It has been a year — said in that typical Gen X way. Fifty-two weeks, give or take, since the old reality abruptly halted for a new one. Habitual routines shifted to make new routines — with new complexities of having kids and pets in our workspace and frustrations of teaching ourselves new platforms that we had not heard of before. Future linguists may wonder at the peak use of the word Zoom in a year of pandemic when little actual “zooming” should occur.
We pivoted. With one foot anchored in the old world, we shifted 180 degrees. There was a notable difference in the switch from long-standing, “We can’t accommodate that,” to “We have to accommodate that.” Quick adjustments were made, and long procrastinated upgrades, whether an email system or telework flexibility, moved from low priority to urgent.
I have been one of the lucky ones throughout the pandemic. It’s been easy enough to transition my work to home. My years in consulting trained me to work anywhere with a laptop, a cell phone, and an internet connection. While I have missed traveling, socializing, walking into a co-worker’s office to chat or brainstorm, I’ve found new habits to take advantage of my own circadian rhythms. Unlike many of my early rising national security colleagues, my favorite meeting times are at 1430, not 0730.
There were moments over the last year that I shook my fists and thought, I’m a national security professional, I should be able to help! Sure, I played armchair epidemiologist and learned the meaning and relative value of R0 and N95, but knowing and understanding those things does not qualify me to speak on them. My expertise is in institutions and organizations, to improve processes and see around corners. And the time to look over the horizon to what a post-pandemic work environment may look like is finally here.
Workforce trends that seemed certain a year ago are now questionable. While remote work and flexibility has created opportunities for steady work for certain communities that did not have those choices before, such as those with disabilities, women are leaving the workforce. The “gig economy,” long seen as a flexible option for many, may be too unsteady or uncertain for people’s post-pandemic work preferences, who may instead opt for more steady full-time employment. It may also deter some from retiring, particularly those that saw part-time consulting work as an option. What effect will that have on the next workforce, and how will the experience of the current workforce guide them? We need to make adjustments that account for demographic trends, which involve older colleagues retiring and Generation Z — those born in 1995 and after — coming online, now.
Workforce trends that seemed certain a year ago are now questionable. While remote work and flexibility has created opportunities for steady work for certain communities that did not have those choices before, such as those with disabilities, women are leaving the workforce. What effect will that have on the next workforce?
By looking at some of the early thinking on education and work preferences for Gen Z, we can shape the vision of what we want to become. What are the characteristics of our organization that we want to retain and nurture and which do we discard? Current research is driven by selling to this target market, but we can find some threads to pull — Gen Z seems to be made of entrepreneurial, technologically savvy, diverse problem solvers. Like all gross generalizations, these themes can only be informative of areas to highlight for reflection in our current state to create a vision of the future. Are there changes to be made today to better prepare for tomorrow? This historical inflection point provides a good time to lay the foundations.
Gen Z is innovative and entrepreneurial. The Gallup-Hope index found that 40% of students plan to run their own business. Another version of the same survey said that 40% look to invent something to change the world. Many are service oriented, and want their work to have impact for the greater good. Their volunteering seems to be more about solving a problem, rather than fulfilling a need — oriented toward solving homelessness vice serving meals.
How can national security institutions better incorporate opportunities for entrepreneurship now?
How can leaders in national security professions encourage leadership at lower levels of our staff to highlight and explore ideas that may not have a natural home?
How might we create opportunities for self-starters who want to change the world?
How do we push decision-making down the chain?
What is our work community’s picture of collective action for a better world?
THE NEW GENERATION
This generation is the first made of digital natives, with high expectations for technology — they have only existed in a world where smartphones become outdated after 12 months of use — and equally high aptitude for using it. This reliance on technology creates a different sense of community. A community no longer needs to be those you see on a regular basis, they may live half a world away. Is it possible to structure teams that use technology to cross-pollinate? The work of national security is often segregated. As we adjust toward the trends of “work from anywhere, whenever,” can we find ways to integrate across locations as well and create a sense of community beyond team, division, or location?
This new generation in the workforce is racially and ethnically diverse, and more importantly, radically inclusive. This in turn generates a “we” mentality, “one in which the majority of their concerns center on the well‐being of everyone rather than solely themselves.” If the next workforce indeed turns out to be as radically inclusive as early indications say, without paying much heed to education levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, race/gender identity, the national security community will need to position itself to recruit this generation into a less diverse workforce. That means doubling down on concerted effort toward inclusion. How can we transition now to encourage more women and people of color to be front and center in our leadership and teams?
Gen Z’s learning styles have been characterized as intrapersonal and applied — they want to learn through demonstration and engagement with experienced practitioners, but have the time and space to explore and learn at their own pace. Indications are that this generation is the best educated, and at the same time interested in non-traditional education opportunities. However, they are interested in on-demand education, and they are driving increases in massive open online courses (MOOCs). New models of integrated technology are on the horizon — leveraging immersive, virtual reality to learn with multiple inputs. How do we leverage the experience of colleagues to create these types of learning opportunities, or generate better mentoring? How do we benefit from the new generation’s learning style to create new kinds of training or sponsor offerings? This could be a chance to break free from death by PowerPoint, and we should embrace it.
Finally, this generation has shorter and shorter attention spans, and is used to processing information from many different sources. This can be a big advantage if we can figure out how to integrate information from a variety of sources quickly. This could include different intelligence products, as recently discussed in Foreign Affairs. If we can get ahead in our understanding of these trends, we can better support decision-makers who will make the same transitions within their organizations. They will expect faster, relevant analysis, on their decision timeline. Can we create different kinds of products that accommodate their requirements? Released on a faster timeline, with caveats for confidence if the analysis is not at 100%? Can we collectively be more agile?
WE SHOULD EMBRACE CHANGE
We made a hard turn a year ago. It was easier for some, and terribly challenging for many. As we contemplate how to shift to what will be, answers for what is right for any organization are dependent on its own need. The questions here start that conversation. What shifts in policies, processes, and culture will need to take place once leaders articulate a vision of what could be, rather than what was? These changes are so fundamental and inevitable that we should leverage the opportunity to make them today.
There is no going back.
Jennifer M. Taylor is a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation (FFRDC). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of IDA.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.