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Misunderstanding millennials: the future of work is a generation game

As most of us do as we reach the final few working days of the year I start to reflect on the year that has been, and what might lay ahead.

I am a sucker for the Christmas period. I love the usual array of sugary sweet Christmas music and Richard Curtis movies which give us an impossibly nostalgic vision of a snowy London Christmas. It all feels quite romantic unless you’re someone who has tried to commute in the recent snow storms that have hit the UK.

On that basis it is perhaps surprising that my favourite Christmas song is rather unconventional. It is “White Wine in the Sun” by the Australian comedian Tim Minchin. In 5 minutes of wit and wonder Minchin combines a sentimentality based around family, with a scepticism around the commercialism so wrapped up in Christmas.

It’s a song that can easily bring a tear to my eye as it is so intertwined with my own experience of my parents living half the world away in Canada, and my young family rarely having the opportunity to see them over the festive period.

Yet it is also a song about having a clear world view – around standing for – and against – something. Around the importance of family; of people from across the generations (and despite their differences) spending time together and enjoying each other’s company. (“I’ll be seeing my dad, my sisters, my brother, my gran and my mum. We’ll be drinking white wine in the Sun”).

Perhaps then, I was already unconsciously thinking about that theme of generations coming together when I recently attended a Supper Club event on “Managing and motivating millennial talent”. As someone with a deep professional interest in the future of the workplace this is a topic I am fascinated by.

While I enjoyed the debate I was somewhat frustrated by the laziness of labels used for ‘millennials’ (a label I’m also sceptical of incidentally…). One of the speakers talked about millennials having a sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations, seeing life through a filter, having fake confidence etc, etc. Themes explored by Simon Sinek recently – sparking some controversy (as an aside I completely agree with him when he talks about the value of “consistency” in building long term relationships).

I am sure that social media has helped to create some of these perceptions but it all feels a bit overblown to me. Some of the most analytical, serious and deep thinkers I know would be classified as millennials.

In fairness one speaker did open by asking whether we recognise millennials’ strengths? i.e. a flexible mindset, entrepreneurial, innovative, ethical, societally aware… Indeed in a VUCA world they have an in-built ability to deal with change. And in this uncertain world of Brexit and Trump; and of an uncertain workplace accelerating the use of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Robotics, they’ll certainly need that resilience.

We all will.

One idea discussed at the event which did stand out was the concept of reverse mentoring. Where a millennial might mentor a senior colleague around a certain topic. I’m a huge fan of mentoring. At their best these relationships are a hugely valuable exchange of knowledge and experience. I think they provide value for both parties – opening up new ways of seeing the world based on someone else’s vastly different view of the world.

I think reverse mentoring may also address some of the misconceptions we may have in the workplace about different generations. And let’s face it with the demographics of people working well into their 70’s and millennials likely to account for 70% of the workforce by 2025 we are going to have to get used to inter-generational working.

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the challenges facing the future of the workplace with so much happening in terms of disruptive technologies and shifts in demographics.

Partly I think it is about resetting people’s expectations of the workplace. The rise of popular psychology has seen an increase in what we might expect from our employer, including being responsible for our own individual happiness. There is a risk that we all expect too much from work.

While employers do have a duty of care to the people who work for them – whether it’s around having great policies and processes to address workplace stress, tackling workplace bullying or harassment, or just making it a great environment to work in, frankly, I’m not sure employers should carry the can for an individual’s happiness. As the celebrated scholar Theodore Zeldin said to me recently when I interviewed him “happiness is an illusion”.

Instead of expecting ‘happiness’ from our employer, perhaps we should simply reflect and enjoy what we have? As Svend Brinkmann referenced in his recent book Stand Firm (which should be required reading for these mythical millennials) most of us are caught up in an “accelerating culture”. Looking ahead at personal development, or career progression. We fail to appreciate what we already have and perhaps, much like our own families, we don’t value it as much as we should.

It is with those reflections that I go into Christmas 2017; grateful for the friends and family in my life, appreciative of the wonderfully diverse colleagues I have here at Lansons, and thankful of course, to the clients who continue to entrust us to deal with some of their biggest challenges.

Merry Christmas!

This article is part of our Winter 2017 newsletter.