At this stage of my working life it’s time to acknowledge that I am not a particularly socially observant person. If I had recognised this earlier perhaps I should have used it to answer the interview question: “Tell me about your weaknesses”. Since I have
always worked in the creative aspects of the digital IT marketing space, the struggle for women’s equality and Gay rights pretty much passed me by. From my first job out of university as a rookie IT consultant with Arthur Andersen (now Accenture) powerful women were just part of my working life. I appreciate or resent women in the workplace as much as I do a man whether they are straight or Gay and, honestly, I can rarely tell the difference.
For example, Gretchen if your reading this I’m still pissed off with you when three weeks out of college you made me stay up all night at that Chicago training centre trying to spot the mistake in my brilliant COBOL computer code when it was a simple spelling error (I was using ‘centre’ the English way rather than the American one) that prevented that code from compiling. You should have told me! As for understanding prejudice against homosexuals, it just never occurred to me to think this was a big issue until I worked on two corporate magazines called TEMPUS and Managing Today in 1990s. Outside the Islington flat of the brilliant Gay contracted editor there was a colourful striped flag hanging which to my shame for the first six months I thought was that of Jamaica, until I asked him about its significance. In short, I work in markets which are always judging outputs and performance and accepting of equality, new ideas and change. So am I. (There you go; this was the answer I should have given to the “What are your strengths?” interview question).
With this in mind, the first thing to say about the impact of the millennials on modern working life is that you don’t have to be socially observant to notice them. Their workplace behaviour is jarring to the ordered mind. It’s interesting to me that if you research the effect of millennials on the workplace one of the things that seems to come up in their favour is that they are ‘sharers’ and want to be ‘included early on in projects’ by being ‘engaged’. In my experience this is most definitely true.
The millennials I’ve worked with in a variety of organisations want to be engaged but on their terms. They want to be themselves and be respected for who they are without having to give too much up in terms of conforming to what might be conventional office norms. I run digital strategy workshops and have a gentle policy of sterilising the workshop environment of clothes, phones and bags that may interfere with people movement if participants have to get up to do some white boarding. At one recent workshop a millennial brought in a huge tub of smelly soup and a baguette (with the accompanying baggage of utensils and paper bags) from Pret. He fully intended to munch his lunch as I kicked things off. When questioned about this he simply stated that this was “just what he did” and that "he was hungry.” This is the first characteristic in a nutshell that strikes you about millennials: the ‘I need to be me and I need to be satisfied’ thingy.
If you have read this far, then you are likely not a millennial as in my experience most millennials have trouble reading anything of value over 500 words. That’s why all blog based start-ups with them in mind have snippets of information rather than articles of informative substance. The creators of millennial content know their audience since they also increasingly note how long it takes to read a written piece (almost always less than a minute). In fact, a recent press report stated that university professors in the UK say that millennial students can’t cope with reading a book cover to cover.
At his point as a non-millennial you will expect me to mention the amount of time that millennials spend with their face in a screen. Since I’m a digital warrior, it would be hypocritical if this bothered me except with millennials it seems to have the consequential effect that it can hamper real life human communications in a commercial environment. Particularly if there is a chance of them being rejected in some way. Perhaps today’s businesses need to follow the lead of US and UK universities where I’m told it is now common to have ‘safe zones’ where people are neither rejected nor challenged.
More seriously, fear of even mild rejection has commercial consequences. I recently helped organise the Exhibition stand at a conference in the US where one of the devious plans I hatched to drive traffic to our stand was to hand out the superb leaflet that I devised promoting my clients ideas to the hundreds of people waiting to get through security and into the adjoining conference. Exhibition marketing 101, except getting millennial help with this was near impossible. The immortal words of one response to my request still rings in my ears: “They won’t be interested! They may throw them back at me!” Which of course begs the question; if you think this why did you bother getting on the plane and flying over with us to staff the exhibition stand in the first place? This was not an exercise in virtual reality!
Many of my peers describe millennials as self-centred, self-absorbed, self-obsessed. Is this right? As a self-confessed not very socially observant person what I do know other than thinking that generalising is very dangerous and that any one of these terms does it for me. Today’s UK millennials face increasing competition for jobs in the workplace from millennials in other countries and from innovative automation. There has never been a time when understanding where you fit in as an individual and can ADD VALUE is more important to making a commercial living. It may be as one of my colleagues said when assessing the historical value of millennials: “We’ll only find out their real value when we're hit by the next really big financial crisis or when the next war comes along.” On reflection, how a generation responds to crises has been the benchmark for evaluating their true value since the ‘Greatest Generation’ defeated fascism in WWII. The historical mark of that Generation in facing down an existential threat is assured and they didn’t even have the benefit of recording it all in Selfies! So watch this space. Hope lives eternal.