by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.
The clichés about Millennials are widespread, and often baseless.
But suppose they’re more than just clichés?
One of the great things about being a conference speaker is that I get to learn things from amazing people, both on stage and off. Along the way, I’ve been able to listen to a number of knowledgeable speakers on the subject of what Millennials are like, and how organizations can get the best from them. Much of this was funny, but all of it was thought-provoking.
Then, recently, I wondered how Millennials would make out in tomorrow’s world, and once I started putting together all the things I’ve heard and read about this crucial generation, the more I decided that it’s almost as if they have been designed to own the future. (Or, if you wish, to pwn the future.) That’s probably not accidental, but let’s start to look at the ways in which the Millennials fit with tomorrow’s world by considering what that world will be like, and then comparing that to the characteristics attributed to Millenials to see how they match up.
In doing so, I’m going to be making some generalizations about the entire Millennial generation (born roughly from 1980 to 2000). Such generalizations can be lazy thinking, as well as misleading, because they imply that people who are widely different from each other are nevertheless all similar simply because they were born within a certain time period.
Yet, there are cultural and environmental characteristics such people share because of the world they experienced while they were growing up, the events that took place when they were children, and the technologies they had available to them that earlier generations did not. It is these cultural similarities that give Millennials the tendencies I’m going to discuss, not some kind of voodoo mind-control, or something in the water that causes disparate people to be the same. It’s these cultural and environmental factors that give me comfort about making such generalizations.
Of course, Millennials are all individuals, which means some have greater strengths in some areas than others, and not all will have all of these characteristics. It’s the overall readiness of this generation to take advantage of the future that I want to explore.
With that in mind, here are some of the things I think the future will throw at us – and how the Millennials are prepared for them:
The Characteristics of Tomorrow’s World
If you think about what the future will be like, you can fairly quickly come up with a list that probably encompasses much of what we are likely to experience. And as you do that, you quickly realize that the Millennials seem to have qualities that will allow them to adapt to the future better than any previous generation.
So, let me list some of the characteristics of the future that I perceive, and then explore how Millennials are prepared to deal with them:
Less security, more opportunity – Job security has largely evaporated, even among civil servants. Meanwhile, IT, high tech generally, and especially the Internet, have created a world where someone with a great idea can quickly create an enormously successful company, and where failure isn’t viewed so much as a bad thing as a learning experience.
Any account of Millennials, good or bad, says that they are less likely to be loyal to an employer, in part because they’ve witnessed how such loyalty has been rewarded when their parents or grandparents have been downsized, outplaced, or made redundant. As a result, Millennials are more likely to be entrepreneurial, and self-starting rather than being motivated from above. And while this can be frustrating for a supervisor, particularly a Boomer manager, it also means that Millennials will work feverishly if they feel there’s a good reason to do so.
As Time magazine recently pointed out,
“Gary Stiteler, who has been an Army recruiter for about 15 years, is otherwise more impressed with millennials than any other group he’s worked with. ‘The generation that we enlisted when I first started recruiting was sort of do, do, do. This generation is think, think about it before you do it,’ he says. ‘This generation is three to four steps ahead. They’re coming in saying, ‘I want to do this, then when I’m done with this, I want to do this.’”
In a future where job security is either rapidly disappearing, but where there’s more opportunity for independently-minded people, the Millennials fit right in.
Less structure, more uncertainty – With employment less certain, with technology changing all the rules, and with the geopolitical balance of the world shifting, what used to be the rules of how the world worked are changing rapidly. As a result, there is less structure in the world – and that means the ability to adapt and change will be a strong plus.
Millennials are often criticized for a “Whatever!” attitude, but another way of looking at this is that they are unfazed by change. They are more creative than their parents, and more willing to dive in and experiment with new things. This is partly due to the examples they have had before them from Silicon Valley, where “Fail fast!” is a slogan, and partly because of the accelerating barrage of new technologies that they have encountered as they grew up.
The net result is that Millennials are better able to cope with the less structured future than earlier generations.
