Over the past 5 years the number of articles written about how to deal with the influx of millennials in the workplace has been almost impossible to count. According to Google Trends the peak interest so far has been November 2016, a score of 100, but the term millennial only had a score of 7 in March 2013 before the current uptick.
This isn’t too surprising, given that in the last 5 years we have seen the numbers of millennials in the workplace increase so dramatically - according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the generation became the largest in the workforce at the end of 2015. However, despite this, some big media outlets have widely criticized the incoming generation with headlines like ‘Millennials are entitled, narcissistic and lazy’, ‘Why Millennials Are The Worst Generation To Ever Live’ and ‘Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation’.
These generalized and offensive stereotypes still prevail amongst the upper management in many companies and this leads to confirmation biases. For instance, the idea of watching a video for a millennial when trying to learn about something is obvious - you can absorb a huge amount of information in a relatively short time, it’s often more engaging than reading about the subject, and in many ways it is easier to remember. However, for many baby boomers this doesn’t ring true, instead watching a video on Youtube is fun, it can’t be work.
With something this basic, how can millennials learn to deal with baby boomers?
If we were to look at this simplistically we could talk about why certain technologies benefit productivity, like the use of video and messaging. People who have been working within a certain set of confines for 30+ years aren’t going to necessarily understand why millennials are doing something that they consider to be ‘fun’.
There is also the issue of innovation in the workplace. It is well established that innovation is now a necessity for any company to stay ahead, or even just keeping up with the competition. It is this experimentation and quick turnaround that us millennials have been brought up on. The last 20 years has seen such fast acceleration in technologies that it is little surprise that millennials know how quickly things change and how sticking to one technology or business model is a negative.
However, what’s happening in the workplace is a fraction of the issues that millennials will have with baby boomers. Whilst we may be seen as narcissistic, entitled, and inattentive, baby boomers may destroy the economic system.
There may have been baby boomers in the office that have frustrated those working there, but the real issues are going to be once they are no longer there. This is because with over 32% of the population of the US in the 2010 census being over 50 and the average lifespan moving from 73.66 in 1980 to 78.74 in 2012, we have a larger number of people above 50 and they are all living longer.
It is an issue that hasn’t passed people by, with Alan Greenspan recently telling Gold Investor that ‘We have been through a protracted period of stagnant productivity growth, particularly in the developed world, driven largely by the aging of the ‘baby boom’ generation. Social benefits (entitlements in the US) are crowding out gross domestic savings, the primary source for funding investment, dollar for dollar.’ This has meant that despite the huge developments in technology and the productivity of an individual becoming considerably more than 30 years ago, the productivity growth in the US is now close to 0.
This has spilt over from being an economic issue to being one that has had a profound impact on the world we live in. In the same interview Greenspan actually puts this same productivity phenomenon at the heart of the rise of populism and right wing politics that has been widely rejected by millennials. Greenspan explained ’As productivity growth slows down, the whole economic system slows down. That has provoked despair and a consequent rise in economic populism from Brexit to Trump. Populism is not a philosophy or a concept, like socialism or capitalism, for example. Rather it is a cry of pain, where people are saying: Do something. Help!’ This goes along with the demographic data that shows that over 40% voted for Hillary Clinton vs fewer than 30% who voted for Donald Trump. It is the same story with Brexit, with 71% of 18-24 year olds and 54% of 25-49 year olds voting to remain, vs only 36% of those over 65.
Going back to Trump’s win, one of the biggest elements of his campaign was ‘bringing jobs back’ as there was a perception that poor trade deals had seen people lose their jobs. However, what we actually saw was that, according to a report from Ball State University, roughly 13% of all US factory job losses had been due to trade, whilst around 88% had been due to automation or other factors at home. Despite these job losses, the level of manufacturing output actually increased by an average of 2.2% per year from 2006-2013.
We now, ironically, need to do the exact opposite of what baby boomers think we should be doing. We need to be putting fewer people onto the factory floor and instead increasing the number of robots and the number of factories, with people trained to operate these robots. Instead of doing simple work on manufacturing lines, they need to be able to control the manufacturing lines themselves.
It may seem like a bleak way to look at factory workers (just as one example), but with the huge numbers of people in the generation above us, we need to be as productive as we can. It means that we need to be as productive as 2 or more baby boomers, which is something we can do thanks to technology, new innovations, and our understanding of learning new ideas.
We need to embrace change and a new way of doing things because if we don’t we will end up with a situation that would be almost impossible to overcome and would eventually bankrupt us. So when baby boomers come up with lazy stereotypes about the millennial generation just keep calm and ignore them, we have too much work to do.