The Impact of Digital Natives on the Future of Business

In-Depth Analysis

What do you think of when hearing the words, “in West Philadelphia…”? Does it transport you to the 90s? Do you now want to start a rap career and wear overalls and a flannel? Oh wait, that’s back in vogue…

In the early 2000s, VH1 remade a popular British series which highlighted what was unique about each decade. I Love the 90s and I Love the New Millennium showcased a number of influential moments to “Millennials,” the aptly named generation that was born between 1980 and 2000 and came of age during the turn of the new millennium and the dawn of the digital age.

Sometimes referred to as “Gen Y” or “digital natives,” Millennials represent the largest demographic group in history; by 2025, Millennials are expected to comprise as much as 75% of the workforce. For these reasons, as well as their comfort and facility with digital technology, digital natives are already having a tremendous impact on the business landscape.

NB: Technically speaking, not all digital natives are Millennials and all Millennials digital natives. For example, those born after 2000, aka “Gen Z,” and all subsequent generations would also be considered “digital natives;” likewise, some children born after 1980, especially those from less developed countries and members of the underclass, may not have had adequate exposure to digital technology to be regarded as digital natives. However, as a rule, the two terms are functionally interchangeable.

A Window into a Generation

Each generation experiences influential moments in history that separates its members from other generations and binds them as peers. For the digital natives, many of these moments revolve around digital technology – the introduction of MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, the iPhone, and just about every other social network and game-changing piece of tech marks a pivotal point in their “coming of age.” While the generation following (Gen Z) also identifies with these digital technologies, they may not “remember when” there was a time before the world was controlled by statuses, shares, and selfies.

Digital natives have been witness to a world of change in their lifetimes. It may not have been uphill both ways to school, but there were simplicities of childhood that are now overshadowed by Angry Birds and the constant screen-time that characterizes younger generations. In the US, the tragedy of 9/11 and the prolonged uncertainty of the Great Recession, coupled with the frenetic pace of digital disruption and transformation, have all played a role in shaping the world view of Millennials. These intangibles are worth reflecting on, as they help us gain insight into how Millennial-generation digital natives might reshape the workplace when they represent the majority share of working adults.

Digital Natives in the Workplace

This fact was mentioned above, but its significance bears noting again: by 2025, Millennials are expected to make up 75% of the workforce. In the US, if we compare that with today’s demographic numbers, there are about 80 million Millennials, of which approximately 45 million are currently employed, representing about 33% of the workforce.

As more Millennials graduate from college or graduate programs and find permanent work positions and Baby Boomers continue to retire, there is expected to be a shift in work culture and norms, especially as these digital natives begin to fill key management roles in businesses. Generally speaking, the Millennial generation of digital natives is understood to be well-educated, tech-savvy, and idealistic when it comes to pursuing passions and incorporating a “do good” ethic into the workplace. So how will things change?

In 2013, 34% of young people between the ages of 25-32 held at least a Bachelor’s degree. When compared to previous generations of the same ages, 25% of Gen Xers and 24% of Baby Boomers attained the same level of education. While Millennials could get a little cocky over these surprising statistics, the numbers also reflect the worrying fact that this generation is accumulating the highest amount of debt from education. Many who graduated during the Great Recession have turned to graduate degrees when unable to find suitable work.

For many digital natives, then, a large portion of their professional developmental years are filled with higher education or internships. While they may be the best-educated generation, having grown accustomed to receiving new assignments regularly, they tend to seek out new work assignments every 12-24 months and will not wait 3-5 years for a promotion. In order for companies to keep their Millennial talent, they will have to create dynamic projects that move employees throughout the organization. Businesses will have to operate as corporate lattices rather than corporate ladders.

Findings from the Millennial Compass Report, which surveyed 1,293 employees in the U.S., India, China, the U.K., France and Brazil, provide further insight into Millennials in the workplace:

  • Millennials are ambitious. More than 40% of this generation expects to be in a management position within two years.
  • Millennials say they have a strong work ethic, but redefine the term to include a decent work-life balance.
  • Loyalty to the organization is not a particularly strong value for Millennials. Nearly 50% of those surveyed say they plan to depart from their employer after 2 years.
  • Millennials want to view their boss or manager as their “friend,” viewing them more as a peer, coach, or mentor. Millennials are not concerned with titles, and strongly admire those with experience or knowledge over position or power.

Digital Natives and Ecommerce

Tech-savvy? Yeah. Mildly obsessed? Probably. It’s not shocking news that digital natives’ digital presence is so deeply integrated with their daily lives that 83% admit to sleeping with their smartphones. Relying on the ability to access information at all times, the Millennial generation is accustomed to an on-demand lifestyle. This translates to how they expect all other experiences to be—especially shopping.

By 2015, half of e-commerce transactions will be handled from a mobile device. Within two years of that, Millennials will comprise of the largest online audience and have more buying power than any previous generation.

Given their impatient nature and growing influence on commercial trends, brands will have to be diligent and responsive when trying to create worthwhile customer experiences for digital natives. As heavy social media users, digital natives can be a brand’s greatest advocate and worst critic. Not afraid to express their opinions, it’s imperative that brands engage in the conversation and listen and learn from the online chatter.

Digital Natives as Catalysts for Change

Saying digital natives are idealistic is an understatement. Causes, innovation, and social responsibility are three of the largest forces shaping the generation. As Millennials are more likely to purchase from companies that support a cause, i.e. TOMS, etc., it only makes sense that members of this generation want to work for companies that want to help shape the future.

According to the findings of Deloitte’s Millennial Survey, Millennials believe the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance; a focus on improving society should be among the most important things it should seek to achieve. Millennials are also charitable; 63% of Millennials donate to charities, and 43% actively volunteer or are a member of a community organization.

How does this translate to their role in the workplace? Digital natives appreciate when a brand is philanthropic but desire to include their own passions and inspirations in their identity at work. With the coming of the Millennial take-over, businesses will be expected to pursue social goals, not just profits.

In many ways, digital natives have an “out with the old and in with the new” mentality with respect to the workplace. Ready to shake up the business world as they know it, digital natives will bring their expertise of technology and appetite for social good into this new era of work. Apprehensions of lacking “life skills” run rampant as more Millennials come of age; however, in a broader sense, this next generation of business workers and leaders has a host of admirable qualities that will be catalysts for positive change.

Pew Research encourages us that while Millennials are often defined as one of the most self-confident generations (not surprising given their size) they retain a healthy respect for their elders. By acknowledging that older generations are known for their work ethic, moral values, and respect for others, Millennials understand that they still have much to learn. In these transitional years as Millennials rise in the ranks, many would greatly benefit from mentoring by their superiors. By supporting open, transparent, and inclusive leadership, the next generation of leaders can learn from the example of the current generation.


  1. Examine the relationship between digital natives and Millennials. Is it really true that the vast majority of Millennials are in fact digital natives? If so, what does this mean for the future of business?
  2. What are some other ways Millennials are impacting/will impact the workplace?
  3. Is it possible to have a strong work ethic and maintain a work-life balance? How does technology aid or hinder this?