“Just don’t call me a millennial”: The unique challenges, and opportunities, facing young leaders in 2020


Vital Addition chief executive Lachlan Grant. Source: supplied.

There’s a common misconception in established leadership circles, especially in more traditional industries, that young leaders are not only more entitled, but less effective than their older counterparts. 

At the dawn of the millennial generation, findings certainly indicated that young people were more impatient professionally, both with advancement and job satisfaction. 

The expectations young employees have of their employers are high. They’re unafraid to question authority and seek out new challenges at work.

But are confidence and high ambition uniquely the domain of today’s young?

Frustratingly, suggesting that an individual isn’t seasoned enough to compete when there are so many millennials running incredibly successful businesses — hello Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Dropbox and Quora — only diminishes their achievements.

I personally steer clear of the ‘millennial CEO’ moniker because of the negative connotations it carries.

As a generation “scarred by a flailing job market following the 2008 financial crisis [then] laden with record amounts of student debt,” and now the enormous impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we will struggle to ever accumulate anywhere near the levels of economic prosperity our parents earnt.

To make presumptions about our abilities, or our determination to achieve or succeed, or that as a generation, we’re inherently more flighty, lazier, and less competent than anyone over 40, is far-fetched at best.

It’s 2020, let’s move on.

What sets young leaders apart from their predecessors?

As millennials, we are the first generation to live our entire lives with complete, unrestricted access to information.

We’re also the first to experience and benefit from the impact of this access, including the extraordinary windows into other people’s lives we have now. 

Access has changed how we seek employment, education, interact, date, shop, communicate and do business.

It’s also brought with it a very different approach to workplace culture.

A 2019 Gallup research project noted that millennials can (and do) bring a new generation of expectations to the workplace, and these demands are often “linked to better business outcomes”.

Not just a number, millennials want more than a paycheque

Ours is a generation that is working for a purpose as well as a paycheque.

We are seeking career development as well as job satisfaction, coaches and mentors over a ‘boss’, and favour ongoing conversations and collaboration over annual reviews.

We’re determined to enhance our strengths rather than focus on or fix our weaknesses. 

We want to invest in careers that we can integrate into, and look forward to ongoing growth in and transformation across, all aspects of our lives, both personal and professional.

Previous generations were, depending on the state of the economy and the jobs market, content to have themselves a job – any job – rather than the job they always set their sights on.

Personal satisfaction or making a difference was never the dealbreaker. Options were, for the most part, a great deal more restricted. 

Instead, today, it’s the responsibility of an effective leader “to ensure that they align everyone to the ‘cause’ or the purpose of the business … to nurture every team member’s unique ‘gifts’ for the good of the ‘cause’,” founder of the Big Red Group and former Shark Tank investor, Naomi Simson, aptly explained to SmartCompany this year.

What unique challenges do young leaders face?

One significant challenge faced by young and emerging leaders is the pace of change in the commercial landscape, which is in a constant state of upheaval due to the introduction and development of new technologies, applications and platforms.

To navigate their way through a world that’s in such constant flux, let alone achieve commercial success, young entrepreneurs need to have a global focus, and remain agile and responsive.

I believe we are inherently open to new challenges and, on the whole, have a greater appetite for risk than our predecessors.

Every generation in the workforce faces challenges. There are demographic changes, technological shifts, and other obstacles that need to be overcome.

From one generation to the next, there has always been a shift in the collective mindset when it comes to how business is done, and as the generation otherwise known as ‘millennials’, or Gen Next, comes into its own in business and entrepreneurship, these changes and shifts are happening again. 

In a timely illustration of the ongoing need for intergenerational dialogue and for young people’s experiences to be respected and contextualised, two Sydney bar owners were compelled to issue a public apology recently for “labelling young hospitality workers ‘whining’ and ‘self-entitled’ in comments that have angered unions, industry members and some of their own staff”. 

As a leader, I work hard to both connect and inspire.

If that doesn’t exist in a workplace, young people are going to move on.

You need to build a connection with all your employees, and if you can’t – or won’t – you’re going to have a problem.

You’ll never please everyone. There will always people who don’t ‘get it’ and need to move on, but to call it a generational thing, that’s on you.

This year has been hard on everyone. This will be the first generation to ‘graduate’ into a recession “carrying the biggest economic scars from the coronavirus fallout [amidst] fears over the lifelong impact on young people’s wages”.

The changes we’ve undergone as millennials are different. In many ways, they’re more significant.

But change is a fundamental part of life, and agility and resilience is a prerequisite for long-term success.

Lucky, we’re hardwired for it.


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