Doing Innovation: How Millennials Are Navigating Today’s Economy

Millennials live in a world of contradictions. They are the most educated generation in U.S. history and yet they earn less than the previous generation of young workers. They live in the richest economy the world has ever seen and yet stable and meaningful employment remains elusive. This year, the U.S. Census announced that millennials now make up a greater share of the workforce than any other population segment. Millennials are coming of age at a time when many of our notions about work, identity, opportunity, and mobility are undergoing profound change.

How are young 20 and 30-somethings navigating these harsh social and economic realities? Two years ago, a team of graduate students and I set out to answer that question. We began interviewing, observing, and hanging out with millennials. So far, we have conducted more than 50 formal interviews, many more informal interviews, and spent many hours observing millennials at home, work, and play. We have talked to them about work, their aspirations, and what it is like to come of age in a world marked by unprecedented change and uncertainty.  This work is being documented and shared through a new project called, Doing Innovation.

During our time in the field, we saw a lot and learned even more.

Here are six initial takeaways.

  1. Millennials are “doing innovation.”
    Our research examines the rise of informal innovation ecosystems — the forms of creativity, knowledge work, and enterprise that are happening on the edges of more formal channels of innovation such as universities, network-rich tech incubators, or venture capital driven accelerators. The innovation ecosystems that we study are powered by the sheer grit and ingenuity of young people who are cobbling together a mix of resources to forge open new pathways to opportunity. I call this “doing innovation.” There is no way to “do innovation” and our work showcases, for example, how a mix of artists, designers, and social entrepreneurs are designing their own paths to more creative and personally fulfilling work or creative expression. Their goal is not to become the next Internet billionaire or pop celebrity but rather to pursue a career path that is aspirational and meaningful. Richard Florida is correct when he writes that more and more young people want to “exercise [their] creativity in building something, to experience the whole cycle of having ideas, putting them into action, and seeing them bear fruit.” It is the spread of this spirit, what I call the innovation ethosthat we aspire to document. Our focus to date has been in the creative and technology spheres but the innovation ethos is not unique to these sectors and is spreading across many different spaces including social impact work, food, and education-related enterprises just to name a few.
  2. Place still matters.
    If any generation is associated with technology, social media, and a lifestyle shaped by ever present screens, it is millennials, the most tech-connected generation to date. Despite the rise of virtual worlds, mobile networks, and constant connectivity, physical places still matter. The young creatives and innovators that we have observed seek out physical spaces to network, collaborate, and exchange, develop, and test new ideas.  As a result, they are designing whole new kinds of places to tinker, play, work, and pursue their aspirations. We have spent time in an old bus depot that has been converted into a co-working space for an eclectic mix of young designers, software developers, social innovators, and fledgling start-ups that are short on cash but long on verve and ambition. We also observed how a local hipster café created an adjoining space that serves as a performance stage and learning lab for aspiring hip hop MCs and beat makers and a gallery space for local artists. You can see the learning lab here. Places like these are the staging environment for hackathons, meet-ups, boot camps, design studios, and performances that make up a lively but largely hidden informal innovation ecosystem driven by millennials.
  1. Innovation is social.
    One of the most crucial resources in any vibrant innovation ecosystem is the capacity to cultivate social capital, that is, rich social connections and relations that provide access to vital resources such as expertise, financial capital, and mentoring. The liveliest innovation ecosystems are designed to foster connections, collaboration, access to knowledge and expertise, and the collision of different people and ideas to lead to the generation of something novel and relevant. In their discussion of innovation economies, Brookings Institution researchers Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner maintain that networks are important sources of new information for new contacts, new discoveries, and new ideas. We have observed young designers, hip hop artists, indie game developers, and aspiring civic entrepreneurs create unique kinds of social spaces that ignite community, conversation, and collaboration.
  1. Smart Uses of Smart Technologies.
    Any discussion of the informal innovation ecosystems that millennials are creating must certainly address the role of technology. The generation that has often been derided as tech addicted uses tech in an assortment of inventive ways including civic, creative, and entrepreneurial. One humble start-up that we met used networked technology to invite young African entrepreneurs to participate, virtually, in a hackathon that labored to design education and health-based apps for the “dumb phones” spreading across Africa.   Consistent with a long tradition of informal innovation in hip hop culture, today’s aspiring hip hop artists leverage technology to make their own beats, record and share their own rhymes from their mobile phones, and build their own media channels through the adoption of platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud. In these and many other instances, technology is used to address social problems, catalyze creative expression, and connect with distributed knowledge and expertise.
  1. Schools are not enough.
    Education is a vital pathway to economic opportunity, but most schools—secondary and post-secondary—are not built to prepare young people for today’s rapidly evolving and precarious economy. In a study by Pew Research Center, less than half — 46% — of college graduates said that their education was “very useful” in preparing them for a career.  Among those with only a high school diploma, the numbers were even lower, 31%. The world of work is changing and long-term employment with one company is a thing of the past. Consequently, young workers must constantly learn new things if they want to remain viable in a volatile economy. Where do young adults go to learn new things, upgrade their skills, or change their career path?Many young adults seek out accessible and affordable options and, thus, turn to informal spaces, communities, and collectives that, among other things, create a community and the opportunity to collaborate and share and test new ideas. Some tap the distributed expertise that is available through the Internet. These informal innovation ecosystems are attuned to the need to cultivate the skills and dispositions that are responsive to the aspirational trajectories of millennials who seek richer professional and personal paths.
  1. Equity and the future of opportunity.
    Our research raises serious concerns about equity and the future of opportunity. Young African Americans and Latinos are significantly more likely than their white and Asian counterparts to be unemployed. Additionally, a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that recent black college graduates are much more likely than their white or Asian counterparts to be underemployed, that is, working in jobs that do not require a college degree. If the paths to better futures include creating: new dispositions (i.e., the innovation ethos), new forms of work and income earning opportunities; new kinds of spaces for connecting, collaborating, and testing new ideas; and using smart technologies in smart ways, then the ultimate question is: how do we design policies and institutions that ensure that a greater diversity of young people are able to access the resources that support more robust and diverse participation in a rapidly evolving society and economy?

Doing Innovation

Our fieldwork and reporting has just begun. Educators, city leaders, parents, and policymakers can learn a lot by paying more attention to the inventive ways that millennials strive to build their own innovation economy. In our conversations and observations, our goal is to gain greater insight into the kinds of skills and dispositions that young people are developing in a world marked by uncertainty.

Finally, we encourage you to offer us feedback and to share your own stories here about how you, your school, city, or organization inspires young people to make their own futures and do innovation.

Banner image: A group of designers, artists and social innovators participate in a hackathon to develop apps for the developing world. Photo by Krishnan Vasudevan