Insight article

The real millennial story  

It’s a messy business, the work of intergenerational definition. Almost impossible to do in real-time, the work falls latterly to the older cohort – tasked with setting the parameters that shape the next through the cloudy lens of age. These parameters are increasingly subject to anxious scrutiny from businesses concerned with the needs, wants, moods, skills and yet-unobserved deficits of the future workforce in a world that faces – in the short-term at least – a battle for competent new recruits.

The millennials – the most debated, disputed and denigrated generation to enter the workforce in living memory – will soon be the most dominant presence in the workplace, accounting for a third of all employees by 2020. At the same time, this 1.8 billion-strong demographic will also become our most dominant and voracious global consumers – making them the target market for the majority of the worlds’ increasingly millennial-led enterprises. Together, this is a decisive moment for the way we work, the work we do, and the things we consume. The millennial moment has arrived.

But as one generation gives way to the next – as the rule-breakers become the decision-makers – the anxiety persists, lacing questions of legacy with endemic categoric confusion about just who it is that will be taking up the mantle. Because despite the millennial moment we are now in, despite the presumably now-commonplace presence they exert on the office, markets and society at large, questions persist among politicians, business leaders, managers, marketers, media. Who are the millenials? Are they forty, or twenty? Entrepreneurs or flight risk? Selfless socialist or entitled brats? Woke or lit? Pink or yellow? What do they need? What do they want? How do they think?

By the Pew Research Centre, the line has finally been drawn. Those born in 1981 will be the first millenials. Those born in 1996 will be the last. The new post-millenial cohort – who have never known a world without smart phones, the war on terror, extreme partisan politics, austerity, immigration crises, and everything else that shapes a generation – present the next big headache. And just when we thought we were all getting comfortable with the new status quo.

I’m a millennial. So are many of my colleagues, and my clients. So, probably, are you.

So what do we want?

Spanning nearly two decades, the millennial experience, drivers and values will be as diverse as the life trajectories we’ve known. But there are some things we do all share. Our first, inescapable bond: we’re all post-recession. One way or another, as Pew observes, the credit crisis hit us with a ‘slow start’ – either losing us more developed careers altogether or stalling the ones we’d been promised.

A decade ago this month, my own breed of squarely mid-millenial watched Lehman collapse from the cloistered world of college: bankers in suits on sidewalks, clutching cardboard boxes and dazed faces. We didn’t understand sub-prime mortgages. We had finals. It was a ripple, we thought, in a world very far away from us. When we graduated, it was into an economy with almost zero opportunity. To be paid for work was a luxury that suddenly did not fit the new world order. Those with means could work for free. Many, most, could not. And to be young and unemployed – or young and underused, or young and exploited – is a bad thing for fledgling minds. So yes. We’ve been delayed. Because of this, we’re impatient. Where 62% of our boomer forebears were married with a house by the age of 34, this is true for just 31% of us. We are statistically unsettled, forced to place value on different things in life. We’re reformers, because we’ve had to imagine something better.

And because we’ll be working for a long, long time – to plug the gap between our lengthening lives and our shrinking pension pot – we need our work to be meaningful. Meaningful in the sense that we have a clear and positive impact for our teams, for our clients, and for society. We expect our work to support and align with our values, because we see our work as an extension of ourselves: the place where the majority of our time and experiences will be spent, for most of our lives. We demand authenticity because, after decades of unfettered capitalism, we’re highly attuned to the gap between brand and reality. We need to feel invested in, because work will be our life and our life will need to be enhanced by our work in ways that keep us engaged and productive in an economy where no one can ever afford to stop learning.  We seek purpose because the great myth of money is no longer enough to sate our freer, more restless, more educated and global-minded appetites, in a world full of problems we can no longer afford to ignore. We crave a story to tell ourselves and our peers about who we are and what we do because this is the currency of our times, and we know that no one else is going to make our meaning for us.

So who are the millennials? What do we want? What do we need?

Meaningful work. Positive impact. Opportunities to learn and contribute. A story we’re proud to tell.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be so complicated.

Bex Felton

Senior Strategist and Writer