Generation gaps are nothing new. The term itself was popularized in the 1960s, as the huge baby boom generation began to influence all aspects of American society. Now another huge generation—the Millennials (those born after 1980)—is moving into adulthood and impacting everything from popular culture to technology to social institutions.

We’re only beginning to see their impact on the healthcare system and facility design.

I began researching these Echo Boomers a few years back while designing a hospital birth center. Since Millennial moms were the target demographic, we wanted to discern which design solutions and amenities would be most successful. I found a flood of information on marketing to this massive and coveted group of consumers.

What makes them so significant? First, size—at more than 80 million, this generation is about 5 percent larger than the baby boomers.

But their most unique characteristic may be their relationship with technology. These digital natives have come of age just as the Internet, social networking, and smart phones exploded, and our new digital culture is completely comfortable for them. In fact, they’re driving the exponential pace of this change.

Millennials are also more ethnically diverse, more educated (especially the women), less connected to institutions such as religion, and more fitness oriented. They expect work-life balance and want their work to be meaningful and collaborative. They value authenticity, transparency, and immediacy. They’ve also been described as highly “generationally interdependent,” and not just because many are still living in their parents’ homes (one outcome of the Great Recession).

The impact of Millennials on the healthcare system must be looked at in at least three different dimensions: as patients, as caregivers, and decision-makers for older and younger family members; and as members of the healthcare workforce.

As patients, Millennials tend to be more participatory in their health and well-being. In consequence, they demand to be well-informed and closely consulted about the care they receive. As caregivers and decision-makers, they’ll likely demand a similarly involved role. And as they enter the healthcare profession in greater numbers and at higher levels, the work preferences that have been reshaping the corporate office for a decade will now mold hospitals and clinics.

How will the expectations of Millennials as patients, families, and professionals change the healthcare facility? I’ll be exploring these shifts across a series of blogs, with Part 2 delving into some specific impacts of Millennials on healthcare facility design.