Challenges and Opportunities of an Untethered Workforce

Julie M. Albright, Ph.D. – Digital Sociologist and Board Member, Infrastructure Masons, and author of the new book Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream.

The world increasingly runs on the backbone of a digital infrastructure – which is good news for the data center industry. Yet with the growth of 5G, the Internet of Things, automation and things like autonomous vehicles, the industry will need a steady supply of workers for everything from the construction, through the full stack to cybersecurity. Look around at the next conference you go to – you’ll note that industry professionals are aging and are looking to the next generation to mentor and train to take their place. Yet, for a variety of reasons, these workers are increasingly difficult to come by: Younger people are much less likely to have analog experiences growing up, leaving a dearth of construction workers to build datacenters. Others young people in the university system who would be good candidates – from computer scientists to power engineers – don’t seem to know about datacenters; I call it “the best career no one knows about.” Yet the changing values and behaviors of what I call the “untethered generation” can pose new and unique challenges to recruiting and retaining the next generation of digital infrastructure talent.

Young people are untethering from many traditional social structures – which impacts their career path and perceived choices. Meet Steven: At 27, Steven lives in a pod home with other young digital natives where he rents a bed with a locker underneath to store his things. He leaves there each morning to shower at the gym where he drops off his one change of clothes to be laundered for the next day before making his way to co-working space WeWork, where he’ll spend the next 6 or 8 hours working on his laptop in social media marketing. He’s paired down his “things” so much that he doesn’t even need a backpack to carry anything– so he gave that away too. Footloose and fancy free, without the ties to a marriage, family, a thirty-year mortgage, or a car note – Steven can up and go on a whim, following his thirst for new experiences, whether that’s at WeWork Hollywood or poolside in Bali. Steve is one of the new generation of untethered workers. Like Steven, one half of Americans are single, and young people like him aren’t having children or buying home like they did in previous generations. Without the rootedness of these family responsibilities that was typical for prior generations- with nothing to lose as it were- digital natives are job hopping at an unpreccedented rate.

For Steven and others of his generation, life spins at the speed of digital: They no longer make 5-year plans (as 5 years seems like an eon), and they expect to make vertical career moves up the corporate ladder within the first year of employment. “Living in the now” – they don’t want to wait a year for feedback on their performance – they want “right on time” feedback, as well as a clear pathway laid out for them for moving up. Without these things, some are even “ghosting” their employers, disappearing without so much as a goodbye text when they see a (seemingly) greener pasture on the horizon.

Living untethered – foot loose and fancy free – comes with a cost however: Loneliness is an occupational hazard for those who have cut ties to most of the stabilizing social structures enjoyed by their grandparents’ generation, like belonging to a church and other community organizations, which gave them a sense of purpose, meaning, belonging, and social support. Mental disorders like anxiety and depression are at a 30-year high. Although it is not the job of the workforce to play the role of anchoring structure to untethered workers, being cognizant of these issues, it may be in the behoove these companies to rethink their role, given the fact that the untethered generation has cut ties to many other stabilizing structures. The workplace may be the last bastion for stability in these young worker’s lives. Things for management to consider include: How can your company provide untethered workers a sense of community, connection, and support they used to get elsewhere, for example, from church? How can you provide a sense of meaning and purpose to a cause greater than themselves which will evoke loyalty in these fickle workers? How can the path to “moving up” be made clearer for those wanting to see a quick path to a future ahead? These are the new issues which employers will need to think through to re-tether young workers in a way that they are happy and healthy, in order to attract and retain young workers in an industry that needs them.