A JIT Generation?

The Millennial mini-boom bodes well for U.S. manufacturing.


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I will go to my grave still thinking that cell phones are cool. Even cordless phones and wireless remote controls are amazing. These views separate me from my children, who’ve never known a world that was tethered by cables. A speech by Kim Korth of industrial consulting firm IRN helped me see that these views also tend to separate me from the Millennial generation, or Generation Y.

Ms. Korth spoke at Makino’s 2009 Advanced Manufacturing and High-Precision Technology Expo in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Her topic was the future of the North American auto industry (see "Editor Picks" at right), but one interesting point she raised related to the coming surge in young adults. We are used to age demographics ticking against manufacturers, particularly with the Baby Boomers’ retirement about to remove many skilled employees from the labor force. Yet the Millennials bode well for manufacturing, because they seem likely to bring about an increased demand specifically for U.S.-made goods.

By what seems the most common definition, Millennials were born from 1981 to 2001. They account for 76 million Americans. My own Generation X, born 1965 to 1980, has 50 million. To be fair, Gen X encompasses fewer years (16 vs. 21), but even when the numbers are normalized for this difference, the Millennial cohort is about 16 percent larger than the preceding generation.

The difference in perspective may be just as significant. I mentioned how most Gen Y-ers have known only untethered communication and control. Consider how much else is untethered. TV broadcast times—significant to a member of a previous generation who wanted to catch a particular show—are similarly superfluous. Millennials have mostly always had some array of options for catching a program later. This is a small matter, but indicative of the way a generation sees the world. Thanks to the Internet, in fact, this generation has never seen it as necessary to go somewhere or speak with another person in order to obtain information.

They’re not spoiled; that’s not what I am saying. Every generation sees better technology. But these particular advances contribute to a particular outlook. Compared to older citizens, Millennials have less expectation that they will accommodate their convenience or preferences for the sake of any product. A likely consequence is that Millennial-age adults will demand a consumer world that is even more customized than it is today.

And manufacturers will give it to them. In the future, manufacturing will be even more oriented toward short runs, as-needed production such as JIT, and brief product life cycles. All of this is good for U.S. manufacturing, because all these developments argue for producing near the consumer.

Millennials might even richly address the coming need for manufacturing employees. Manufacturing culture will change in ways we’re not expecting after the current generation leaves it. That change might include removing strictures that aren’t noticed today, because they appear restrictive only to the current youngest adults. Meanwhile, Millennials will be less burdened than my generation by false stigmas against manufacturing. For reasons such as these, once manufacturers invite them in, Millennials might well swell their ranks.