July 2017

If you spend too much time reading the newspapers you will probably conclude that millennials (or Generation Y, or Generation Me) are not made of the same sort of superior stuff as their predecessors

Of course, if you are spending too much time reading the newspapers then you probably aren’t a millennial yourself, this not being the sort of thing that millennials apparently do. As digital natives, millennials would rather eat their sushi off their iPads than their fish and chips out of newspapers, while bemoaning the fact that they can’t afford to buy their own homes. Apparently, it’s not just non-millennials who have a dim view of millennials: millennials have a dim view of themselves, with a sense of unsatisfied entitlement shaken but not stirred by a dash of narcissism in a cocktail glass that is more likely to seem half empty than half full. 

According to research conducted by the Brookings Institution, organisations in financial services should worry more than most as millennials, apparently, are less likely to want to work on Wall Street and in the City than earlier generations. But there are always problems with stereotyping, particularly when it is used to inform resourcing and policy-making decisions.

Doing things differently

Of course, the millennial generation is different from the last, but the changing nature of the generations is hardly new, even if it was not after William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1991 book Generations that the notion began to be the subject of hypotheses and frameworks. And the idea that the younger generation troubles and worries its predecessor is hardly novel either. That the next lot want to do things differently from the last lot is just part of growing up. 

Besides, there are some elements of the millennial stereotype that might do the financial services industry some good. A determination to restore some sense to the work/life balance might provide a useful corrective to those who think that a transaction only counts if it’s concluded at three in the morning; and a wish to measure and reward performance in more than bonus cheques is surely a healthy antidote to an obsession in business, government and academia with the easily measurable.

I suggest that millennials, who are more likely to be impressed by CSR than their elders, are less likely to assert that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it, or to be tyrannised by the bottom line. Millennials, we are told, are also more easily distracted and more likely to be found multi-tasking rather than focusing; but surely these can be good qualities in employees in fast-changing, unpredictable workplaces, permanently connected in real time with the rest of the world. More interesting, young professionals who exhibit a dose of self-obsession and a reluctance to toe the line will be perhaps less likely to fall foul of the group think that has only too often poisoned professional judgement over the last couple of decades. Andersen and Enron would have benefited if they had recruited a few more grumpy individuals who said no rather than yes.

Stubbornly individual

It is also important to look beyond the stereotype. Not everyone wants to work in financial services, thank heavens. Perhaps those who do are more likely to fall outside this particular stereotype than their peers; if they do that will make them no different from their predecessors – it was the minority who wanted to wear bowler hats after all. Furthermore, scrape away the stereotype and we will see elements in today’s workforce that are very different to – well – stereotypes.

Few, if any, of those who bemoan Generation Y note that this generation is likely to include many more women than its predecessors; if you glance around an LBS lecture theatre or an internal training programme for first year professional trainees you will see many other types of diversity – ethnic, national, socio-economic – than would have been seen in lecture theatres and meeting rooms even ten years ago. The groups that we admit and recruit are much less easy to stereotype than the groups we ourselves joined. Perhaps the problem with many of those who grumble about millennials is that they think millennials are not stereotypical enough. Now that’s a ‘problem’ that we should celebrate.

Rupert Merson is the grandson, son, father, husband and brother of people in the financial services industry. He teaches strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School (LBS).

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