One common theme that comes up in almost all strategic planning engagements is “what do we do about Millennials?” For most organizations that are run by older people, Millennials are often described in words that make them sound like an alien species from a digital planet dropped into our formerly analog world. The data does support the idea that the Millennial generation (age 18-35) is different: (1) they support causes more than organizations (not good for organized religions with big buildings and budgets); (2) they buy what they want and only what they want rather than package deals; (3) they have a much broader view of what constitutes success; (4) they understand the complexity of the world we live in and as such are both cautious and idealistic. Notice I did not use the word “entitled” for two reasons. One, idealism can often look like entitlement when you know what you want but have no idea on how to get it, and, two, as the wealth of society increases every generation will appear more entitled than the one before them. My grandparents were farmers and merchants in the mountains of Romania with no electricity or indoor plumbing. To them, I was the most entitled thing they had ever met.
I submit that the real issue with Millennials is not them but us. The world has fundamentally changed at all levels and the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who currently hold much of the power and wealth in our country have been slow to see the effects. After the fall of the Berlin War and the “end” of the Cold War, the world shifted dramatically. This was first acknowledged by the U.S. War College, of all places. They concluded that we were entering a VUCA phase. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The term VUCA became very trendy in management and leadership circles at places like Wharton and Harvard. Notwithstanding its “term of the moment” status, VUCA is real and it describes the world we live in. Look at the developments of the last several years: Climate Change, ISIS, Market Crashes, Race Relations, Brexit, Syria, Putin, Trump’s election, ObamaCare and the list can go on and on. These things appeared quickly, are hard to define, are incredibly complex, and seem to evade solution.
If you are over 40-45 years old, it is as if you grew up in a Newtonian world of cause and effect. If you went to college you could get a good job and make a decent living. If you went to medical, law, or business school, you would become a professional and make even more. You would buy a car and a home, get married, have 2.1 children, vacation in Florida, get divorced, remarry, and get social security at your retirement. Then the pace of technological change quickened along with the flow and democratization of information, while the political and economic structure that existed since the end of World War II imploded often in spasms of violence that erupted all over an interconnected world. For us Baby Boomers, we started in Newtonian world and found ourselves in a Quantum world where the rules of cause and effect are replaced by randomness, probability, complexity, and uncertainty: a VUCA world. If you want to know why Trump was elected, it was because he offered to the disenfranchised the unrealistic hope that he could eliminate VUCA and put us back in the 1980s. He even stole the hair style from the band, Flock of Seagulls (Google it).
Millennials, on the other hand, grew up in this VUCA world. They do not expect certainty or long predictable periods for planning. They have watched technology change rapidly and businesses and concept rise rapidly and fall just as fast. They have watched years of war with ambiguous goals and complex situations that defy solutions that are better than the choice of evils. They have seen change run ramshackle through the economy making billionaires out of some and devastating the once secure jobs and professions of their parents’ generations. We are told that the leaders of a VUCA world must be flexible, grounded, open-minded, collaborative, and opportunistic. From this perspective, it is hard to look at Millennials as behaving in an odd or irrational way. The move forward with all guns blazing approach that characterized prior generations does not necessarily make sense in VUCA world, whether militarily or in business. Finding your focus among VUCA is far from easy or intuitive. Looking at how the Baby Boomers have handled an uncertain, interconnected, complex world over the last 15 years does not leave one with confidence that we have figured this out. We are still trying to climb out of the shambles of 2008. It is fair to expect someone in their 20’s to have it all figured out now that the illusions of stability of our generations have been stripped bare?
So maybe next time a client asks me about what is wrong with the Millennials, I will answer with a question. Is it possible that we are still living and working in an old paradigm and it is us that need to wake up to reality? I often hear people of my parent’s generation say that they do not understand the world anymore. I used to try and explain it as best as I could, but now I have stopped trying. The universe is an infinitely complex and beautiful and scary place that can never be comprehended by the human brain. Any belief that we have figured it out or are close to figuring it out is a conceit that we use to feel better about ourselves. Accepting, and ultimately embracing, uncertainty is critical to living in a VUCA world. In this respect, I have a lot to learn from my Millennial children and their colleagues.