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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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The Millennial Generation – What It Means For Woodworkers

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Who has a parking lot so big and busy that they have to provide shuttles for customers? If you said Disney World you would be correct. You would also be correct if you guessed IKEA.

I have been fascinated with the so-called Millennial Generation for a while now, and there is no better place to do a little observational research on the group that is shaping the future of our country than at IKEA. So with a bag of trail mix, a big cup of coffee, and a full tank of gas, we set off on the two-hour plus trek to IKEA, in hopes of seeing the millennial phenomenon first-hand.

As background, the government defines the "millennial generation" as people born between 1980 and 2004. These younger-than-35 individuals are reputed to have vastly different outlooks, goals, and perspectives on most things political and economic. They are the first generation to have grown up with life-long access to the internet, which is fairly profound when you think about it. They have also likely lived most, if not all, of their lives with smart phones, digital music (what is an album?), high-definition television (with low definition entertainment value) and a persistently lackluster economy (they've never known true "boom" times like us older folks). As a group, 61% have attended college (though not necessarily graduated), the highest percentage ever. Not surprisingly, tuition debt is also the highest ever, surpassing one trillion dollars in the U.S.

Many millennials still live at home, 31% to be exact. And those that do eventually fall (or get booted out) of the nest tend to rent instead of buy homes. Millennials supposedly marry later (if at all), have totally different attitudes about work (so-called work-life balance is important to them) and the concept of permanence (in anything) seems antithetical to their generation.

Nowhere is this low attention span, short term, fixation on the here and now, live for today, all about me, only what's fun, if it feels good do it, no plan for the future attitude more on display than at IKEA. Boxed kit furniture of particleboard, plastic and plywood sells like ice cream in August at the Texas State Fair and is emblematic in its mockery of "permanence."

Small cars, small living spaces, and small budgets dictate a need for small furniture packaged for ease of transport, and IKEA has fulfilled the need fully. One of the busiest displays at our "local" IKEA store is the 240 square foot mock-up house. Packed in this small space are a living and sleeping area, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and storage adequate for jeans, hoodies, and other necessities of the millennial uniform. The queue to tour this "house of the future" was some two hundred people long, but we did eventually see it. It reminded me of the two-week vacation I once took in a mid-size motorhome, only this house wasn't designed for a rolling vacation… it was designed for stationary full time living. And the millennials that were touring the house were enchanted, excited, enthusiastic, even ebullient after seeing it.

The times are definitely changing. Whether or not these young people will change as they mature, whether or not permanence and purpose will replace hooking up and camping out, whether or not wisdom will prevail over whim is a matter of speculation. But what is sure, right now, is that "customers" for well built real wood furniture are aging, alas, even dying, and the potential customer pool for full size tables, chests, desks, and even chairs is shrinking. Future woodworkers will have to make furniture for a generation that places value on aspects of furniture we woodworkers rarely consider.

The grand armoire you want to build, at seven feet tall and four feet wide could be magnificent with its beautifully constructed inset doors, the fine inlay and beading, hand-cut dovetail drawers, and gingerbread molding, but the white laminated particleboard "closet unit" assembled from a box using pictogram instructions and the included Allen wrench, with half-turn cam-locks and Performat screws is selling fast. Only a one-in-a-million oddity among millennials would see your armoire as a work of art and the lasting investment it could/should be.

All this is not to say that we woodworkers who strive for excellence, worry about wood movement, design for longevity, and imagine each piece we build as becoming a cherished heirloom should hang up our tools. Perhaps with the collective talent of a gazillion woodworkers we can figure out a way to accommodate this generation in a different, more permanent and higher quality way.

That grand armoire would be no less valuable or pretty if it were built in more easily transportable subassemblies. A table, no matter how intricate and beautiful, could have removable legs. Furniture that can be assembled by an end-buyer need not rely on cam-locks and screws, but could include drawbore tenons, dovetail slots, dowels, or splined miters. Proportions can be downscaled to fit newer, smaller living spaces. For the environmentally conscious an argument can be made that real wood is more "earth-friendly" than plywood and a shellac or varnish finish is infinitely more "organic" than plastic laminate. And if a millennial can take the time to listen to a fact, a well-built piece of furniture that lasts a lifetime is infinitely more environmentally sound than a slap-dash configuration of particleboard that must be replaced every few years.

It's all about marketing. IKEA has out-marketed conventional furniture stores for the time being. Conventional furniture stores have out-marketed custom furniture makers. But nothing is forever. I remember a few years ago when one type of smart phone was the de facto choice for businesses, but the company has all but disappeared now. Once Kodak was the most valuable logo in the world, now they are just an entry in Wikipedia. Hope for the future lies in a little-noticed analysis done a few months back.

It seems that while young people profess happiness with renting a small apartment, their possessions limited to a bicycle and kayak, with no desire for a permanent relationship, the fact is, that by their mid-thirties, most have entered into a meaningful and sustainable relationship. Many have a child about that time, and attitudes start to change. Home ownership rises. Political attitudes become more conservative. Making money and the career that necessitates becomes more important. The so-called "one percent" group is aspired to, not reviled, and a bigger car looks pretty good, especially when trying to tuck junior into a car seat in the back of an electric peanutmobile. The "work-life balance" ideal becomes a "work-life choice." Perhaps this millennial generation is not really that much different, but simply slower to reach the level of maturity and wisdom that sustains civilization and progress. Who knows? But until the future unfolds, we need to ask ourselves, can we build furniture that fits the current needs of millennials without turning into particleboard and laminate factories?

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