Designing for the future: Generation… 'Next'!

6 August 2019
7 min read

There's nothing that screams 'millennial' quite like a selfie. But then again, there's nothing that hasn't screamed 'millennial' for the past two decades. Along with their tattoos, hipster vibes, smashed avo, Birkenstock loyalties and other clichéd affectations, millennials (those born 1982-1993) have captured the attention of popular culture like no other generation in history. This global tribe of digital optimists, now almost 2.5 billion-strong, has influenced every sphere of society and called the workforce to a new standard of engagement and management.

And now, as baby boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) look to retire over the next decade, millennials will be stepping up and leading the urban planning charge alongside their Generation X (1965-1979) counterparts.

However, if millennials want a better environment, they will need to mobilise, pushing away any apathy for progress, and agitate for change just as their highly passionate Gen Z (1994-2010) counterparts have made a name for themselves in doing. With Gen Z nicknamed 'the Harry Potter generation' thanks to their propensity for social revolution, millennials will need to forge their own path for transformation.

Together, millennials and Gen Z comprise roughly 32 per cent of the global population. But, are the decision-makers in government, planning and policy connected enough to the next generation of voters and workers (and courageous enough to see beyond the current voters' wants) to shape cities of the future that the next generations will want and need? With the drastic shift these new generations will trigger, how will our cities that have been built and designed by previous generations, cope?

Chase the work, and the experience

Gone are the days of 10-20 years of employment at the same company in the same location. The recent trend has been urbanisation with those in the regions moving to cities for career and lifestyle opportunities. Now that our cities are struggling to cope, some millennials are going bush, taking advantage of companies' increasing range of flexible-work policies to offset rising house prices by purchasing their first homes in regional areas, then commuting or working remotely.

Different housing models are also threatening to disrupt traditional home ownership. Knight Frank's analysis of 32 major cities around the world found house prices have grown by 24 per cent on average over five years – including a doubling of house prices in Sydney and London, and trebling in Hong Kong.

Expensive real estate with colossal mortgages and carbon footprints no longer hold the same lustre as previous eras. Numerous studies tell us young people are increasingly choosing rental housing as a viable long-term option to accommodate their lifestyles of mobility, convenience and sustainable living.

Because of this, renting and cohousing with friends, families and even strangers becomes more appealing to the young adults who are studying and working in cities.

In fact, a home sharing initiative, where an older person offers "a spare room at low cost to a young person in exchange for help and companionship", is already gaining momentum in some areas in Europe, Australia, and Asia to alleviate the crises of homelessness and loneliness.

Fixing the environment is cool – but hard

The advent of rail is booming in countries the world over, including Malaysia's East Coast Rail Link. Connecting communities via rail can have transformational change on economies and the environment. The ease with which millennials use public transport to move around is another generational difference compared to older generations who largely prefer travelling in cars, and better planning and policy is required to support this.

Will the Australian government have the courage to pursue High Speed Rail (HSR) on the east coast to better connect our future generations? Is an Olympics bid, supported by a city-deal between three tiers of government, the catalyst needed to make HSR a reality for South-East Queensland? This is the type of long-term vision the next generation is craving.

As opined by Barack Obama (who the millennials wish was one of theirs): "We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it."

While Barack, a baby boomer, was speaking more broadly about the climate change responsibility that affects a number of generations, his sentiment is not lost on millennials. As evidenced by the likes of Brexit and recent Australian elections, older generations' votes can frustratingly overwhelm younger generations when it comes to the ballot box.

Climate change was a critical topic for the recent Australian federal election, yet when it came to voting day, people's votes (across all ages) had less of an impact on the environment than anticipated.

To make an impact on the environment, millennials will need to seriously consider how to best engage and inspire generations beyond their own to support climate-change action. We need a leader who can inspire like Barack Obama, and environment/climate-change policy that is not in direct contradiction to employment and profitability in the regions.

Taking back the farms

If there's one more notable thing that has become a trend since millennials rose, it's people taking photos of their food for Instagram.

However, before these beautifully plated dishes were cooked and served, they were grown and harvested in farms, where there has previously been a declining interest in the agricultural profession as generations backed away from the harsh realities of farming and moved to the cities. Nation-shaping projects such as Australia's Inland Rail have the opportunity to reinvigorate these once thriving rural communities by providing more efficient supply chains.

But this trend is now slowly in reverse with a resurgence of millennials turning back to the land in the US, which couldn't come at a better time with the global population's demand for food expected to grow by 59 per cent to 98 per cent by 2050. Not only that, millennials are more willing to pay a premium for organic, specialty and local produce.

Does this mean millennials could be the saving grace for our agriculture and help ensure our farming supply meets future demands?

While previous generations' lack of interest in farming came from labour intensive work, together with economic volatility exacerbated by the effects of climate change and the sector's "perceived disconnect from technology", Liam Condon, President of Crop Science at Bayer, says "the reality is that advances in technology make farming today far more exciting."

From using drones, infrared, GPS technology, robotics, automation and biotechnology, the farming and manufacturing industry is, and will continue to be, an exciting place in which to innovate and thrive.

Nevertheless, the question of how we protect and grow our farming industry to capitalise on the growth in food demand, in the face of adversity through climate change, water security and current economic conditions for farmers, will need to be worked through.

Giving millennials a seat at the table

How can we ensure that this ecosystem unveils and urban developments effectively embrace the generational impacts of this future population? Governments, policy makers and city planners need to reimagine their role in society to take a collaborative approach that adjusts to the new urban imperative and captures the millennial and Gen Z zeitgeist.

"The big generation gap in politics can be bridged when political leaders open their doors to youth and consult young people in making and implementing policies," says UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake.

Helsinki is effectively doing this: the city planning department is using Maptionnaire and other crowdsourcing tools to capture what their younger people want, and to shape their ten-year city master plan accordingly.

For urbanists to brace the over-population that faces our future and address the wicked problems facing the next generation, they will have to shatter the silo syndrome that plagues our methodologies and embrace a new collaborative spirit of design. One that galvanises the millennial's digital wizardry and Gen Z's entrepreneurial spirit, and uses their voices to craft our urban areas – and make them resilient and forever young.

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Ross Donnelly
Written by
Ross Donnelly

I'm a proud millennial and I love my 'smashed avo' served with an inspiring, sustainable and holistic view of the future on the side.

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