Some of you reading this would have had to pause longer than you would have liked just to make sense of the heading. Others, I suspect, didn’t even make it past the heading! But, understanding the why and what underpinning Millennial attitudes and behaviour, is essential work for both leaders and parents alike. It is unavoidable for anyone serious about the future and wanting to better understand their role and responsibility in bringing about that future.
Millennials (those born between 1981-96) are showing marked differences from previous generations (Gen X and Baby Boomers) in just about everything: from social attitudes to diet and substances – and pretty much anything in-between! Millennial mania is getting a lot of airtime of late. No surprise in that as we are witnessing a generation ‘coming of age’ and reflecting a world-skin that is confusing to most and disliked by many. We are at last seeing the impact of a digital world on a generation; the lab rats are providing useful information except of course no one considers this generation as ‘lab rats’ as, besides being insulting, it would imply some grand experiment with digitization. An ‘experiment’ it is most certainly not and the impact and the shaping influence this new reality has exerted, needs to be better understood and fully appreciated for both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ it has brought about. In the Millennials we now have some hard data with which to work as to the impact of social media on a generation.
The easiest place in which to see the impact of a generation having grown up in a world of social media is the ‘workplace’. This is a place that is home to multiple generations and nowhere is the stark contrast of behavioural norms more evident than in the complex environments that are our places of work. The majority of these traditional environments have been shaped by decades of uncontested Boomer values and norms. Millenials who have found their way in through the front door have more often than not found an inhospitable environment and one not much to their liking. Many have made quick exits (usually via the ‘backdoor’) into newer, non-traditional and more ‘user friendly’ work environments. Many of these fresher and younger organisations are certainly not problem-free. Nonetheless they have at least succeeded in making a dent in the traditional and established norms that govern how organisations are built and ‘meant to work’. In some cases, quite a large dent at that!
Understanding the Millennial mindset (and what has shaped it) is the first step towards a productive and meaningful engagement. The attraction, engagement and retention of Millennials (although this last one – retention – is most likely something of a pipedream), defines the landscape for what we have labelled the ‘war for Talent’. It is a term that has it’s own considerable baggage and problems but nonetheless is rightly so front and centre for many a leader and business. Most of the ‘Talent Management’ programmes that I have seen do not go far or deep enough in understanding why this is the challenge it is.
In addressing the ‘problem’ these programmes generally lack the mandate as well as the courage and authenticity to talk about and then do what really needs to be done in order to address the issue. I suspect that when the real challenge is fully understood, realising what it will require to meaningfully address it simply proves to be too much for those in charge. The challenge posed by the ‘solutions’ go right to the very DNA of the organisation and how it functions – and that, messing with the DNA, is not work – for a variety of reasons, that many a leader wants to do. These shortcomings are obvious to all – especially to those for whom the programmes are designed – and yet, we plough on hoping for that elusive ‘silver bullet’.
A good place to start the understanding is to appreciate the context in which this generation grew-up. Context is always the best place to start any leadership conversation or perhaps any conversation whatsoever! The context for Millennials was to grow-up in a world where they were constantly being watched…and where they were also doing the watching. This goldfish entrapment has produced a deep-seated anxiety about ‘what others think’. The result is a fragile self-image masquerading as a bold, confident, ‘look-at-me’ type bravado. Peeled back we see a very different reality to the one we are presented with – it is one where the internal and external realities are at odds with one other. Whilst this dichotomy might be ‘normal territory’ for adolescence, social media has exacerbated it and psychologists will tell you that this isn’t a healthy state in which to be for any longer than might be expected from a developmental point of view. It is a state of being that, for Millennials, is extending far beyond ‘normal’ and is stalking them into young adulthood.
Their mirror is the unforgiving mass of judgemental peers whose likes of approval determines social standing and popularity. The endless selfies to select ‘the one’ that will then be carefully and deliberately submitted into the arena of social media. All this is done with a seemingly carefree abandon and casualness but that it is most certainly not. Well, at least not to those who understand how the ‘rules of the game’ work and what is at stake!
