“Millennials”: What’s all the fuss about?

There has been a lot of noise being made about “Millennials” in recent years. Companies have become obsessed with understanding them better. Leaders, Marketing Execs, HR and L&D have all been scrambling to educate themselves on what motivates millennials, how to attract and retain them, and generally trying to understand how millennials tick; why they behave the way they do and how they learn. To all the above culprits, please just STOP! While your efforts are undoubtedly well-intentioned, they are also misguided. Let’s start with the facts.

The facts about “Millennials”

  • By 2025, they will account for 75% of the global workplace
  • They are “digital natives”
  • Have a greater affinity for risk taking
  • Increased sensation seeking (multi-sensory)
  • Social sharing and greater peer affiliation

And that’s it. Everything else said about them is mere guesswork and alarmist hyperbole created by mostly marketing consultancies and publishers. Any differences in behaviours between millennials and previous generations (Gen X’ers and Baby boomers) can all be attributed rather to their stage in life (“Kids these days…”), their life experiences and advances in technology. Does this sound familiar? The invention of the TV and the telephone historically were also events that were proclaimed by previous generations as the decline of society’s moral values, as are computer screens and mobile phones today. Recent studies on the adolescent brain have only proven one thing, that yes, we are adapting to our environment! Having grown up in the digital era, millennials’ brains have merely adapted to the demands of their environment. Like everything else in our world today that is moving at an unprecedented speed, so is the evolution of the human brain. Our brain has changed more in the last 15 years than it has ever done… but how can we be sure? Since fMRI scans have only recently been able to show us activity in the brain. How can we be sure that other generations’ brains haven’t adapted and been adapting at an alarming speed as well? The point here is, just like all other generations before us, we are products of our environment. Millennials’ young brains are more adaptive to today’s changes as were previous generations’ in their youth. Brain plasticity is a lifelong process but tends to be most robust earliest in development. Common sense? As millennials mature and take on leadership positions they will also be faced with the “dreaded Gen Z’ers” entering the workforce. So what’s the big fuss about? We, like all other business professionals, are worried that we should be focusing our efforts on attracting and retaining millennials. What? People’s individual differences have always been greater than their generational differences. People are all different. And therefore talent comes in many shapes and forms. It is quite baffling to see that esteemed Business magazines like HBR, Forbes, The Economist have been publishing articles about things like “what millennials want”, “how do we engage millennials”, “how do we motivate them” and the like. Instead of trying to create an “us vs them” culture at work, we should be looking at how we are shaping our leaders and the economy as a whole. Leadership, Marketing and HR practices should be focusing on understanding their employees and consumers as “people” with individual needs and interests, but with still very common human values that we all share.

Studies on Millennials

If we are products of our life experiences and environment, then it is obvious that we are all different, in different ways, regardless of generational membership. I have only found two studies analysed in HBR that make any sense. The first article What Millennials want from work, chartered across the world analyses an extensive study undertaken by Insead’s HEAD Foundation. Lo and behold, they found that millennials from different countries around the world and different cultures want very different things from work! And let’s not forget, people vary within cultures as well. In the other article, What do Millennials really want at work? The same things the rest of us do Bruce N.Pfau, VC of HR and Communications at KPMG, presents a report released in 2015 by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, which once again shows a lack of any meaningful differences between three generations at work. In fact many millennials and older workers have many of the same career goals.

The Future

While I appreciate that every generation needs a cool name to identify it (demographically, sociologically, economically, politically…), we need to stop categorizing, labelling, stereotyping and in effect, dividing people. In today’s global workplace, it makes sense that responsible and mindful companies are trying to secure their survival by embracing the next generation’s talent. But to make sweeping characterisations of same-generational members is not only futile, it is dangerous and unethical. It would be more beneficial to businesses to redesign their organisations based on the common values of their people, by allowing them to be more autonomous, provide support and clear paths to career progress and self-fulfilment. While looking to young people gives us a glimpse of what the future might look like, we are all responsible for shaping that future and braving that experience together. Human capacity to work diligently and keep up with the changing demands of our environment is what will ensure our survival. So to all the Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers out there, go out and hug a millennial, they won’t bite, they’ll just friend you on facebook :) or whatever other social networking app kids are using nowadays.