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Generation Green

Get them to take out their earbuds and stop Instagramming their friends for a moment, and Millennials will tell you that they intend to transform the planet for the better.

By David Sokol
March 2012
Illustration by Dale Edwin Murray

Witnessing the young people coming of age during the Great Depression, Maxine Davis claimed that these Americans belonged to a lost generation, in her 1936 book of the same name. Looking back at their wartime accomplishments in 1998, newscaster Tom Brokaw praised them as the Greatest Generation. Although history is clearly capable of disproving sweeping character assessments, that hasn't stopped today's commentators from chattering feverishly about Millennials.

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Defined most broadly as Americans born between 1980 and 1995, the newest wave of adults is enthralling because it represents a grand social experiment at all scales of existence. From helicopter parenting to technology saturation to major shifts in geopolitics, these young people grew up alongside unprecedented phenomena. As a result, they are different from their predecessors in skill sets and attitudes. How, then, will they transform the civic realm or creative economy?

Sustainability actually goes hand in hand with other Millennial traits like computing savvy and social networking. As architect Colin Brice, cofounder of the New York City–based Mapos, puts it, "It is confusing to them that ecological responsibility is even an issue. Get online and get the facts and live in balance. What's the big deal?"

Rachel Gutter agrees. "They don't start from a point of questioning," says the director of the Center for Green Schools at the U. S. Green Building Council, a self-proclaimed "cusper" between Gens X /Y. "Climate change has been present for their whole lives. Many believe it will affect them in their lifetimes."

If Millennials' dedication to sustainability is a reflection of environmental awareness in their upbringings, then their personal decisions are now informing the movement in turn. Gutter cites a recent Princeton Review survey showing that 69 percent of high school students will choose a college at least partly according to its ecological stewardship. Another "cusper" between Gens X /Y, Jonathan Bahe, the Norcross, Georgia–based managing director of the Design Futures Council, recalls his graduate work at the University of Washington to demonstrate how interest in sustainability is enduring past matriculation. "All of our studio projects were net zero. Students were analyzing envelopes, trying to understand energy usage, using very sophisticated modeling tools. And then some of them got into practice in firms that were using only basic energy analysis tools, and they said, 'This isn't good enough!' "

Indeed, this urge is also affecting Millennials' entry into the workforce. Many young professionals in the design and construction industries are selecting jobs according to employers' social responsibility missions. They also are contemplating how they can enact such an agenda in their everyday work, whether, Gutter explains, that means commuting to a design studio via public transit or launching a recycling initiative on a construction site.

Millennials also make their sustainability ambitions visible at the workplace through technology. Chris Boggiano, a cofounder of Everblue Training Institute who also toes the Gen X/Y line, says that Millennials across the board in architecture, construction, policy, and product manufacturing learned about cutting-edge technologies while in college. "They are more open to including those technologies in a building," Boggiano says. "Part of this makes them naive, because so many new technologies are unproven and uneconomical, but at the same time, that kind of idealism is what helps bring those technologies to market, so that they'll be ubiquitous in five or ten years."

In that sense, Millennials' qualities can be regarded as strengths or mere peculiarities. Take the generation's well-known impatience. That has manifested negatively as accelerated promotion seeking or high job turnover. But as Gutter explains, "It can also serve the sustainability movement very well. Impassioned employees may make an investment in fixing what they think is a slow bureaucracy, or they become entrepreneurs."

The onus of harnessing these traits toward positive, sustainable outcomes falls largely on employers. Anne Kniffen, principal of lauckgroup, says that the most progressive companies recognize sustainability as an "important ideal" of new talent, and that clients have requested that the Dallas-based design firm pursue sustainability strategies so workplaces can attract and retain the brightest minds. Kevin Fitzgerald, director of emerging professionals at the American Institute of Architects, says offices should boast another resource: "Emerging professionals understand technology as design tools, and are quick to adapt to new software—employers should make the most of that adaptability." Brice, of Mapos, says that Millennials' relationship to social media has driven his firm to collaborate with young people to reflect that culture of information sharing. For a recent office project, interactive games provided a new way of getting design information from a client who is used to hyper-collaboration (thanks to social networking and so forth).

Bahe says that mentorship is the foundation for productively incorporating Millennials into green design and construction. "Combining younger and more experienced staff can literally mean seating them next to each other, one driving the computer and the other understanding what's being drawn." There are other ways to mix demographics effectively, Bahe also notes, but the important thing is that it takes place. "We lost a generation of talent in the '90s," says Bahe, and failing to accommodate Millennials' special interests could make for another brain drain. It's better to cultivate them as the next great generation. And besides, as clients also get younger, "If your practice doesn't [adapt to] Millennials, then your competitor's will," Bahe concludes.

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