Viewpoint: John A Davis on Millennials

Image from iStock
Image from iStock

The Millennial generation, aged 14-30, is the most studied generation ever. There is an avalanche of studies about them.

Half of them are in the workforce, and through surveys and interviews we are learning quite a lot about their attitudes towards work and careers, work-life balance, organizations, and leadership.

Of course, no generation is perfectly homogeneous and we have to be careful about broad generalizations, but this one is remarkably consistent in attitudes and behaviours. And, without a doubt, Millennials are very different than the generations preceding them – Boomers and Gen X.

That matters because one thing that keeps parents in business families awake at night, and always will, is their worries about the next generation. So what should the older generations in business families know about Millennials?

First, Millennials’ attitudes and aspirations have been shaped by the ever-present force of technology and social media in their lives. Even Gen X had to adjust to these factors, although their adjustment pales in comparison to us Boomers. Because Millennials the world over have this and other formative experiences, they tend to share values and approaches to issues.

Millennials have not only a comfortable aptitude for technology, but also a belief in it. If you present them with a problem, whether it is a societal one or an organisational one, they lean towards technology for the solution.

We all lean towards what we know when we search for solutions. It’s good that Millennials are comfortable with technology as a tool, but no tool is “the” answer to all issues and shouldn’t become a reflexive solution, just one tool in a broader toolbox. They will hopefully see this with time.

The downside of Millennials’ comfort with and reflexive use of technology and social media is that they tend to be backward when it comes to verbal communication, to the point that they avoid direct verbal communication and sometimes lack certain kinds of polite behaviour.

The iconic photo of teenage girls sitting next to each other, texting one another instead of conversing, is no exaggeration. And the shorthand and informality of social media seems to have infected the language Millennials use in organizations, even referring to colleagues and managers as “you guys”. It’s so unsettling that some companies are introducing communication and politeness courses for young employees.

The “you guys” informally seems to also reflect Millennials’ desire to be treated as peers, regardless of their experience. If you ask people of different ages about the qualities of a good leader, boomers and Xers put judgment, analytical abilities and experience at the top of the list; Millennials say: “A person who listens to me.” Baby Boomers never dreamed that their boss might listen to them at the age of 24. But Millennials want to be included in discussions and decisions.

And they expect to be advanced more quickly in organizations than have other generations. Their objectives in a job are to learn and keep growing. When they aren’t learning enough or advanced quickly enough, Millennials often leave their company and move to another organization that they hope will develop them and appreciate them more. Millennials, surveys show, have very little organizational loyalty.

Which is not surprising. Millennials grew up in a very uncertain world where they saw downsizing (sometimes involving their parents) and deep recession, things that indicate to them that you really can’t trust companies and society to take care of you.

Perhaps for this reason they are deeply concerned with their own development and enamoured of entrepreneurship as a career. Where Boomers built their life around their career, and Xers have tried to balance work and personal life, Millennials aim to build their career around their life. The problem will come when employers ask themselves how much they want to invest in somebody who is going to leave as soon as they decide they don’t like their job.

The Millennials that my colleague Jeremy Schulz of UC Berkeley and I have studied from business families are, by and large, not very interested in going into the family business.

On the other hand, Millennials tend to be very family-oriented – perhaps because they often rely on their parents financially for longer than previous generations did. So the Millennial attitude about joining the family business could change with age, as it often does. But Millennials could also reshape their family’s business to be more entrepreneurial and Millennial-friendly.

So far, we hear Millennials talk about exploring their options and the world, which is a good – age appropriate – thing. They often talk of being part of an entrepreneurial venture, which I also applaud. We need a lot of entrepreneurial attitudes and energy in the business world.

And business families also need entrepreneurs in their family business or to diversify their business activities. Maybe this new generation, which will soon be the majority of the workforce, will change how we run our companies and treat our employees. Maybe the Millennials in business families will broaden the way we think of the family business – making it more entrepreneurial, diversified, and flexible.

All generations offer new paths and pose new challenges for families and family companies. To some extent, families and companies adapt to the new generation’s attitudes and aspirations, and to some extent the new generation adapts to the way we do things. We are watching closely to see how things unfold.

John A. Davis is a professor at Harvard Business School and also Founder and Chairman of Cambridge Family Enterprise Group, an advisory and education organization for enterprising families with family companies, family offices and family philanthropic foundations