What is Doing Innovation?

Millennials live in a world of contradictions. They are the most educated generation in U.S. history and yet they earn less than previous generation of young workers (U.S. Census 2014). They live in the richest economy the world has ever seen and yet stable and meaningful employment remains elusive. In 2015, the U.S. Census announced that millennials now make up a greater share of the workforce than any other population segment.  Most young people struggle with the realities of local economies such as work that is itinerant, unfulfilling, or incommensurate with their education or expectations. Millennials are coming of age at a time when many of our notions about work, identity, opportunity, and mobility are undergoing profound change.

What do young people do in an economy in which access to meaningful and long-term employment is more evasive than ever before ?  This is the question that our research team set out to answer nearly two years ago.  We began interviewing, observing, and hanging out with millennials. So far we have conducted over fifty formal interviews and just as many informal interviews.  We have spent tens of hours observing millennials at home, work, and play and talked to them about their aspirations, education, work, and what it is like to come of age in a world marked by unprecedented change and uncertainty.

If there is one word that defines our era it would be innovation.  From heads of state to heads of industry we hear that innovation is the key to a better economy and better future.  But what does innovation look like in the real world? And, moreover, what does innovation look like across a millennial generation that is more racially and ethnically diverse than any generation in U.S. history?

Doing Innovation tells the story of how millennials are navigating today’s knowledge-driven and precarious economy through sheer grit and inventiveness in the face of extraordinary change.  Our inspiration comes from a yearlong ethnography that we conducted in an Austin metropolitan area high school.  Many of the students came from lower-income and immigrant households.  When they graduated high school they entered a rapidly evolving workplace with few, if any, tangible pathways to meaningful employment or futures.

There is no one-way to do innovation and as this project evolves we will showcase a mix of young people and their unique trajectories.  It is our belief that we can all learn from the ways that millennials are doing innovation and striving to make their lives and our world a more equitable place.  Doing Innovation also engages the vast social, economic, and geographical disparities that are, unfortunately, dominant features of our world today.

Our research and creative team will use a variety of storytelling methods including research, video, pictures, graphics and more to share what we are learning.  In many ways our project embodies the world that we are studying: it will continue to evolve as it goes through different iterations to be a resource that is both relevant and resonant.