Mal Fletcher
Millennials - Your Most Valuable Resource

And Why They Can Be So High-Maintenance

Not too long ago, TIME magazine dubbed young adult Millennials the ‘ME Generation’.

At the same time, the New York Times chipped in with its own epithet: the ‘Entitled Generation’.

Certainly, a number of employer surveys conducted in the US, Europe and Asia suggest that this is the consensus of opinion among CEOs.

Yet other studies reveal that 70 percent of Millennials – aged between 16 and 33 years – volunteer their time for good causes and 80 percent donate money or services.

In one American survey, 80 percent said that making a difference in the world is of more importance to them than professional recognition.

Whatever your view of Millennials, as a leader, one thing is absolutely certain. If you are to build any enterprise with a long shelf-life and growing influence, you will need to prioritise this generation – and fast.

Your team might work long and hard to formulate strategies for growth over the next 10 to 15 years, but if you have no strategy for dealing with Millennials it will all come to naught.

After all, this is the generation that, more than any other, will carry the future on its shoulders.

Millennials are very different from either of the generations that immediately preceded them.

For one thing, they are less individualistic than the Baby Boomers, now aged in their mid-50s to late 60s. They are more communal in their outlook, preferring to work together than alone.

This cohort is also less cynical than the so-called Generation X, now aged in their mid-30s to early 50s.

GenX, though often underrated, has its own good reasons for being world-weary in its outlook and I’ve written about these in some of my books.

A number of surveys reveal, however, that despite the challenges being thrown at them in areas such as housing affordability and university fees, Millennials stubbornly refuse to be anything but optimistic about the future and their part in creating it.

Many CEOs have said that they find Millennials emotionally brittle and unable to handle criticism.

Others argue that these young leaders are too focused on their own generation to play a big role in multi-generational projects.

However, the fact remains that we need this generation.

We need their talent, especially when it comes to understanding and engaging with digital technologies. Millennials are the world’s first digital natives, having grown up with digital gadgetry.

For them, a new tablet, phablet or phone has no ‘wow factor’; it is merely a clever means to an end, an engine for change.

Leaders need the Millennials’ contacts, too. Nobody knows how to share an idea virally like these young adults. This is hugely important when we stop to consider that by 2017 or 2020, they will have more combined spending power than any other cohort, including the Boomers.

Business needs their size. By 2025, three out of every five workers globally will be Millennials. We also need their desire for innovation – particularly through collaborative enterprise via the internet.

In an American study at the height of the recent recession, 46 percent of Millennials said they wanted to start their own business with five or so years.

In Europe, the percentage may well be smaller, yet even here there are strong indications that innovation is a high priority for Millennials.

How do we tap into the aspirations and values of the Millennials, exciting them about the future of our enterprises and projects? Here are some key characteristics Millennials look for in companies and organisations:

Linked-up Leadership

Having been born into an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, Millennial adults look for companies and organisations that are willing to form alliances beyond the brand.

Collaborative enterprise is very important to them.

This is driven in part by the digital revolution and by a keen sense that solving seemingly intractable global problems will require a ‘we-think’ mindset, or what the gamers called the ‘architecture of participation’.

Alliance theory traditionally focused on two pre-requisites for a working partnership: shared goals and symbiotic benefits. For Millennials, we must add a third component to alliances – altruistic purpose.

This generation likes to imagine itself as part of a global ‘solution revolution’.

The global value of volunteering now stands at $1.3 trillion per annum. A good percentage of that is arguably down to the involvement of Millennials.

This is why companies like Orange are building branded partnerships with volunteer organisations such as RockCorp, which focus on getting Millennials involved in civic service.

In the late 1990s, hardly any MBA courses in the United States featured a component on sustainability. Today, it’s hard to find one that does not.

Millennials are looking for companies that demonstrate collaborative accountability for problems and issues that stretch beyond the narrow interests of the company’s shareholders.

