You Have To Know How Millennials Think To Get The Best Out Of Them


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Millennials are taking over the workplace. In some areas, like tech startups, they already dominate and frequently manage older colleagues.Businesses that want to stay competitive and be as dynamic as those startups need to learn how this generation thinks in order to know how to manage them. 

We spoke to Dr. Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist who has taught at the University of Cambridge, MIT, and the Harvard Business School, and is the author of the upcoming “Culturematic,” about millennial identity, their attitudes towards work, and how businesses can get the most out of their younger workers.

One of the principal trends he sees, citing his own research and that of Larissa Faw, is that millennials identify themselves as “hustlers.” They have several different identities and, as McCracken puts it, “have several games going and move from game to game to game, being opportunistic seizing whatever is best, whatever is hottest at the moment.”

What ends up happening in the workplace is that millennials repress their other identities, assume a persona for the sake of work, and hide all of the complexity they have when they’re at home, which is a loss for them and for their employer.

“I argue that the corporation would be extraordinarily well-served by welcoming all of the selves of the millennial,” McCracken said, “because in fact those many selves are all opportunities for the corporation to be in touch with stuff that’s happening out there in the world that it badly needs to know about.”

When employers put millennials into narrowly-defined roles, they lose some of the best attributes of the generation, an opportunity to engage them better, and a chance to get important knowledge. 

Employers also need to realise the extent to which millennials have been affected by entering the workforce during the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Rather than focusing their all on one career or one skill set, they keep options open, work on multiple things at a time, and experiment with their early careers.

“[It’s] completely pragmatic and driven by this understanding that you don’t want to put all of your eggs in any one professional basket,” McCracken said. “Because, well, who knows how long this corporation will be around or how long your present profession will be around. It’s almost the only sensible response to the sheer dynamism of the world and the disruption in the world and the black swans that keep transforming the world.”

They’ve seen jobs get outsourced, entire professions disappear, and giant companies go down. The best way employers can respond is by making the effort to train millennials, to give them different options and novel experiences, rather than expecting or hoping that they’ll be happy doing the same thing for a long period. Previous generations may have been content to stick firmly to one role they’re given early in their careers, but millennials have learned from their environment that that’s, as Dr. McCracken puts it, “a pretty bad career strategy.”

The easiest way to mismanage millennials is by treating them just like employees of the Baby Boomer generation. They have different expectations and different needs. Employers who give them options, let them experiment, and acknowledge their complexity will see much better results. 

Read more on the Future of Business