It's a slightly disturbing scientific fact that our brain processing speed slows as we age. Babies have lightning fast processing capabilities (that's what helps them figure out how to walk and eat), kids process much faster than adults, and teenagers...are really good at video games and texting. But what about the next age group up?
What I've noticed about Millennials is that they are exceptionally good at breaking things down quickly into bite-sized chunks, which makes them amazingly good workers when it comes to complex tasks. I agree with experts like Sherry Turkle that we are not capable of multitasking-we can only focus on one thing at a time-but Millennials come really close. It almost looks like they are multitasking.
What this means is that, in many ways, Millennials are good at overcoming big obstacles. They tend to break them down quickly and efficiently. They see a problem and react: The Web site is getting overloaded by too much traffic. OK. We need to add some bandwidth here, off-load to this service, tweak the code here. They can get stressed, but they also have a way of reacting to stress that puts some of us to shame.
I'm in that camp of not always being able to keep up. I'm learning that I can tackle medium-sized problems fairly efficiently. The other day, I was faced with a car repair project and, of course, turned to YouTube. I learned I had to remove the front fender, which is about as daunting as it sounds.
What I realized is that the only way to be productive in this task was to break it down. These knobs had to be removed. Back to YouTube. Remove the bolts and clips. Then, remove the fender. The overall task was not as Herculean as I imagined once I could see that there were fairly simple individual tasks.
Yet, my penchant seems to be this: I get stressed first. "Oh, that's too big of a project, I can't really remove an entire fender from a car." My reaction is to doubt my ability to break down the project into tasks. Millennials react by doing just that.
Breaking big tasks down into smaller tasks is really the only way any of us are going to be able to handle the problem of working constantly due to ubiquitous access and a plethora of long-lasting devices. Honestly, if we don't figure out how to break down tasks and complete them, we will get stuck in patterns that are hard to break. We will be overwhelmed because we can work anytime and anywhere, and because we are lured into doing exactly that. We will let the stress of big projects consume us.
That's why Millennials are more prepared for the coming age of task-based work. You will be paid not because you are employed or because you go to a specific place at a specific time. You will be paid for your contribution. Fail to break things down quickly and you won't be as valuable. Just spending time at your desk and expecting to be paid is going to be something that is no longer tenable.
Instead, it will be more like this: What you know is going to be far more important than where you are. What you can do is going to be far more important than the title on your business card. How efficiently you work is going to be much more valuable than the time you are available during the day.
I've known this for decades. Nearly 20 years ago, I was tasked with building a sign-making machine for retail stores. We needed a coder, and we turned to someone who was incredibly smart and efficient. He was able to break down tasks quickly. Ironically, he was also only about 22 years old. And, he happened to only work nights. We never did find out why, and we didn't care. He completed the work.
Flash forward to the modern work environment, and this model is still the best one available. Yet, we still pay people for sitting at a desk. We have a hard time seeing "work" as a task-based contribution instead of a formal arrangement (known as a W2). We are suspicious of the task-contribution model because, well, someone has to park in the Employee-of-the-Month spot and run the fantasy sports league.
We'll see if that mindset lasts over the next 20 years.