by Peter Holtmann
It occurred to me recently that we are entering a new era of standards creation and application. Standards are driving toward social impact and outcomes, toward the expansion of territories.
Where currently unregulated industries are falling under the gaze of conformity assessment, standards writing bodies are attempting to modernize their approach to incorporate standards into new fields.
So for whom are we writing the standards?
If we look back over the rise of the standards movement and the generations it has spanned, there is compelling evidence to suggest that its conception, adolescence, and maturation would always be successful.
But where is its meaning for the Millennials (also known as Gen Y)? (I’m defining Millennials as those born between 1982 and 2004. This is based on Neil Howe and William Strauss’s book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 [Quill, 1992].)
Standards began to take hold in the 1950s with the Baby Boomers. These pioneers were coming out of wartime and looking to establish growth, order, and control over their environments. There were plenty of resources, untapped human potential and a world of ideas and concepts yet to be explored. These were golden times.
The very nature of the Baby Boomers was one of ethics, hard work, lifetime commitment to an employer, and the will to affect great social change. All the elements for cultivating a community of order, uniformity, and improvement of life through quality were there.
There were great thought leaders that emerged from this era, people who distilled these great positive attributes and converted them into deep thought, generating a set of core principles or guiding lights that the generation could follow.
This was a generation intent on manufacturing (building) their way out of financial doldrums, employment, and uncertainty. Yes, standards were a hit with the “makers” and the results were felt across every modern household. The future was bright and endless.
To feed this endless growth came the children of Baby Boomers. A standard was an atomic family unit of 2.1 children, a dog, two cars, multiple TVs, and a great job you worked hard at.
The result of this toil was that children were given a better education, much better food, an increasing quality of life, and even color television.
Gen X was born into conformity systems and the highest quality of products and lifestyle yet encountered. They came into an era that offered an endless array of technology and a wealth of scientific, social, and artistic discoveries.
They could expect that most products bought from a store would come with a warranty or guarantee of performance, they could be safe in the knowledge that the cars they drive would protect them from most injuries and harm, that they could safely withdraw money (away from a bank) at any given time of the day, and that they could travel and communicate vast distances with ease.
They would have means to engage and interact with like-minded folk in a plethora of forums and could express themselves with what seems like unlimited freedom.
But at what price did this come? Their parents were completely engaged in working for change and money, resulting in a boom in daycare and latchkey children. They lost the connection with their parents and saw the financial troubles entering their worlds as the Baby Boomer bubble burst.
This created a skeptical population who didn’t consider a job to be a permanent occupation and who started to distrust the “establishment” and looked for something solid to anchor themselves to.
Quality of life and the ability to obtain a certain lifestyle and staples to their liking was tantamount. This is great for the quality and standards movement as the ability to drive consistency and immediacy into product and outcome was exactly what the forbears had envisioned. Now they had a captive audience who demanded nothing less.
Sustaining this quality is very much like the law of diminishing returns. As you progress closer to the perfect state the more effort is required to achieve it. New talent was required to take over from the Baby Boomers, more complex systems or drivers were required to improve the maturing infrastructure, and continuous improvement became the catch cry.
But where was the talent? Where was the workforce required to drive this need? The Baby Boomers are still actively employed and it seems still carrying most of the load. A group of “disciples” from the Gen Xs are in the system and are applying their critical thought to the advancement of the cause, but by and large it’s a steady state.
So what happens when you now project the state of quality onto the Gen X’s offspring? The Millennials. This is the generation who has the blanket thrown over it by the Gen Xs as “unproductive, unwilling to work, disengaged, and over-entitled.”
Well, they are a product of the Gen X. They took the stimulus from their environment and became self-interested, somewhat detached, and left a lot of the parenting to the electronic world.
Here the Millennials have learned to master technology as their own, build relationships virtually, communicate anonymously, and yet still feel as though they have contributed to a global discussion, and are standing on the shoulders of giants—their grandparents.
Socially, the Millennials have grown up in a cocoon, the Xs kept them safe from harm and, thanks to a plethora of health and safety and quality standards, avoided all manner of “harm, and danger” be it physical or virtual.
This is a generation who didn’t grow up with pogo sticks, playing on the street until the sun set, walking to the corner store on their own to get dad a bottle of beer and mom a pack of cigarettes, and didn’t catch a train to go see their grandparents. Yes, some of these things seem outlandish nowadays but they were considered normal and acceptable.
The Millennials didn’t experience the great highs and brutal lows of trying, failing, and recovering from adventure. It was all done before them by their parents who told them it’s not worth trying. Instead they were offered a sanitized, virtual environment to explore.
It sounds depressing but what it has actually created is a generation who has imagination, expanded social interactivity through electronic media, and expansive ideas for the future where there are no limitations. Sound familiar? It should, it was the same ideas as the Baby Boomers.
So what’s different? Doesn’t this just fit into the thinking of modern historians/social scientists such as Strauss and Howe with their generational theory of cycles? Yes, but let’s look at it from the perspective of standards.
The Millennials are extremely skeptical, a byproduct of their parents, but they like to think outside of the box. They see the world in terms of a self-made future, be it creating your physical environment with the use of 3-D printing, your social environment through the use of social media, and financial stability through crowdsourcing/crowdfunding.
An office job that brings you gradually up the tree to a job of importance and finance really is a thing of their grandparents’ era.
One great idea could earn you millions or billions, and there are many examples of tweens and teens who have become overnight sensations with their ideas, apps, and products.
This was a generation who was meant to have had all the great discoveries found for them already and who would be working in the areas of diminishing returns. Yet here we see a vibrant community with exponential growth. Largely without the use of standards.
Many of this generation’s productivity have been the result of imagineering and outside the construct of the quality framework. The demand for quality is still there and the measurement of quality is now judged virtually and by millions of discerning critics, yet I would wager that not one of them has looked at the standard for customer service or information security or business continuity.
I would go so far as to say that business continuity is an afterthought for the Millennials, and that the concept of business is as much a commodity as is the concept of disposable mobile phones, white goods, and electronics.
So where are quality and standards among all this? That is the million or billion dollar question. I would argue that our current collection of standards is really built for the Gen Xs, who are hanging on to their parent’s legacy.
I would even argue that the maintenance of standards is dying out with the Baby Boomers as we see that almost exclusively people aged 55 and older support this industry.
I would say standards will evolve into social guidelines that control issues of greater ethical value and currency. It will be a virtual world where the output of a standard is the sanitation of ideas and application of imagineering.
I am not espousing an Orwellian future but I am saying that Millennials have a far greater social conscience than we may be currently giving them credit for.
The mantle for quality of life has missed a generation with the Gen Xs who embraced it because they were told to and were never grounded in its origins. The Millennials will pick up the mantle because they share a future vision with their grandparents and who reject the constructs created for them by their parents.
The future for standards is unclear in my mind but definitely interesting. Watch this space.
About the author
Peter Holtmann is president and CEO of Exemplar Global. and has more than 10 years of experience in the service and manufacturing industries. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Western Sydney in Australia and has worked in industrial chemicals, surface products, environmental testing, pharmaceutical, and nutritional products. Holtmann has served on various international committees for the National Food Processors Association in the United States and on the Safe Quality Foods auditor certification review board.