The Millennial generation is set to be the most analysed, observed and scrutinised demographic in history. Analysts cannot seem to decide whether Millennials are narcissistic, fickle and lazy, or whether they want to transform the world order and save the planet.

A case can be made for them being all of the above. And they are pondering their future, their next job, their student debt, their shared accommodations and their budget travel plans while swiping on Tinder, tweeting their opinions and skimming the day’s headlines… all before getting out of bed in the morning. If analysts want to figure out this generation, they must learn to keep up first.

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Also known as Generation Y – those born roughly between 1980 and 2000, or the first generation to come of age in the new millennium – Millennials currently comprise 40% of the global workforce, and this figure is set to rise to 75% by 2025. The last generation of the 20th century and the first to be 'digital native', this demographic embodies a sea-change in consumer behaviour and decision making. Millennials are often riddled with debt, pushing them to seek innovative alternatives to traditional living.

Different priorities

Enter the shared economy. Millennials are increasingly turning to services enabling access to cars, houses and other products without the cost of ownership. According to research by Goldman Sachs, owning a house is not a priority for 60% of Millennials and owning a car is considered “extremely important” for only 15%. More than half of people in the US aged 18 to 34 have used sharing services such as ride apps Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, and property-sharing site AirBnB. Economist Jeremy Rifkin predicts that “25 years from now, car sharing will be the norm, and car ownership an anomaly.”  

Millennials and their world view have been shaped by rapid globalisation, social connectivity and instant access to information. These shape the way they work, their goals and their consumer habits – with a knock-on effect of influencing older generations. What this means is a transformation in the way everyone works and spends, forcing companies to fundamentally change the way they do business – or get left behind.

“It’s extremely important to do well, but also by doing good,” says Brian Pallas, 28-year-old chief executive and founder of the Opportunity Network, a service connecting investors with budding companies around the world. “You’re moving into a paradigm where you’re trying to do things in a way that supports economic growth, prosperity, education – essentially, better integration between doing good and doing well.”

Sense of purpose

Surveys show that an increasing priority for young people in the workplace is a sense of purpose. A company's mission is thus fundamental in attracting future talent. According to Deloitte’s 2015 Millennial survey, 77% of participants said they choose to work where they do in large part because of the company’s sense of purpose.

The survey’s findings revealed that Millennials think business needs a “reset” and needs to focus on “advancement and wellbeing of society” in addition to profits. Furthermore, the survey found large multinational businesses “have less appeal for Millennials in developed markets (35%) compared to emerging markets (51%)”.

“Consistency in your mission is critical in the way new businesses are being structured. It’s rare now to see a company without a page explaining how they are improving the world,” says Mr Pallas. Without this, he adds, companies will lose out. “Not only are you getting far less market share by ignoring Millennials, your market share would shrink over time as they become the leading work generation within society.”    

Steve El-Hage, the 26-year-old founder and chief executive of Massdrop, a San Francisco-based online community for product enthusiasts, agrees – and expects the same dedication from his employees. “Strongly believing in our vision and what we’re building is one of the most important criteria we use when hiring. We’re looking for people who want to have an impact, and are not just looking to clock in and clock out,” he says.  

New experiences

Of Millennials with the highest education and professional focus levels, half say they will be looking for a new job within the next year and 90% plan to leave their current employer in the next three years, according to Forbes magazine. But this is driven primarily by the desire for new experiences and faster career advancement than by way of the traditional corporate ladder. Surveys also reveal that seven in 10 Millennials ultimately aim to work for themselves.

For employers, however, this frequent movement means losing valuable time and resources, as well as productivity, knowledge and leadership potential. As a result, many large companies are now cutting out middle management, according to Matt Glazer, executive director at the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce in Austin, Texas. “We’re working with development groups such as Skillpoint Alliance and the city chamber of commerce to provide that training you’d normally get at the big companies. There’s a big opportunity for city chambers to dig into that now,” he says.

“While older generations adapt to the workplace, Millennials expect the workplace to be adapted to them,” wrote a 2015 study by global commercial real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield. Eighty-eight per cent of Millennials want to be “constantly learning” and 95% claim to work harder when they understand their contribution to their company’s mission, the report found. Therefore, to remain competitive in the battle for talent, managers can provide an open and flexible work environment that allows movement between different areas of the workplace, as well as opportunity for increased responsibility. 

Mr El-Hage leads his team accordingly. “It’s particularly important to me that we provide as much context as possible for our employees at every opportunity. Letting people know exactly how their work fits into the broader company mission, goals, plans and performance is exceptionally motivational,” he says.

The new consumer

Estimates put Millennials’ global spending power at $2450bn in 2015, and according to a study by business magazine Forbes and Generation Y news site Elite Daily, 87% of Millennials use two to three tech devices daily. Companies not actively engaged with their customers on social media therefore face losing out big time. And now with the ability to peer review products online, quality and reputation are increasingly important.

“As internet usage increases, more and more companies are performing worse with respect to brand credibility and market penetration,” says Mr El-Hage. “Companies that used to drive sales by optimising shelf positioning in physical retail spaces or by purchasing TV ads are now having a much harder time because a simple internet search lets consumers know the pros and cons of that product. Online, consumers post reviews and share opinions, helping buyers make better and more educated decisions.”

But challenges remain in providing the same scope of technological opportunities for Millennials in the developing world and they cannot be ignored: Asia will hold 60% of the Millennial workforce by 2020 and the median age across Africa is 18 – seven years younger than that of south Asia. More than 200 million people in Africa are aged between 15 and 24 years old, and the region may contain one-third of the world’s population by 2050.  

Young people are frequently excluded from economic opportunities by lack of information access, and many see ICT investment as being crucial to overcoming these barriers. “ICT enables local SMEs to work together at relatively low cost,” said a 2015 Unctad report on digital development. “This can allow SMEs in low-income locations to compete, when otherwise they might be driven out of business by large firms.”

Technology divide

Nick Martin, CEO and founder of TechChange, works to bridge this tech divide. Dubbed by the Economist magazine as "geeks for good", TechChange has trained more than 10,000 people in 170 countries in digital literacy, mobile health apps, website building, SMS campaigns for social change and more. “We recently built a series of online courses to equip thousands of young people aged 14 to 24 across the Middle East in professional skills and job readiness to address youth unemployment," says Mr Martin.

“The ability of young people to improve their communities increasingly depends on the effective use of tech tools – and now more than ever people around the world are demanding new types of training to make a difference.” TechChange has partnered with organisations such as the UN children’s fund Unicef and the International Youth Foundation, and its staff ranges between the ages of 22 and 35.       

From hashtags to selfies to cat videos, social media culture has introduced a means of disseminating ideas at an unprecedented scale. Charity campaigns, Youtube videos and Kim Kardashian’s anatomy can make the rounds in a matter of seconds. This phenomenon holds immense power for the purposes of marketing, politics and social change.

“Because of social media and access to a very large community, Millennials can become thought leaders and influencers in a very different way than what TV and radio did for previous generations,” says Mr Pallas. “Millennials are the first generation with the ability to spread their ideas within society in a way that is truly unfiltered – and truly viral.”