The emergence of AI and smart computers, the rise of automation – Whereas Boomers, with their life-long fixation on security, have problems with all the changes being wrought by technology, the Millennials have experienced nothing but constant change in technology. As a result, they aren’t threatened by the rise of smart computers, they’re eager to embrace it.
And, as AI spreads (rapidly) through the economy, organizations are finding that getting people to work with smart computers rather than merely replacing people with automation produces better results. Computers, even those with wizard AI, are fundamentally stupid. And Millennials, with their comfort with technology and computers, are faster to embrace, explore, and adapt smart computers and AI to a wide range of problems, especially unexpected ones, with the result that they can lead organizations into the smart adoption of smart machines faster than their elders.
The rise of the global economy and a global community – The global economy has been emerging for decades, but the trend has been accelerating in the past 20 years (always assuming that the Trump administration doesn’t completely wreck it). Meanwhile, the explosion in communications, especially through social media and the Internet, has led to a much greater awareness of other peoples, cultures, and ways of life.
Earlier generations, who were largely raised in monocultures with occasional sprinklings of people of other backgrounds, races, or religions, and virtually no (accepted) variations in sexual orientation or expression, typically feel threatened by this more wide-open world. As a result, they tend to resist multiculturalism, non-binary sexual expression, and different foods and cultures, despite the growing awareness that diversity of workforce produces diversity in ideas, and hence leads to a more creative, and more profitable organization.
Millennials are often derided because they all got participation medals at competitive events, “winning by showing up,” as it’s sometimes described. But when you combine this with the focus on working in teams that Millennials experienced in school, you get a generation that is largely accepting of diversity, and sees it as a natural, and good, thing. As a result, they are willing to work, cooperate, and learn from people who are different from them. This produces a more harmonious workplace, and helps them splash through subjects that are new to them. They learn faster, and work better with others. And in a steadily more diverse world, that is a real advantage.
Financial and economic disparity (the rise of the 1%) – While it would be foolish to say that Millennials are uninterested in money or things, they assign them a lower priority than earlier generations, especially Boomers, for whom ownership equates to status.
Millennials tend to value experiences more than the ownership of things, and they are less motivated by wages or salary than they are the experience of working, good or bad. They work for fulfillment more than money, and want their work to mean something, to make a difference in the world. This will become increasingly important as time goes on, and as they move up into ever-higher positions of authority.
As I said earlier, the Boomers equate things (and money) with status, and the richest people in the economy are virtually all Boomers – and like it that way. But economists have long known that concentrating wealth in a few hands leads to social unrest, and eventually revolution. So, I believe that the Millennials’ acceptance of others, the lower priority they assign material goods, and their interest in social activism will all lead to a greater willingness to work against the concentration of wealth, and towards greater fairness in the way social and economic structures are arranged.
As a result, unlike the Boomers, Millennials want a fairer world more than they want to be the one who dies with the most toys.
The rising threat of climate change – Boomers generally grew up with a static world view. The world was as it was, and while there were always extreme weather events, they didn’t really mean anything. Things would always be the way they were when we were kids. Anything else was highfalutin nonsense.
Millennials grew up in a world where climate change was always part of the discussion. They don’t have to be dragged into an awareness that climate is changing – it’s obvious to them. As a result, as they gain more economic and political power, they are more likely to move the world towards sustainability. They won’t have to be convinced of its importance – they already believe it. And their social activism means that they will make choices that support sustainability, on an individual basis, for the organizations for which they work, and for the world as a whole.
They make me optimistic about humanity’s ability to respond constructively to the threats and challenges of climate change.
The re-emergence of autocrats and authoritarians – Partly because of the widening gap between haves and have-nots, and the less secure nature of the workforce, voters have become easy marks for plutocrat populists who promise easy solutions to complicated problems, and say that they are fighting for the “little guy.”
As a result, we have seen populists arise in many nations around the world. And history teaches us that while populists start by promising free goodies and quick fixes, they end up as autocrats who erode personal freedom, and threaten liberty and personal security, all for their own personal aggrandizement.
But Millennials value authenticity over authority. This can make them easy to dupe at first, as populists come across as more authentic, apparently willing to speak unpleasant truths, and smash the icons of the elites.
