Op-eds

They were right, those millennials

  • RonenAyres
It wasn’t in the quiet bliss that I had this realisation. I was on my couch for the fifth consecutive week, logged into a virtual conference, my phone pinging on my lap, and Netflix humming in the background. And that’s when it hit me: the notion that after all this time, they were right.
by RONEN AYRES | Jul 23, 2020

“They” – the ones that leaders shunned for being too “entitled”, too “lazy”, and far too addicted to technology to be productive. Yes, they. The same “they” that we mocked for their obsession with living in the moment and work-life balance at the start of their careers.

Raised as the “centre of their own universe”, this 2.0 generation was born with different factory settings that admittedly bugged us, but little did we know they were wired differently for the greater good of all “gens” that came before them. We called them “disrupters”. We called them “narcissists”. We called them … the millennials. They were right, you know. About everything.

It was this cohort, born after Knight Rider but before Zoom, that came to us with the answers, long before we realised that we needed any. Flashback to when Simon Sinek said the millennial generation was really only lobbying for “free food and beanbags”. Everyone laughed. I laughed too.

But no one’s laughing now. As convenience junkies, their desire to share, to collaborate, and co-create has transformed into a force of innovation in the way we now live, work, and play. With their emotional settings set on “sensitive”, their drive for connectedness and community intact, millennials were sent to us to remind us how important it is to feel; to feel for others who are marginalised; to feel for the environment; to feel for ourselves.

Essentially, millennials were primed to expect the most out of life. And who primed them? We did. We told them they deserved more, they should stand up for more, they should demand more of this life.

The things we were deprived of growing up became the same things we encouraged this “me” generation to push for, and they did. But they did it their way, by advocating for a more flexible, meaningful, and balanced world in which they could integrate work, family, hobbies, and side hustles … joyfully juggling all of it from their beanbag at home.

But “flexible” was pushing it too far, right? We scorned this because our belief system was pre-set to thinking that being “flexible” was a thing we had to work damn hard to earn, not a right handed to you at the beginning of your career.

Justifiably, they were angry about the world that they had inherited from previous generations, and were unapologetic in their two-tier approach to change, namely: changing the house from within, or burning it down.

They are the torch bearers with a higher purpose of challenging the status quo of the world and our societies, of breaking down our many institutions that remain inefficient, corrupt, and broken.

Millennials are now the emerging leaders in their respective organisations and businesses. For years, millennials have been advocating for companies to “flatten the curve”, long before we were introduced to the term itself.

Chasing growth for growth sake, bloated executive pay, narrowing the gender gap, racial diversity, and breaking down management hierarchies have all been some of the soft targets for millennials to lobby.

They want to live in a more equitable world, where purpose is as important as profit, and where their contribution matters.

COVID-19 has been nature’s way of making space for this upcoming leadership to shine, while sidelining older generations as vulnerable. One would argue that the millennials were ready for this “new normal”, while the rest of us were too attached to the old world, with old ways, resisting the change.

It’s taken a global pandemic to teach us that we were wrong, about what they were right about all along, and now, we need to adapt quickly … or face irrelevance.

Eric Yuan, the chief executive of Zoom, says, “Millennials grew up realising they could get the job done without having to go to the office. Sooner or later, this is going to be normal, because the world doesn’t belong to us anymore.”

It belongs to them. Yes, them. The millennials, and the centennials (Gen Z), the latter already proving to be the 3.0 version of their predecessors. If you notice the things that come naturally to these younger generations, it’s clear that their particular “settings” are what’s required to thrive in this chaotic world.

But no matter which of the younger ones land up shaping the future, we must recognise that millennials were our agents of change. They are ours to learn from, ours to engage with, ours to follow – and really, ours to thank.

Because, say it with me: they were right.

Incidentally, the global beanbag market was valued at $3.3 billion (R55 billion) in 2018, and is anticipated to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 4% in 2020. #Justsaying

  • Ronen Aires is the founder and chief executive of Student Village, is a thought leading pioneer of Afrillennials, and a long time scholar of the generation gap. He has spent more than two decades understanding and researching generational behaviour and statistics.

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