If you want to attract Millennials into leadership, give them work that matters. Set goals that will produce change beyond the corporate front door; provide products and services that will add value to more than the bottom line.

Flexible Work Practices

Faced with the exponential growth of data generated worldwide year-on-year and an unprecedented rate of change in technology, Millennials are asking big questions about ethics.

They’re questioning, for example, the role of pragmatism in decision-making. Is it right to do a thing just because it can be done?

There are questions, too, about the line between human beings and machines. As we invite technology into our bodies, through such things as nanorobotics, will we still be able to decipher where the human being ends and the machine begins? If not, is that desirable?

Many other ethical questions are coming to the fore among Millennials, particularly in university and college courses. Students have made rather unlikely pop-culture heroes of such notable ethicists as Harvard’s Michael Sandel and Stanford’s Debra Satz.

The University of Birmingham, UK, was one of the first schools in Europe to establish a faculty of global ethics. Others have now followed suit, recognising the importance of ethics in an age of fluid technologies and shifting social mores.

Arguably, Millennials are the most well-nurtured generation, parentally speaking, in modern times.

They were certainly the most watched-over generation in childhood – often for good reason – and have been more engaged by their parents than Generation X ever was.

As a result, they place a high premium on trust and regularly say that, when it comes to the workplace, achieving work flexibility is more important than salary.

Although – or because – they are the most over-sharing generation when it comes to social media, they are also becoming more sensitive to privacy issues. For them, trust is a currency and an important measure of their worth to a company.

This is why some large multi-nationals are now offering two or three month sabbaticals to young workers who’ve only been with the company for a few years. This is especially true for cases involving aged parents who need special care.

The leadership of these companies recognise the importance of flexibility to Millennials and the fact that for them it is an expression of trust.

Clear Accountability Structures

This deals with one of the perceived weaknesses of the Millennial Generation – their inability to manage their own time.

Arguably, Millennials were more well managed in childhood than any previous generation in living memory.

Often, parents would micro-manage their timetables and would be sure to be nearby to manage any problems.

As a result, Millennial young adults sometimes admit to researchers that they have trouble managing their own time when on vacation.

To provide the right structures for managing Millennial, without crossing into intrusive micro-management and the breakdown of trust, we must ensure that all judgements are fact-based. A generation that is able to access data at the swipe of a screen has little tolerance of inaccurate information.

Managers and leaders will find that it helps to speak in specifics rather than generalities or hunches.

A downside of hyper-nurturing for many Millennials is that they need help to see the difference between performance metrics and personal value judgements.

Lines of communication must be clear. They should be flexible enough to accommodate changing situations – especially in an innovative enterprise – but not so fluid as to become unpredictable.

Credibility gaps need to be addressed, too. If a line manager is less well educated than the Millennials she is overseeing, she may need to find other ways to establish their respect.

One thing these young adults value – and know they don’t yet have – is ‘street smarts’, the type of real-world wisdom that only comes with experience.

Constant feedback is important to Millennials, too. They like being trusted to get on with the job, but they thrive on feedback. Studies suggest that Millennials work better when they’re gathered in one part of the workspace together. They thrive on the buzz of constructive information and cooperation.

Round-table planning will also play a role in engaging Millennials in your project. A generation that has been encouraged to speak up and interact with its elders at home and, to a degree, at school, is unlikely to be silent at work.

Doubtless, some young leaders can come across as precocious. However, gradually toning this down is preferable to trying to kick-start people who are walking flat batteries.

As a generational cohort, Millennials may not always be low maintenance. At times they may require hard work and a ‘tilt’ in our thinking.

They have, after all, grown up in quite different times. Compared to the Boomers and GenXers among us, they face different challenges with their emergence into the workspace and leadership within it.

Yet, with the right incentives and mentoring, including correction of the right kind, they will add hugely to the productivity and the collaborative innovation within our organisations and projects.

High maintenance can also mean high reward!

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

About us