creative approach to security and the need for adult supervision, but it also makes for a multi-tasking, anti-hierarchy, adaptive group that might just be uniquely suited to defeating the loosley organized, highly networked enemies we face, as well as the elusive, multi-faceted challenges we must surmount.

And by the way, the millennials also turn out to be deeply committed to family, community and teamwork; hugely civic-minded, creative and independent and possibly the most tolerant generation on record. So what if all this comes in a wrapping of tattoos, piercings and baggy clothes? We drove our elders nuts in our time, too.

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