Yet, because they value authenticity over authority, they are not impressed by authority, nor are they cowed by it.
In the workplace, this can come across as insubordination: “You’ll do it my way because I’m the boss!”
“Yeah, but why do it that way, when my way just works better?”
In the long run, when autocrats stop seeming authentic, and start to show their imperiousness, Millennials are better equipped to call them on their bullshit, and resist. Even better, they have both the inclination, and the social media smarts, to create a movement to oppose autocrats.
For example, while they are on the lower edge of the Millennial generation (they’re actually on the cusp between Millennial & GenZ), the high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, had no hesitation in starting a national social movement to oppose the NRA over gun control. And they have shown that they are far better communicators, and much better at PR, than the much better funded, but largely Boomer-driven, National Rifle Association.
Fragmented media, fragmented society – When the Boomers were children, there were a small number of media outlets conveying news. As a result, everyone started with more or less the same perception of what was happening in the world, and what it meant.
That’s no longer the case, as the Internet allows people to live in their own echo chamber, seeing and hearing only opinions that reinforce their own, and ignoring facts and viewpoints that contradict them. This is dangerous, because it eats away at the cohesiveness that society needs so that we can act together. The growing chasm between Republicans and Democrats in America is a textbook case of how this can happen. But, as Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Millennials counter this in many different ways. They consume media differently, jumping from MySpace, to Facebook, to Snapchat, to Instagram, to WeChat, to whatever else is new and useful. They share items quickly and across the world. And they are open to different viewpoints in a way that earlier generations were not.
Does this guarantee that the growing fragmentation of society will be healed? Probably not, but it does mean that Millennials will deal with it more constructively than Boomers have.
Longer lives, delayed retirement – Millennials are sometimes described as being overage teenagers because many of them live with their parents, haven’t got solid careers, and haven’t started families by the time they’re in their 30s. Most of the reasons for this are economic and financial: they have had fewer job opportunities, are saddled with more student debt, are faced with more expensive housing markets, and hence don’t have the financial ability to move out and enter into the family formation stages of their lives.
But Millennials are making this transition, and successfully, partly with help from their parents, And, ironically, increased life expectancy means that starting work later may not be all that much of a disadvantage. They may well need to work into their 70s (as many Boomers are already doing), but they may also live well into their 100s, so that’s not such a bad idea, anyway.
The emergence of more assertive minorities, including pan-sexual groups – In a global society, minorities are less and less willing to “sit at the back of the bus”. Earlier generations have seen minorities struggle for equal treatment, often over the objections of the white majority.
Millennials don’t seem to have that hang-up. They’ve grown up in a much more aware environment, have been exposed to many more races, colors, creeds, sexual orientations, and cultures. They are much more inclined to be egalitarian – and to stand up and fight for those who are oppressed, put down, or disadvantaged. This will eventually lead to a more harmonious society, reducing the edginess and acrimony of the conflict between a majority and minorities.
Does all this mean that the Millennials will lead us to nirvana? Obviously not. They have faults, they are human, and they will make mistakes.
But if you look at what the future is likely to be like, Millennials are much better equipped to take advantage of that future than any of the generations before them.
Tom Brokaw, former national anchor for NBC News, a national news icon, and author of the best-selling book, The Greatest Generation, which was about the generation that lived through the Great Depression and World War II, likes the Millennials. He calls them the Wary Generation, and says about them that “Their great mantra has been: Challenge convention. Find new and better ways of doing things. … that ethos transcends the wonky people who are inventing new apps and embraces the whole economy”.
I think the Millennials will pwn the future. It’s almost as if it were designed for them – or they for it.
© Copyright, IF Research, June 2018.
“Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation”, Timemagazine, May 9, 2013, Time website, http://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/
I wrote about this in Who Owns Tomorrow?, a book published in 2003. There I said, “…customized media will further fragment society. We will have less and less in common intellectually or emotionally when the media we experience are tailored to our individual interests…We will no longer be neighbours in a more fundamental sense, and politics and human relations will suffer as a result.” P.86.