Making sense of millennials
First things first: who exactly are millennials? Despite the best efforts of the tabloids to identify them as scapegoats for just about everything (some headlines: ‘Millennials are killing relationships’, ‘Are millennials killing the car industry?’, ‘Millennials are killing America’, ‘Now millennials are killing marmalade’), millennials are defined not by their murderous impulses, but simply by dates. If you were born between the early 1980s and the mid 1990s – let’s say 1980 to 1995 – then you are a millennial.
From a business point of view, though, the date they joined the rest of us on planet earth isn’t that interesting. What is interesting is (a) what characterises millennials today, and (b) what businesses should be doing to make sense of them as current and future customers and employees. These twin topics were the subject of ‘How to prepare your business for the millennial generation’, a Norfolk Network talk at St George’s Works by Lauren Razavi and Jesse Onslow Norton, co-founders of Flibl Labs and bona fide millennials.
We are here and we are many
The first thing to know about millennials is not a characteristic, but a simple fact: there’s a lot of them. “Every generation gets demonised by the one that came before it,” said Jesse. “That’s nothing new. But what often gets missed is that millennials are the largest generation in history, and we’re the most ethnically and culturally diverse generation Britain has ever seen.” So, future-focused businesses: sit up and take notice.
A second simple fact is that millennials were hit hard, while still young, by the global recession that began in 2007–8, which means, he explained, that “they think differently, they view the world differently, and they hold different values.” Some of the most important of those different values are economic and political ones. For the first time in 130 years, living at home with parents has become the most common domestic arrangement for 18 to 34-year-olds, which goes some way to explaining both the lower expectations among millennials of home ownership and their transformed attitudes to material wealth.
“For a generation that had only ever experienced the boom years of the nineties and the noughties, we were totally unprepared for the crash,” Jesse continued. “We’d been told that boom and bust had been eliminated forever, but that’s not what happened. Growing up as the children of the global recession has left its mark on millennials… We also have a deep scepticism towards the banks, the finance sector and the free market. According to a Harvard University survey, 51 per cent of US millennials are opposed to capitalism. And that’s in America!”
“We’d been told that boom and bust had been eliminated forever, but that’s not what happened. Growing up as the children of the global recession has left its mark on millennials"
But as markets fell, taking millennials’ faith in the system with them, something else was rising: technology. As Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook grew to become five of the world’s top six public companies (by market capitalisation as at August 2016), so millennials grew up using those tech companies’ devices, services and ideas.
Suddenly, millennials could choose – as Lauren and Jesse did – to be digital nomads, a new breed defined by Investopedia as “location-independent workers who use technology to perform their job”.
Living in the Age of Tech had other effects, too. Millennials are social (as in media) and don’t typically get their news from television or newspapers. But as there’s no British social media network or aggregator (that is, Twitter, Facebook, Google and the like are all global), millennials here are fairly oblivious to national news stories and events. Instead, they tend to focus on things that are either global or very local – ‘hyperlocal’, as the jargon has it.
Go on, try it. You might like it
But the question remains: what should businesses do to prepare for the millennial generation?
“Try out some millennial habits for yourself,” suggested Lauren. “Millennials swap between laptops, smartphones, TVs and other devices an average of 27 times per hour. That’s 10 times more than the previous generation. So we grasp technical innovation intuitively, and multitasking comes to us really, really naturally.”
Juggling devices in the corner isn’t the whole story, of course. It will also pay off if you change your attitude to millennials: be open-minded and prepared to learn from them, embrace modern ways of working, make working for you a positive experience. In short, nurture and invest in millennials in your organisation, and reap the rewards. As you build connections, so you will build loyalty. As you engage with their skills and attitudes, so you will fill gaps in your own skill set and understanding. And as you improve your workplace and work systems, so you will be able to seek out new opportunities and gain competitive advantages.
And don’t believe the tabloids. The millennials aren’t out to kill relationships, the car industry, America or marmalade. At least, that’s what they say.
Deeper dive: Millennials – Youthquake or Snowflakes?
Event photos: Joe Lenton Photography