A Changing Workforce

So we find industry in a trap, stuck with designing stuff and mass-producing consequences. The systems and models we've structured for business—publically traded companies, quarterly profits, company reorganizations, tiered pricing, and staffing models—prevent us from doing work that offers long-term value. But maybe this simply reflects the wants and needs of the people at these companies; are we simply playing out our collective cultural dream, to have more and more things?

I think it's just the opposite; my experiences tell me that many people at large companies truly want to work with wicked problems and large-scale social change, but they're systematically banned from having meaningful impact.

Students graduating with a degree in design must make the difficult career decision between a big corporation and an outside vendor ("agency," "consultancy," or "studio"). The graduates pick, often haphazardly, and enter the workforce.

When designers have been in the workforce for 12-15 months, a curious thing happens with a tremendous level of regularity, and in equal measures in corporations and consultancies. These designers come to realize that their work is meaningless. Although they enjoy the process of design, even designers at "dream companies" such as Nike or Starbucks or big-name agencies such as Accenture or Sapient find that their work doesn't fulfill them. For example, one designer described his work as "just pushing pixels around," while another spoke of a few thoughtful projects, "but for the most part, it's just making more stuff."

Although some of this discontent stems from normal level-setting that occurs after any new job, there's evidence that the problem is more generational and systemic. The students who write to me are part of the "millennial" movement (also known as Generation Y, "generation me"Twenge, Jean. Generation Me. Free Press, 2006., less kindly referred to as the "entitlement generation"Marshall, Brigid. Current. November 6, 2008. (accessed November 14, 2011)., and most spitefully as the "dumbest generation"Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. Tarcher, 2009.)—a group that's been perhaps unfairly characterized as more demanding, more insulated, and more artificially confident in their abilities and impact. Researchers describe that this group demands more out of the workplace because we've trained them to demand more out of everything. We've told them that everyone's a winner, and we've awarded them points for effort: "60% of teachers and 69% of school counselors agree that self-esteem should be raised by 'providing more unconditional validation of students based on who they are rather than how they perform or behave.'" So people of this generation probably won't be happy at any job until they find a way to have personal, meaningful impact.

And that impact is largely about social consciousness. Cone Communications' Millennial Cause StudyCone, Inc. "The 2006 Cone Millennial Cause Study." 2006. identified these commonalities:

  • 89% of Millennials said they are likely or very likely to switch to a brand associated with a good cause (price and quality being equal).
  • 83% said they trust a company more if it is socially/environmentally responsible.
  • 78% said they believe that companies have a responsibility to join them in this effort.
  • 74% said they're more likely to pay attention to a company's overall messages when that company shows a deep commitment to a cause.
  • 61% said they feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world.

These statistics suggest the need for design to extract itself from business, and for educators and society at large to map new career or life paths for those who feel their work needs social and cultural depth and meaning.

Continue to the Next Chapter:
Alex Pappas, On Making a Difference

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving