It’s the beginning of a new decade, and Millennials and Gen Z now account for the majority of consumers and workers at or under the age of 40. At 56 million and 61 million respectively, these two demographic groups comprise the largest populations in United States history—together known as GenNow.
As a designer, generational research is fascinating. Its fibers weave into everything from arts and culture to design and architecture. So I consulted colleagues across the research, interiors, and design education fields to better understand GenNow’s current and future impacts on the built environment. Specifically, the objective was to track how the GenNow mindset transcends within the design verticals of workplace, higher education and hospitality.
Chapters, white papers and volumes can be written to sensitively and accurately define the lifestyle values of these two generations—we’ll spare you on generational generalities such as adulting over avocado toast or gaming from the crib. The world shapes every generation throughout history. As such, each generation brings forth a unique set of shared experiences. There are three historical implications in the last 30 years that have left an impression on generations Y and Z: climate change, the Great Recession and the rise of technology. These three vehicles have each served as a catalyst, leaving profound generational impressions.
According to the CDC, 2019 was the second hottest year on record, second to 2016. The decade from 2010 – 2019 is historically the warmest ever recorded on planet Earth.
If ever there could be a silver lining to this sobering fact, it is that sustainability is a shared core value of the younger generations. LEED launched in 1993 and by the time the first Millennials were entering college, a stream of eco-consciousness was growing.
In movements throughout history, activism follows awareness. We’re seeing this unfold in real time, from Gen Z elementary school climate demonstrations to Greta Thunberg’s appeal to the United Nations and her appointment as Time’s Person of the Year.
The Great Recession
Oh, and about that recession—I know, I too just cringed thinking of it.
Companies were forced to downsize and dramatically decrease overhead costs, including the size of the workplace itself. At the height of the recession, unemployment levels were over 10%. It rocked emerging professionals and had a profound effect on young children, who watched their Gen X parents struggle to find employment and pay bills. Those children grew up, and Gen Z now identifies financial responsibility as a value and seeks fair compensation in its respective fields.
Meanwhile, Millennials remain the most disaffected population from the ongoing fallout of the Great Recession. The average Millennial net worth is $8,000—meaning they are financially worse off than any generation before them. According to a 2018 report from The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Gen Y—especially those born in the 1980’s who were entering the workforce between 2010 to 2016 —may be experiencing as much as a 34% loss in wealth compared to where they would be had the financial crisis not occurred. Compounding this, the cost of college tuition rose to over $19K per year for a public education and over $28K for private for the oldest Millennials. From 1964 to 2015, public college tuition rose by a staggering 3700%. As a result, Millennials are more risk-averse with their finances and have largely delayed typical life milestones: owning a home, getting married, or having a child.
As tech natives, GenNow incorporates technology in everything they do. With smart devices in hand, tasks and communication can be accomplished anywhere at any time. Conversely, the cold, constant feeling of glass in our hands has led to an intrinsic need for the tangible and a thirst for immersive experiences with nature.
Made possible by all of the above, the sharing economy is sustainability merged with technology in bootstrapped recession roots. This economic model utilizes a peer-to-peer (P2P) network used to acquire, provide or share goods and services. A two-car household was once considered a status symbol. Now, a zero-car household is a sexier, sustainable aspiration. Common examples of the sharing economy include car sharing, ride sharing, home sharing, financial lending and rentable fashion. Emerging talent sharing services – such as a Michelin chef hosting a meal at her home — create economic opportunities and adaptable business models.
So, how does this all transcend into design? What are the challenges associated with designing for GenNow? Perhaps well before the schematic design process begins, the first step is to flesh out the generational paradigms, behaviors, and values in order to focus on the shared vision for a space.
Designers have a challenge to create interiors that are conducive for five generations. On top of that, they also have to be thinking about the future workplace.Fostering a strong culture is paramount.
Joseph Cephas, NYC-based Marketing & Branding Executive, suggests that a Transformational, rather than Transactional, approach is more successful for all generations in the workplace. Transformational organizations place focus on people over all else. “For example,” Cephas explains, “as opposed to using terminology like ‘work/life balance’ replace it with values all workers can understand, such as we all work hard for our families or time away from work.” Rather than focusing on catch phrases, the focus shifts to values that all can understand.
Design can be a vehicle for this type of transformational vision. “Instead of the person adapting to the environment, the environment adapts to the person,” says Susan Chung, Ph.D. Director of Research & Knowledge Development at ASID (American Society of Interior Designers).
In the workplace, flexible spaces—from a one-person phone booth to private or open office workstations to comfortable outdoor lounge furniture—can address the varied needs of the current working population. From a sustainable and financial perspective, efficiency is key. Reduced square footage per person (from 225 – 300 SF/usable office space per person prior to 2010 to 100 – 150 SF today) helps reduce overall rent and less build means a reduced carbon footprint.
In the modern workplace, there is also a fluidity of space. The increasing length of the work week (between 47 – 50 hours in the US) has given rise to new necessities in the workplace, such as rest and reprieve or just a great cup of coffee. These principles of residential and hospitality design are commonplace in the connected office.
The all-inclusive, most diverse generation Z continues to enter the workforce and consumer space. Successful diversity and inclusion strategies celebrate the unique perspectives and experiences of each team member. A product of the sharing economy, free address brings choice and a level set to the open office, especially when executives sit amongst the team. However, some wonder if there may be a potential drawback with hoteling. In losing the static desk, have we lost some of our identity? As workplace design continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see personalization and customization evolve and celebrate the person—within the flexible plan.
The idea of sharing a home is not new in many countries and cultures. The economy of home sharing in the hospitality industry is. Airbnb is set to go public this year, and the company estimates that since being founded in 2008, its economic impact is 100 billion dollars in 30 countries.
Hotels within the hospitality industry have finally taken notice. Ian Schrager, for one, opened his latest hotel in New York’s Bowery neighborhood, Public Hotel, in direct response to the rise of the shared travel brand. At Public Hotel, guest rooms are small with integrated technology. Two restaurants and flexible event space are dedicated to authentic, cultural experiences like dance and theatre.
Cristi Moore, senior associate and design director, Hospitality, at Gensler Atlanta, tells us that GenNow design is also being influenced by the designers themselves. Moore articulates that, “GenNow designers are passionate about all disciplines and don’t silo themselves in one practice area or skill set. Our hospitality team consists of talent encompassing a multitude of practice areas; those with backgrounds in retail, workplace, brand, commercial office buildings, multi-family/residential and more. This diverse experience allows them to look at hospitality from a different perspective resulting in unexpected, fresh ideas and design solutions. This cross pollination has truly blurred the lines between practice areas – it’s about delivering lifestyle experiences through design.”
Moore references the recently completed Reverb by Hard Rock as an illustration of design that brings people with a common passion together, promoting connectivity and self-expression. Reverb harnesses this strength with experiences designed to support connections and networks. Large communal tables, shareable food, interactive installations, an eclectic radio station, co-working, flexible spaces and exhibitions, that celebrate fan culture all combine to create a place where you’re guaranteed to discover something, or someone, new. Reverb brings power to the people infusing technology and personality and demonstrates design for social collision.
The classroom is no longer relegated to the classroom. Studies have found preschool children benefit from immersive experiences such as gardening outdoors and exploring medium in an artist’s atelier.
Tamie Glass, ASID, IIDA and Associate Professor at The University of Texas Austin says that her students place a greater emphasis on social engagement, originality, and experience. “In our highly digital and image-driven world, design students realize that people are craving physical, place-based experiences that are sensory-rich and promote social engagement and interaction. When creating concepts, they have to go beyond what they find on Pinterest. They also recognize the struggle between designing for the perfect Instagrammable moment and providing a holistic, human-centered response to the program. Lastly, they realize that integrating technology within physical spaces is expected—today, it is completely intertwined with the service and user experience.”
The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah is a fitting example of how institutions are accommodating GenNow in higher education. Together, CannonDesign (Architecture), EDA Architects (Architecture and Design) and the University of Utah (Client, Visionary & Researchers) completed the LEED Gold and ASID Outcome of Design award-winning project. Seeking to accelerate and expand its impact, the university recognized the need to create an entirely new type of learning facility for a new paradigm of entrepreneurial learning that could better connect students to each other, to bold ideas, and to exciting new futures. Lassonde Studios opened in August 2016 and houses four floors of residential space on top of a 20,000-square foot maker space, or “garage.” Students from 35 different majors across various grade levels live and network in the building, which was created in an effort to foster collaboration and innovation.
Across all design verticals, GenNow views sustainability as a must-have, inherent to any good space. Active design, healthy material selections and circadian lighting boost user satisfaction, productivity and wellness. Highly tactile 3D materials and finishes satiate the human appetite for interaction amongst the hours spent on devices and screens. Biophilic design is essential to the GenNow experience. The desire is for immersive nature, with walls and ceilings enveloped in plant life, highly grained woods and bold color accents.
Despite this, tech will continue to be a driver of design innovation. The technological world has given rise to the XR, or the extended reality from the virtual, augmented and mixed reality mediums. As we toggle through from the physical to the virtual, gaming and play is largely influenced. In the subsequent years to follow, will this playful world of extended reality will find its way into design and architecture?
Perhaps after CAD, BIM, Revit and parametricism, XR will be the next frontier for design.