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Maripier Isabelle is a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Toronto and a junior fellow at Massey College. Emily Macrae is a student in the masters of urban planning program at the University of Toronto and a junior fellow at Massey College.
It's 5:30 in the morning. From the bedside table, a phone's flashing red light is a reminder that the world never sleeps, even when we allow ourselves to. Questions, opinions and data circulate over mobile apps and social media without waiting for us to catch up.
In the past five hours, four tweets may have evolved into a heated debate while colleagues may have had a virtual brainstorming session and filled the gap left by our nocturnal silence with speculations on our intentions. Just as many private messages will have to be sent and follow-up phone calls made before the misunderstandings get cleared up and conjectures confront reality.
The speed at which ideas travel and lower physical barriers to communication fuel innovation and enable us to solve problems, from epidemics to energy shortages, that previous generations tackled using card catalogues and long-distance calls. However, the onslaught of online information raises what is expected of millennials, even before they enter the work force.
The concepts of fixed working days and physical workspace are historical notions with little relation to lived reality: The office follows us wherever we go, in our pockets, only one swipe away. These dynamics are not unique to us but, as a generation that came of age in the digital era, the management and monitoring of digital platforms from Twitter to Tumblr is an unwritten aspect of any job description.
However, the shift in expectations works both ways. Just as we encounter new expectations as employees, we have also revised what we expect in terms of connectivity from the institutions that we interact with on a daily basis, whether governmental agencies or private corporations, public services or the news media. Sharing data, operating on flexible schedules, responding to tweets and e-mails as easily as answering a phone call are all ways of operating that our generation has always worked under. We would be more willing to commit to institutions if they adopted a similar approach. We know that this transition cannot be achieved instantaneously, but our trust remains a function of openness, agility and interactivity.
Although we are less likely to trust institutions that cannot meet our standards of speed and responsiveness, we suspect that the trust deficit works both ways. Is the hesitance of both public and private sectors to make their decision-making process accessible online (and especially over social media) a signal that they do not trust the ways millennials interact with and share information? Is the reluctance of public administration to migrate toward open data platforms telling us that they do not have confidence in our capacity to interpret and analyze information? If we are expected to be connected at all times and to respond to work e-mails on weekends, why can't we access most government services through Internet portals on a Saturday afternoon?
In an era of big data, we know that information is both more complex and more available. We are not rejecting our institutions, but we are acknowledging that they exist alongside other vectors for action, channels of communication and ways of building and bridging communities. Turning our backs on our institutions would be a simplistic solution. Instead, combining a more traditional sense of collective action with new forms of collaboration is a more complex but also more complete way of moving forward. What if our generation is choosing complexity because it is synonymous with creativity, dialogue and innovation?
The complexity we choose is the price for connectedness, for the democratization of information, speech and thought. We do not feel like complexity is something to avoid, but rather something to take advantage of.
Are we in – or moving toward – a postinstitutional world? We think that the key to that question is to recognize that is it not our institutions per se that we are losing trust in. Instead, we are reluctant to engage with institutions whose capacity to connect and communicate does not match our own. We are questioning the willingness of our governments, our media, our private and supranational organizations to work with the potential of a fundamentally complex and changing society. We refuse to see complexity as a barrier: Complexity is the paradigm that we have grown up in and it continues to stimulate us.
This article is part of a Globe and Mail series on the role of Canadian institutions in partnership with The Walter Gordon Symposium – a two-day public policy conference co-hosted by the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College.
This year's symposium, titled Confronting Complexity: Better Ways Of Addressing Our Toughest Policy Problems, will explore how the media, private sector, governments, and supranational organizations factor into the policymaking process in our increasingly complex and changing society.