Viewpoint: Millennials in business families...future leaders of family enterprises?

Photo by StockPhotoAstur/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by StockPhotoAstur/iStock / Getty Images

The millennial generation is, arguably, the most researched generation in history. Hundreds of survey-based studies on millennials from all around the world have inquired about their attitudes and behaviors regarding their lifestyles, relationships and careers.

Millennials undoubtedly have some consistent tendencies, as in their use of social media, but this generation may not be as monolithic as some think. At the Cambridge Institute for Family Enterprise, we have spent several years researching the millennials whose families own businesses.

The immediate context of a person’s life - the family they grow up in, what the family considers important - should shape how millennials see their careers, responsibilities and opportunities. As a subgroup of all millennials, business family millennials certainly face some different opportunities and pressures than millennials in general. Business family millennials, for example, are unlikely to have felt the same set of financial insecurities as other millennials have. Their parents probably haven’t been thrown out of work.

But business family millennials probably still prefer to do some things autonomously and on their own terms. The emergent view of millennials is that they have little commitment or loyalty to institutions and organisations and that they will change jobs frequently to suit their life needs. On the other hand, in research studies, millennials express strong loyalty to their families. Are these attitudes and behaviors also true of millennials in business families?

Next generation members of business families have historically felt pressure—overt or subtle—to not only show commitment to their family and its business, but to work in the family business. Millennials, however, have been raised, more than in previous generations, to determine their own direction in life and make their career decisions based on the life they want to have.

Given the greater latitude in life planning most millennials, in general, are thought to have, how do millennials in business families see their relationship to their families and their families’ business? Are they interested in a career in their family’s business? Do they feel pressure to join or contribute to the family business?

Another theme of this research revolves around how millennials think about their ownership role for their family business. Do millennials welcome this role and its rewards? Does the prospect of ownership wealth increase or decrease their commitment to the family company?

Many family businesses participate in old-style industries, certainly, some distance from digital companies owned and run by famous millennials. And this creates another potential dilemma for millennials and their families. Are millennials in business families attracted to the opportunity of modernizing their families’ companies, or turned off to them?

If millennials in business families been given considerable freedom, how are they going to cope with the expectations and needs of business families and their companies?

Do they see themselves as intrapreneurs who would like to enact change in an existing company or entrepreneurs who would prefer to build something new, perhaps outside the family? And do business families want to give their millennial next generation the opportunity to explore business outside the family business, perhaps with financial support, before they expect them to come back to the family business? As millennials get into their thirties and forties when life in a startup might no longer be as enticing, are they more likely to want to come back and work for the family business?

Millennials, in general, are typically keen to extend their early adult stage, where they explore their interests and delay commitments, well into their late 20s or early thirties. The baby boomers and Generation X, now in control of these businesses, didn’t have this long period of exploration or such a world view. Many of them had to knuckle down in their early to mid-20s. Combined with the financial security or prospective wealth of millennials in business families, how will millennials respond to career and life responsibilities?

Also, these millennials, have grown up in an internationally connected world, often have learnt to speak more than one language, and feel that they are part of an international community. They don’t feel they are limited by geography. How will their attitudes and circumstances affect their life and career choices? And how will this affect their families and their family companies?

All this raises a big question: if millennials in business families been given considerable freedom, how are they going to cope with the expectations and needs of business families and their companies?

Help us find out and better understand the expectations and issues as seen by family business millennials. If you are a millennial in a business family, please take this survey. Or you have millennials in your business family, please ask millennials in your family to take our survey. You will receive the results of this international survey, and you will be preparing for an important conversation within your own family.

Professor John Davis is the founder and chairman of the Cambridge Institute for Family Enterprise, and chair of the families in business program at Harvard Business School

Dr Jeremy Schulz is a visiting scholar in residence at the University of California, Berkeley and a research fellow at the Cambridge Institute of Family Enterprise.