The Millennials are Coming, but Not To a Corporate Boardroom Near You

Make no mistake, the invasion of the Millennials is upon us.  From actor and comedian Aziz Ansari to tech tycoon and philanthropist Mark Zuckerberg, Millennials have made an indelible mark on American society and the world.

According to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, more than one third of all American workers are Millennials and in the first quarter of 2015, Millennials surpassed Generation X to represent the largest share of the U.S. labor force.  And the rise of Millennials is not just limited to the United States – it is estimated that Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce by 2050.

Despite their overwhelming numbers in the U.S. workforce, Millennials are virtually nowhere to be found in America’s corporate boardrooms with a few notable exceptions, such as Clara Shih, a non-executive director at Starbucks. According to the Spencer Stuart Board Index, the median age of directors at S&P 500 companies was 63 years in 2013.  The 2014 Boards Practices Report, published by the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals in collaboration with Deloitte LLP’s Center for Corporate Governance, found that the “youngest” directors on public company boards tended to be over 50 years of age.

These findings underscore a type of diversity that is rarely discussed: generational diversity.  Much has been made publicly about the dearth of gender and ethnic diversity on company boards and in recent years, campaigns and organizations, such as 2020 Women on Boards and theBoardlist, have been launched to address such disparities in America’s boardrooms. Yet, there has been little public discourse about generational diversity.  Deborah DeHaas of Deloitte LLP has argued that lack of generational diversity poses “a risk for nearly every business and industry” because Millennial board members provide invaluable insight into the consumer preferences of Millennial customers and clients.

Business experience has long been the predominant benchmark by which board candidates are vetted. Of course, the wisdom and experience that comes naturally with age should not be underestimated, but it is important to recognize that longevity is just one indicator of experience.  Just as the National Bureau of Economic Research evaluates the depth, breadth and duration of economic contraction in determining whether an economic recession exists, business experience is borne not only out of duration (age), but also out of depth and breadth of experience.  What some Millennials lack in gray hair, they more than make up for in depth and breadth of experience.

In a consumer era marked by rapid, real time communication via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and instantaneous transactions executed through smart devices, Millennials bring to the table unparalleled digital media skills. As they came of age in an era that gave rise to the quadruple I’s: the Internet, the iPod, the iPhone and iPad, Millennials are true digital natives that have demonstrated not only the ability and agility necessary to keep up with technological advances, but also an insatiable hunger for more innovation, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Given the increasing importance of digital media, companies would be wise to include tech savvy Millennials in the boardroom.

Second, Millennial board members bring to the table an intimate knowledge of the unique consumption preferences of the sizable Millennial consumer segment. According to a Goldman Sachs report, the Millennial generation’s affinity for technology, wellness/work life balance and the sharing economy will dictate corporate strategy for decades to come.  The popularity and success of Uber and Airbnb are examples of the significant, transformative power of the Millennial consumer segment.  And this transformative power is by no means solely a domestic phenomenon.  For example, the median ages in India and Nigeria are 27 and just over 18, respectively, which further underscores the enormous consumer clout of the Millennial generation.

Finally, the inclusion of Millennials is important from a purely practical, succession planning perspective. Much has been made about CEO succession planning of large Fortune 100 companies, but little attention has been paid to effective succession planning for corporate boards.  Just as potential CEOs are meticulously groomed to become successors by given increasing responsibility within their respective organizations, the nation’s future corporate board members must be given their board training wheels.  While service on the boards of non-profit organizations and academic institutions can provide invaluable experience, such service is no proxy for the experience gained on company boards. To avoid a succession planning crisis in the future, companies must welcome Millennials to the boardroom sooner rather than later.

Companies have begun to make progress in addressing gender diversity on company boards and Sukhinder Singh Cassidy’s brainchild, theBoardlist, is the latest example of the attention focused on increasing the ranks of women in the boardroom.

But it’s clear that the time has come for a MillenniaList.

Keerthika M. Subramanian, J.D., is a corporate attorney, corporate advisory board member and non-profit board member. The views represented herein are solely her own.