Why are we Obsessed by Millennials?

by Mandy Chapman

Why are we obsessed by millennials? This generation (born some vague time in the 80s to some vague time in the 90s) are not the newbies on the block any more. Generation Z are the next generation of young ‘uns seemingly disrupting our workplaces with their digital prowess.

But are they? Should they? Is this not the natural course of life? Is it we the older generations that have the issue? Is it we who are the problem? I hear a lot of rhetoric about “the millennials”. I hear that they are “digital natives”, they are impatient, self-absorbed, disloyal, can’t hold a conversation, are lazy, feel entitled, are demanding. But really? Is this mass generalisation true and if so, were we the same? Is their ‘demanding’ nature a result of having one experience at work and a starkly contrasting experience outside of work? “Millennial” as a term (perhaps because it’s the business buzz word of the decade) doesn’t seem to be going away and I’ve made it my business recently to talk to as many “millennials” as possible. What I have found is a whole bunch of people who are just as ambitious, hard-working, self-reflective, loyal and patient as most other grown-up people I know. In fact, all of those characteristics can be applied in equal measures across all of the generations, I believe.

Taking a good look at other generations over the past millennia, what we find is a pattern of disruptive activity with each new generation. This is an age old issue, it’s not a new business problem. In fact, Socrates was said to have commented on the younger generations:

“They now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for their elders. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers!”

This from a man who died in 399BC!!

These challenges have been around for as long as people have walked the earth – they just take on a different guise with each new generation. In the business world, we panic with the realisation that younger generations are coming through the door and disrupting the status quo, but maybe we are the ones who are missing a trick. With their young enthusiasm and alien ways of working (yes I’m generalising), this fresh blood brings with it new and innovative ideas, high digital expectations, super-efficient ways of working and importantly a wider choice of who to work with.

We have seen many successful organisations of the 90s and 00s disappear by not being quick enough to market, not understanding customer needs, not innovating or not adapting to change. Kodak, Blockbuster, Woolworths, BHS, Comet… all large, well-established high-street names that couldn’t keep up. Arguably, most of these organisations folded because they didn’t innovate quickly enough or provide the levels of service or convenience that really make organisations stand out in a digital era.

Roll forward 20 years and the ‘millenials’ will see the rate of change accelerate even faster, with young and disruptive newbies upsetting their way of life. This is unless organisations learn to continuously adapt to the realities of what Bill Gates called a ‘cultural and technological revolution’. In his 1995 book The Road Ahead, Gates made some insightful predictions about how our world would change:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

Companies will come and go with ever greater speed as competition speeds up and their ability to sustain work forces for the long term will be ever more challenged. Job security is declining and it will increasingly only be the most “core” of any company’s work force that will enjoy security of employment. For the vast majority the challenge will be to maintain skills and remain ready to be flexible and adaptable to pursue a career with several employers and through a series of roles, assignments and projects. Change will be the norm.

But in as much as it is for those in the workforce so too the challenge will be there for the company offering employment – how to recruit fast, nurture the best, harness their inputs, motivate and engage but how also to let go at such a time as new skills are required.

The tensions will be palpable and the market place for skills and talent ever more acute. Transience will pervade our working lives – how to manage it will be challenge for the multi-generational workforce.

So let’s stop seeing the generational challenges as a barrier or something to be overcome. Let’s start to change our rhetoric to one of emergent and continuous change, of innovation and invention, of agile and mindful leadership, of a diverse, inclusive and adaptable workforce who are unshackled by the bureaucracy of the past and who can lead our organisations through a constantly changing terrain.

Mandy Chapman

Mandy has been helping HR teams to achieve their goals for almost two decades and is HRCubed’s General Manager. Read her bio here.