John Della Volpe is director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and managing partner of SocialSphere, an insight-based strategy company in Cambridge, Mass.
It may be difficult to look beyond the mounting deficits, partisan rancor and political gridlock driving headlines today. But at this moment exists a unique opportunity to reshape government -- in Washington, D.C., in every state capital and throughout local government in America.
Approximately 60 percent of the federal work force is age 45 and older, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, including one in every three mid- to senior-level federal officials is preparing to retire in the near term. At the state and local levels, a similar retirement wave is taking place, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. Baby boomers are exiting the public work force in numbers that will grow significantly over time.
With so many longtime government workers heading into retirement, our nation has a tremendous if not unprecedented chance to match new, collaborative Web and mobile technologies with an emerging generation -- a generation of passionate, results-oriented, civically-minded young people who can improve the way government operates by making bureaucracies more efficient and leaders more effective, and developing forward-thinking policy from the bottom up. This confluence of a weakened private-sector economy, a demographic retirement bubble and a generation of service-oriented young Americans may not be seen again for several decades, if not longer.
The Millennials -- baby boomers' sons and daughters who were born between 1982 and 2000 -- already have changed America's course by their participation and overwhelming support for Barack Obama in the 2008 caucuses, primaries and general election. One in four Americans -- and one in three individuals around the world -- is a member of this generation, so their impact stretches far beyond the most recent election.
Millennials already influence a good deal of our economy and most household purchases, including groceries, automobiles, computers and vacations, to name a few. They've changed the way we communicate and use technology -- Facebook and texting are just two examples of Millennial -- driven behaviors adopted by hundreds of millions of other users. And by the 2016 presidential election, projections show one in every three votes will be cast by a Millennial, doubling the impact they had in 2008, when they were largely credited for Obama's victory.
As part of a decade-long study by the Harvard University Institute of Politics (IOP) on Millenials' role in a changing America, which involved numerous interviews, it became clear that this demographic group will, if inspired, answer the call to public service. The IOP study found that service and community is simply an integral part of who they are; it's in this generation's DNA.
Most Millennials have difficulty assigning an exact label to their interests. Is it community service? National service? Public service? Paying it forward? But nearly everyone IOP interviewed in its latest round of qualitative research shared a common story about doing their part for someone else, whether it was rebuilding New Orleans, caring for an elderly neighbor or donating to Locks of Love. In a Harvard IOP poll conducted in Fall 2008, this feeling was quantified: 64 percent of college students said they would be interested in personally engaging in some form of public service if called on by the President.
While employment in government has had its setbacks during the current state and local fiscal crisis, the public sector needs Millennials -- thousands of them, with their civic spirit and thirst to make a difference in government. If, however, they hope to be a positive influence at this early stage in their careers, they must be respectful of their colleagues and of the institution for which they work.
During a recent conference at Harvard, about 100 civically-minded Millennials from a variety of institutions were asked to craft their "perfect job description" for a fictitious entry-level job in an executive office position in government. They indicated that the three most important aspects of any great job in government would include:
- connecting policy with people, an opportunity to interact with constituents;
- the ability to gain feedback and advice from their senior managers (if not, the governor, secretary, director, senior leader); and
- the chance to use new, social technologies in the workplace.
In short, this generation thrives on tangible results, honest feedback and technology-inspired collaboration. IOP's research and experience shows that they have values and a shared connectedness that often trump short-term monetary rewards, especially early in their careers. Whether we like it or not, they feel like they have no time to waste.
While these traits are not necessarily unique to any good employee of any age, understanding what makes Millennials tick -- what makes this generation "special" -- can result in extraordinary efforts on behalf of our federal, state or local government.
If step one is recruiting Millennials into government by offering an opportunity to innovate, serve and make a difference, then step two must be understanding how to leverage their talents. In a departure from traditional mentor-mentee relationships, beginning immediately and extending over the new few years, baby boomer executives in government would be wise to allow Millennials to "mentor up" for the benefit of government veterans -- and all of government in general.
So in that spirit, here are 10 ways that the most junior government employees can mentor up in their organizations:
1. Guide others on the role and potential professional uses of game-changing social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
2. Introduce Google Docs, and thus the ability for multiple people to collaborate, share and edit documents.
3. Make the case for online instant messaging as a way to improve communication and productivity for siloed employees.
4. Let older colleagues know that sometimes iPod earbuds worn during the work day can help with focusing on the task at hand; they aren't inherently a distraction.
5. Remind colleagues that Millennials like to work in "real time," which means that banging away on laptops during a meeting is not a sign of disrespect; it's more likely that they're getting an assignment started online.
6. Create a "show and tell" opportunity and highlight a few iPhone apps developed by other like-minded institutions or governments that may hold potential in your area.
7. Help leverage everyone's assets by creating regular online and offline opportunities for brainstorming and collaboration.
8. Let non-tech savvy colleagues know that you needn't be expert or even fluent in all aspects of a computer program to try it and get some value -- don't be afraid to try new things.
9. Prove that flexible working hours can be more efficient -- Millennials may come in 30 minutes later than some of their older colleagues, but they often stay two hours later if they feel that their efforts are appreciated.
10. Realize that your older colleagues may not be digital natives and be accommodating. While improving bureaucracies is inherently difficult, be open to helping colleagues find the small ways to modernize their roles and responsibilities -- starting with greater openness and transparency whenever plausible.
The best part of mentoring up is that it already is happening in government. Several accounts from Afghanistan's battlefields demonstrate how young, tech-savvy Marine lieutenants use their unique skills grounded in video gaming, social networking and instant messaging to communicate with colleagues worldwide in pursuit of the Taliban.
From the White House to state capitols across the country, inspired Millennials are using their "free time" and tapping the wisdom of their networks to build iPhone apps, create interactive databases and manage ideagoras, where innovative people come together searching for the next big idea that will benefit a company, an organization and possibly government.
Within a few miles of most every state capital in America live hundreds of young, passionate, civically-minded men and women who want to make a difference in their communities. They hold college degrees, and they have a decade-plus of experience in collaboration and using technology to make things happen. They are most likely already engaged and making a difference in their own way. But government now has the opportunity to reach out to them and inspire them to make a difference on behalf of everyone -- from the bottom up.