The debate was chaired by Dr Michael Mol, with Mr Adriaan Adams of Generation Index, Dr Judy Smith-Höhn of Brand SA and Ms Mamolewa Maponya from Africa Matters. Mol posed the question: “What can we expect from Millennials? What can we learn from them and how can we position our businesses in order for them to thrive?” They are changing the way we work and it may be better. They have an entitlement attitude and we wonder why they receive so much attention and criticism.
Adams replied that the present focus on Millennials in the workplace is because of what they bring to the table. They disrupt our norms when they step into our space, making us aware of the many differences between us. Taking population numbers and the Baby Boomer generation globally, if we apply a number value, for instance 100, to represent them, then Generation X would cause the number to reduce to between 40 and 50, as they are a very small generation. When they stepped into the work environment they had to adapt or die, even though they did not necessarily agree with all that had gone before. When Millennials arrived, the number rose significantly to between 120 and 140 as they are by population, a far larger generation. For this reason, when they stepped into the work environment, they had great impact. Their message to the Baby Boomers was to adapt or die! Generation X, on the other hand, didn’t entirely disagree with everything the Millennials were doing, so tended side with them because they brought change. Much of the criticism for Millennials stems from those who experienced this change as a negative.
Mol asked Maponya, the only Millennial on the panel, to discuss that change. “We understand the negative connotations and the bad press Millennials get, but what are they bringing to the workplace,” he asked?
Maponya replied that we often overlook the root cause of a situation; we presume anything unfamiliar cannot be normal, such as Millennials acting the way they do. She and her peers have a good sense of entrepreneurship, are innovative and not afraid to take risks in terms of their wealth management. As long as they are happy, nothing can affect their flow. People find it strange for Millennials to be happy if they are not making money or progressing in their careers? There are too many social constraints to be constantly worrying about what bosses, parents or friends are thinking, so instead decide that if they are happy, they will be fine.
Mol remarked, “So that is what Millennials are thinking! My time, my pace and if you are not happy with that I will get another job.” He said it sounded very entitled to his generation, but that he loved their confidence. He then asked Smith-Höhn what we could learn from Millennials?
Smith-Höhn replied that they can teach us a lot about new technologies. They are far more tech-savvy. She mentioned that before the debate, the panel had discussed entitlement. Maponya had remarked that there is a great distinction between youth difference and generational difference. “People believe it is so much easier for the youth these days,” said Smith-Höhn, “But in fact, it is not.” Despite technological advances which appear to simplify their lives, these come with their own complexities, so we should cut Millennials some slack. Mol agreed that our worldview is impacted by our generational perspective and that because the world experience of each generation is different, giving rise to the generational divide. He asked Smith-Höhn for her views on the gender divide.
Smith-Höhn explained that Brand SA had done some work on this subject. The gender divide is a generalised but complex subject, as we are such a complex nation. Brand SA also did a study called ‘Exploring Generation Y’ and discovered a number of differences, not so much around gender as racial divides and LSM. The latter two caused the greatest divide between the perceptions of the various population groups.
Maponya remarked that our country is unique, possessing vast diversity; so many different cultural backgrounds, languages, races. Yet we are shy to speak interracially about our differences. We should start breaking barriers. National and Millennial insecurities must be confronted.
Mol asked Maponya if she would feel closer to a white Millennial than to a black Baby Boomer. She replied that she would, as they are facing the same challenges, so it is not actually about race. While at school she did not consider her skin colour, but when seeking a job she was constantly reminded of it by her family and black friends as well as those of her white peers.
To the panel as a whole, Mol asked what they thought they could teach Millennials. Adams said it is not what Millennials can learn from other generations but what other generations can learn from them. We must find a way to tackle issues together, because we look at problems from different perspectives, so we should produce a better solution.
Brand SA carries out an annual survey to gauge the perceptions of South Africans regarding the country, themselves, each other and where they think the country is going. These are broken down into multiple demographics and the findings showed that South Africa’s Millennials conform to those in the rest of the world. They look for satisfaction and meaning in their jobs, not recognition or remuneration.
Mol asked for suggestions from the panel on ways to overcome differences and work successfully with Millennials. Adams responded that the generations need to sit together and discuss the real issues they face. Each generation has a different worldview which determines their beliefs and behaviour.
The silent generation came out of the war years, was very frugal and demanded respect. Mol remarked that Generation X has no respect for anything. He asked how Millennials see respect, and whether we must earn it or is it naturally given? Maponya said that if Millennials receive respect they will naturally give it, but will not tolerate disingenuousness. They will give the same as they receive, to the point of leaving a job to find another where they will be respected.
In conclusion, Mol asked each panellist for a short message to the audience. Smith-Höhn said South Africa’s Millennials are a power generation; that we can learn empowerment from them, not entitlement. They have tackled the challenges of our country with zeal and fervour. Adam’s message was directed to Millennials as well as Generation Z: young people require coaches, not bosses. Maponya felt that Millennials were unfairly judged as having questionable loyalty, were entitled, unsociable and lazy. The Baby Boomers knew if they worked hard for a company for 40 years they would have a great pension package, whereas Millennials have to provide their own future package. Companies need to offer more of the intangibles if they want loyalty from young people.