To the onlookers, it is a generation self-absorbed and lost in a matrix of their own making. However, putting the ‘blame’ for their behaviour squarely on them is not entirely true nor is it fair. The world made for them was not made by them. Surviving in it has taken new paths and required different skills in the same way that every generation has had to make their own way only this time, the complexity that encompasses the entire sphere is unlike anything ever known. That reality is hardly the fault of the Millennials!
This is a generation that has elevated the twin concepts of ‘personal branding’ and ‘influence’ to entirely new levels. Both of these ‘concepts’ have, in one way or another, become things of great value in the business world. They underpin contemporary notions of branding and drive us towards new levels of understanding ‘engagement’ – with those essential to our businesses: our staff, partners, associates, clients, customers and suppliers. Understanding how all this works in the unfolding ‘new world of work’ is where the Millennials have the ‘inside track’ and because of that, they are both prized and sort-after within business. The problem arises in part with an old-world unwilling to fully yield in the face of this new-world onslaught. Those holding the levers of power and control are reluctant to lessen their grip fearing what may become of them and the world they have created if they do. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary there is a deep-seated fear and sometimes antagonism towards those perceived to be wanting to usurp the ‘way things have always been’ but, the jabs to keep all this at bay, are becoming increasingly tired and proving to be completely ineffectual.
This is a generation where a number of hashtags succinctly captures their reality. They are hashtags that can be used to explore conversations and reveal hidden layers (for the ‘onlookers’ at least). They provide glimpses into something far deeper and pervasive within this generation; single words with pages of meaning. Some of these hashtags include:
In case you are feeling that there is no upside to all this, there most certainly is an upside. This is a generation who don’t tolerate a silence when it comes to things that society at large would rather hide or ignore. Their lives are lived in full transparency (as photoshopped as that might be) and they are helping ensure full transparency across their multiple platforms. They are ‘silence-busters’ and are doing so from a highly informed and aware position. Previous generations were (for the most part) far less informed and slower to take a stand – unless ordered to do so of course, on societal issues needing to be confronted and challenged.
One of the ironies is that this ‘MeWe’ generation is that their inherent loneliness somehow feels less alone as they relate to a vast online community of ‘followers’ – whilst of course always seeking to be ‘followed’. Author Sherry Turkle described the impact of technology on society as one of being, ‘alone together’ (the title of her book). For the generation most impacted by this technology, it is a fitting moniker. They are quick to mobilize and are used to being heard. Finding themselves in environments (aka large corporates) where they don’t have a voice as they ‘haven’t been around long enough’ or ‘aren’t senior enough, is both annoying and confusing to a generation who have an opinion (on everything!) and who are used to being able to express it and who expect to be heard.
They are health-conscious and cause-conscious in a way that shames previous generations. Their world is far bigger than my world ever was and they believe, really believe, that they can make a difference to what for many are inevitable outcomes. They are not afraid to express themselves and are confident in the contribution they know they can make. Saving the planet from itself is something that energizes Millennials far beyond the rhetoric and posturing that tends to characterise the older generations (i.e. Boomers) approach. Issues such as global warming, plastics and gender equality (to name but some) are matters close to heart for this younger generation. Their energy is fuelled in part by an anger at having to deal with problems not of their own making yet ones that threaten their future.
Older generations need to understand that ‘our mould’ doesn’t fit this generation; we need to appreciate that their future belongs to them and so we need to start acting and deciding in a manner that reflects this reality. We need to be less intent on preserving our past and more willing to invite their future into being. This, after all, is the responsibility of the older generation – to be less selfish (the Boomers have been described as the most selfish generation of all) and to use what we have to ensure the best of what they have can be realised.
As we do so we might just be surprised at how willing this generation is to welcome us into their conversation – and of course, we might first need to learn just how to do this – just how this conversation works!
A next step that I would recommend in pursuit of better understanding the ‘mind of the Millennial’ – especially when it comes to the attraction, engagement and retention (in the workplace), would be download this eBook – Lessons of Instagram – What could get 18 million people to ‘like’ your work?
(The author, Elizabeth Michelle, runs workshops on inter-generational working and understanding/engaging/retaining millennials – chat to us if you’d like to further engage with her or have her engage with your teams on this exciting topic.)