Posts about millennials are everywhere. They all are like Buzzfeed lists, such as 10 Things To Know About Millennials, Checklists for Millennials at the Workplace, 5 Thing Millennials Really Want and so on. The posts are repetitive and they all assume that millennials mostly think alike. Some of them are worthwhile reading. Others are mostly wrong because they are bent upon proving that millennials are vastly different than previous generations.
Are they different? Yes, just as you and I might be in terms of what we like or dislike. But they are not a different species as some blogs would make you believe. Yes, they want a better world. Yes, they want positive change and are willing to work towards it. But twenty-somethings in every generation have pushed for change. In fact some of the biggest changes we ever saw was in the early nineties when the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and Europe entered a new phase of prosperity and development. Or let us go even further back to the 40s after the Second World War taught the world the horrors of violence. Young people then, as now, pushed for a peaceful Europe that would never again go to war. Their leaders, older than them, listened. Europe today has been at peace for years.
Young people were also a huge factor in important changes in the United States. From the students at Berkeley who protested against the Vietnam War, to those in Washington DC who marched with Martin Luther King Jr, young people have been at the forefront of change. So it is not that millennials are the only generation who are pushing for it – young people always have. That is true also for climate change. Many in the older generations did not care for it enough, but there always were activists who fought for it despite limited research on the topic at the time. Some might say that today’s younger people seem relatively subdued in comparison.
The main difference between millennials and younger people of the same age group in earlier generations is that they have incredibly more access to information which in turn makes them more powerful change agents than earlier generations. Their motivations, desire for progress and innovative streak is similar to what we have seen in the past. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both powerful agents of change starting in their 20s and then changing the way we work and communicate. Howard Schultz changed the whole concept of consuming coffee when he founded Starbucks. They are far from being millennials and yet, they are top innovators, and their products are loved by millions, including millennials.
So what is different? Certainly not the desire to see change, and make it happen. But there is one significant difference in the way they are pushing for it: internet and social media. These are the most powerful tools ever available to us, and they are making creative use of it. From fighting for gay rights to climate change, they are making their voices heard and forcing leaders to listen. News media has adapted to channel their opinions, from sites such as Vice News, to apps like Flipboard and Instagram. Communication has become much more visual, and sharing is instant be it on Twitter or Facebook. So the tools have changed, and with that expectations of young people who now want to accomplish more in quicker time.
Should they be therefore treated differently at the workplace? Yes, by having supervisors who understand the internet and social media well. That is easier said than done. But ultimately, good career growth will depend in part on the kind of relationships millennials develop with their colleagues and bosses. And that will be smoother if everyone is on the same wavelength. For instance if one of them suggests using Instagram as part of a promotional campaign, their bosses should be able to analyze correctly if that would work and not summarily swat the idea away.
Some people maintain that millennials are very politically correct. Certainly they are, more than earlier generations, who might find this development boring. But that is a natural consequence of the world finally respecting the rights of people who were previously marginalized. And in this context millennials are surely ahead of earlier generations who perhaps could have done better.
Some believe that millennials would be motivated more by purpose than money. Again there were many in previous generations who would fit that type, for instance, anti-apartheid movement participants, or Greenpeace protestors. And certainly not all millennials or even a majority think that way – else we would not have seen the same craze for banking and lawyer jobs as in the past.
Talk in their language
Younger organizations are obviously more adept at working with millennials, in part because their founders are in their 20s. Startups with their open workspaces who utilize newer forms of communication through apps and mobile devices appeal to millennials who have grown up with iPads and iPhones. And that is key to making sure they are productive at the workplace – talk in a way they understand.
At SAP, CEO Bill McDermott has led from the front in engaging millennials by first trying to understand where they are coming from. Other organizations which are popular with millennials, such as Google or Facebook, have given millennials greater space to collaborate and explore ideas which can then be turned into winning products or services.
Millennials are not homogenous
Origins are important. Not every country’s culture is the same. In Middle Eastern countries there are hundreds of thousands of young people who would love to preserve at male-dominated society, just as there are those who want a more open, equitable society. In Egypt, there were millennials who wanted change – and those who wanted to reverse it. In Pakistan there are millennials who are challenging conservative beliefs, and then there are those who oppose any change. Millennials everywhere don’t think alike. But here is the hopeful part – in more open societies, millennials have consistently adapted faster to new technology and devices, thanks partly to their ease of use. And they have been vocal in demanding a more honest, equal, and representative society. We can see this in North America, in Europe and in several developing countries.
So here’s what it boils down to: millennials are not an unique species. This age group has always had their radicals, the activists and change agents fighting for a better world. If their energy and creativity is channeled properly, by giving respect to their opinions and ideas, we can see bigger changes happen, and quicker than ever because technology now allows it. And millennials know how to use it.
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