Sheryl Connelly is the Corporate Futurist at Ford, charged with compiling emerging trends with big implications for the automaker and the world at large.
Her annual Looking Further With Ford report explores the top 10 trends from Connelly’s research. Here, she breaks down the macro forces that led Baby Boomers, Gen Y and Millennials to define happiness differently – and how that’s changing not only Ford but the future of the workplace.
Glassdoor: What does a futurist do? And why does Ford need one?
Sheryl Connelly: I think of it as the longest education I’ve ever had. I spent the first year on the job just reading. I know that doesn’t sound glamorous, but you need to understand a lot of areas at a deep level to make discoveries. At the core, you’re looking for patterns. You want to start a conversation, create food for thought, about what’s coming in the next two to four years or so – or maybe beyond.
We do that in a lot of different ways. A trend is holistic. It isn’t tech or social or economic; it permeates everything. And that’s why you have to read everything. I go to the annual TED Talk conference, read academic papers and McKinsey whitepapers, look for provocative articles, talk to everyone I can. You need to get all points of view, from gender, age, ethnicity. I like for someone to say to me, “No, that’s not right.” You have to push deeply to uncover patterns and why they’re occurring.
Once you start looking at the world through trends, you can’t stop seeing them. Like when I was pregnant I noticed pregnant people everywhere. When you hit upon something, you start to see it all over and you can build on that. We also have strategic partners who help us narrow it down to the top 10 trends for our Looking Further With Ford [annual report].
People sometimes flip through the report and say, “There’s not that much about cars in here.” But again, all of these trends cross everything. It’s part of the bigger picture. You can’t build the next car for the next generation without deep understanding.
Glassdoor: This year’s report talks about work-life balance through the lens of what “happiness” and prosperity means today – how the definition is shifting compared with previous generations.
Sheryl Connelly: Older cohorts can help us better understand our past, but the younger cohorts tell us how to look forward. It applies to the nature of work and to car sales at the same time.
Start with Baby Boomers. Big growth of the population after World War II, as any soldier who fought came home to the G.I. Bill. Take this money and go buy a house or a business or go to school. So this generation only knew a time of economic growth; there’s money to be made if you work hard. And there was this idea of the company man: If something happens to you, we as your employer will take care of your loved ones. So people gave their blood, sweat and tears in exchange. That meant giving up time with loved ones. The focus was, look at what a good provider I am: We have cars and TVs and large houses.
Generation X came of age during a recession. They were born in the age of the women lib movement, and they were referred to as latchkey kids because there was no one home to greet them. They become the “MTV generation” because they watch TV after school and see these rich and famous people around the world. They become interested in experiences, not material possessions. They know how awful it was to be separated from their parents all the time. No one would hire them so they started their own companies and they were careful not to do it the way the boomers did: flex time and job sharing. Prosperity becomes about family time and the experiential.
If baby boomers never used their vacation and were the last to leave, Gen X says I won’t give you all this office time but I will give you response time. They work on holidays and weekends and work/life lines get blurred.
Now we have the millennial generation, or Gen Y, who are about ages 21 to 36 now. They’re a hybrid of the two generations before them. Echoing the boomers, they were told they would do well if they worked hard. But they might be underemployed and saddled with debt – so like Gen X, they’re seeking experiences. They want to explore. Prosperity is now about living nimbly and having choices.
You can see how this applies to Ford. A baby boomer might say the car is the ultimate status symbol. Gen X would think of it as an item that needs to protect your family. And Gen Y sees a car as optional. I think for the younger ones, 21 and younger, vehicle sharing will just get bigger. People simply want to move from Point A to Point B and that might be with a bicycle. It’s just a transformative time in transportation.
Glassdoor: What are the other top trends you’re tracking when it comes to work and career?
Sheryl Connelly: Historically, we’ve encouraged people to find their niche. But I see opportunities for the generalist. A lot of the careers being displaced by automation or technology are the ones that are specialized: accountants are being replaced by TurboTax, lawyers by LegalZoom.
The new female frontier is a wonderful thing to watch unfold. Women have achieved record levels of personal and professional success. And I also think some of those accomplishments are happening because men’s roles are changing. A study asked men: Were money no object, would you like to be a stay-at-home dad? And 50% said yes. Women have come a long way, but we do still have a long way to go.
Going back to [the evolving definition of] prosperity, I also really like this notion of time well spent. Time is now a currency, with high value and limited availability. We found about 72% of adults globally say their definition of “wasting time” is different than it was before. And 56% of U.S. adults think sleeping is a productive use of time, which some people from previous generations likely wouldn’t have agreed with.
It all goes to show prosperity is continually being redefined. The older generations say, “The younger ones will never have what we had. It costs so much more to buy a house. Maybe they won’t have as good of a life.” But, by whose definition? The big house wasn’t the dream of the generation that started the tiny house trend.
Glassdoor: What about your own dreams? You probably didn’t grow up wanting to be a futurist. How did you get here?
Sheryl Connelly: I’m just as astounded as anyone that I can call myself a corporate futurist. When I was young I wanted to study art, but the worrier in me thought I should major in finance. Afterward, I went to law school and got my MBA at the same time.
I try to be as candid as I can talking about this because I had lots of moments of self-doubt. I practiced law long enough to know I had made an expensive mistake. But, you know, I met my husband in law school. And it helped inform the way I think. So you can’t regret anything about the path you took because it led you here, to this moment.
I started at Ford selling cars to dealers. And wow, are they extraordinary. Oil runs through some of those people’s veins. So much of what I know about cars is from them. But honestly, I just didn’t have the affinity for the product the way they did. It wasn’t the right fit and I knew it.
There was a particular time that I deliberately decided to make a change: My father died unexpectedly, soon after my second daughter was born. I learned a lot from him and I decided the first job that came my way within Ford, I would take. Luckily, it was this global consumer trend and futurist job. I look back at it as a divine intervention. It’s the day I won my own personal lottery.
I’d had all these degrees but now I had a way to apply it all. I had to build up a point of view, and research and make a case around it like a lawyer. You have to persuade like a salesperson. I felt I was in over my head, but over time I grew to love the job and I’ve had it for almost 14 years.
As awesome as the job is, it isn’t easy. I love sharing the results in conversations like these. It’s funny: When I started in this role, I was advised not to share anything publicly. Over the past decade, that’s changed completely. Since we’ve unveiled ourselves to the world, our perspective has become that much better.
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