When my research team first started working on telecommuting in the mid-1970s there was no such term as “millennials”. Now it seems that millennials may have a large part in the “rescue” of telecommuting. Let me explain.
The main task at hand for our research group was to find out whether this out-of-the-box idea of telecommuting could work for any but a few hermits and other solitary types. That is, we had pretty good idea that technology wasn’t a significant barrier to at least some people telecommuting (even in those pre-PC days) but the big question was whether the world in general would adopt it. So when I was asked to develop forecasts of the growth of telecommuting I drew a fairly broad array of growth curves. These varied from the wildly optimistic, 20% annual growth for a while, to the very pessimistic, less than 1 to 2% annual growth. All curves edging up to something like half the workforce as teleworkable eventually.
One of the problems with forecasting the future is that you have to wait around for a while (years in my case) to see which forecast was accurate. One of the main factors in developing my forecasts was estimating the strength of opposition to telecommuting on the part of various groups — but mainly managers. Mid-level managers (of the time) were the key to making telecommuting, and other forms of telework, acceptable.
Since the rate of growth of telecommuting depended in part on how easy available technology made it, we had to wonder about the relative strengths of the technophobes versus the technophiles. A friend of mine, the Associate Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at USC, said that the problem was that of the “over-40s versus the under-40s”. The over-40s figured that they could continue to resist the new technology long enough to retire while the under-40s would realize that they had to learn to use the technology in order to keep their jobs. This is the famous 40s rule for the natural course of evolution of technology acceptance.
Then our dilemma became one of wondering whether we should try and push telecommuting related technology to those over 40, possibly against their resistance, or wait until the younger, technology-accepting, folks aged sufficiently.
Well now it seems that we were able to entice enough of the over-40s to adopt telecommuting during the past four decades, keeping the rate of growth somewhere just below the middle of my early forecasts. Now consider that the over-40s in the mid-1970s have now retired, those under-40s are reaching the age of senior management and now the technology-adept millennials are entering the workplace.
So now it appears that the millennials are indeed coming to the rescue. They are now not only technology adept but their social structures are changing as well. Many of them are opting out of car ownership and are insisting on jobs that are relatively location independent. That is, they are prospective teleworkers. So we may begin to see a spurt in the growth of telecommuting as a result.
I can hardly wait.