The Millennials

The term “millennial” has come to mean anyone born from the early 80’s onward who has now entered the job market. Or, more simply, anyone from early to late twenties working today.

Like “Generation X” before them, the Milllennials are, apparently, differently natured to previous generations and exhibit specific characteristics that make them difficult – or at least peculiar – employees. Even that final word – employee – rubs them the wrong way. A Millennial doesn’t want to be pinned down, boxed in, indentured. They want flexible hours, rapid status and – of course – a swift route to earning big money.

Every older generation takes a relatively dim view of the younger ones. Perhaps the most marked example of this in living memory is the view that of was taken of the 60’s “hippie” generation – deadbeat, amoral and too soft. This view was held by a generation that had lived through the worst war in human history and had learned that to survive you had to be tough.

Or, in the familiar pendulum motion of these things, the hippies, all grown up, looked with horror at their children in the 80’s who grew up to be investment bankers, corporate lawyers and stock traders. Eschewing the fluffy values of their parents, this generation was defined by the economics of Thatcher and Reagan and the fearless heart that it took to live “in the shadow of the bomb”.

It is this generation now – more or less – that is encountering the so-called Millennial. This new generation is defined by something more powerful and life-altering perhaps than any phenomenon in human history: the internet, of course. It is stitching together the thoughts, ideas and lives of every person on the planet in a way that only 100 years ago Carl Jung could only metaphorically call a “collective consciousness”. Now this is tangible, measurable and omnipresent.

One thing it is worth saying is that the common dismissal – that older people always bemoan the loss of values of younger people – belies the fact that sometimes these older people are right. Hippie-thinking did promote a drug-addled, over-idealistic notion of life. Likewise the capitalistic 80’s, which conquered communism and drove the world economy to incredible heights also sowed the seeds for an economic system that almost imploded five years ago.

Both of these elder generations were right to be concerned. And we should be too. There are things about this generation that ought to give us pause – however we should remember the flipside: there are also things about this generation that are admirable and encouraging.

So, with that as preamble, here are the three characteristics of Millennials that I find particularly challenging as an employer and asa member of an older generation in an increasingly Millennial world.

It’s worth saying here that this is a typically western perspective. I’m not sure Millennials in rural Africa, or even rural South Africa, could be understood through this lens.

1. Attention Deficit

There is no doubt that attention has become a rare commodity. For people growing up since the advent of the Internet an ever increasing demand on their attention, with an ever increasing array of available targets, has created a generation in which nothing grabs their attention for very long.

There are many implications of this. Everything needs to be more compelling – in the same way that in a rich meal flavours need to be strong to compete. Subtlety stops working, except as another strategy with which to compete. And so time compresses and what would have satisfied for days or weeks or months before can only satiate for a few minutes.

This inability to stay the course has deep implications for relationships and careers. It may manifest as an addiction to excitement; or as an intolerance for boredom or continuity. In the workplace it results in a shattering of the long-term employee archetype. And in relationships friends, lovers and partners must up the ante to stay in focus.

The upside of this is that young people are less likely to remain in dead-end jobs, and in theory this should shift companies from being able to simply exploit people and pocket the profits. It has already lead to an explosion in entrepreneurship where economic conditions enable it.

2. The End of Silence

Nothing has changed our lives more than the cellphone. And nothing has changed cellphones more than connecting them to the internet. We need spend not one moment alone anymore. We are never cut off from the steady pulse of news, entertainment and social exchange. When your dinner companion heads for the restroom your phone is there to fill the gap. When the TV show you’re watching hits a dull stretch your iPad is there to ensure your mind never drifts off.

The world is thus paradoxically more silent – as people engage their phones instead of one another – and absent of mental silence as the phone pours the internet into each person’s mind with relentless efficiency.

Clearly this is in a way a corollary of the first point but it is, in itself, a profound turn of events. And it remains to be seen whether this relentless noise will lead to a greater desire for silence or an inability to tolerate it. It’s certainly not going to get any less noisy with the advent of Google Glass and similar wearable technology that will, in effect, bring the inevitable direct connection between our brains and the internet one step closer.

3. The Need for Prestige

Success is a drug we all crave, in one form or the other.  But if the internet and the proliferation of entertainment and content has made us impatient with tedium, our exposure in social networks has made us crave status. And, again, the newest generation to hit the workplace comes with this heightened need for extrinsic value baked in.

This is not to say that 80’s kids lacked ambition, but there is something about the respect for earning status that has changed. Or perhaps its a belief in hard work per se that has eroded. This seems to be the result of status being earned too rapidly or too easily or too predictably in the online world. Or perhaps it is a consequence of being a part of the first generation to really live in the changed the fabric of society that social networks have produced.

Whatever the reason, Millennials have their status expectations on overdrive and this can be a challenge in a workplace created by people who are used to career advancement measured in decades, not months.

We should wonder what the world created by this generation will look like. Once those over 35 are done with it, and once today’s children are grown and ready to work, what will the then 40-somethings have forged? And will those workplaces and cultures be more accepting to the fickleness and impatience we struggle to integrate today?