- March 12, 2020
My mother held one teaching job her whole career. My father had just the one mid-level port job for his. Their adult lives revolved around their family and careers, and not much else. They met all their professional and social obligations. And like many other Baby Boomers, they retired into their sunset years in the mid to late 2000s, taking away their well-earned monthly pension cheques.
In comparison, I’ve held three different jobs- two of them simultaneously. I’ve also set up and run a small business. All in my twenties. Yet at 30, I’m three children and one mortgage behind my parents at the same age. I’m hardly an exception, rather one of the millions from my generation who, in comparison to preceding generations, are considered to be at best fickle and at worst privileged.
When I asked my mother the other day whether she’s happy with the life she had, she gave me the face. Millennials know too well what I mean by the face. We’ve grown accustomed to it. That patronizing, tinged with genuine concern look. The sum of her response was stereotypically “Ok Boomerish” — she kept a stiff upper lip and did what she had to do. Qualities that are supposedly lacking within my generation.
With Millennials slowly becoming the dominant wave of employees in the workforce, the Kenyan office has become an interesting epicentre of the schism between varying cross-generational attitudes. I’ve been lucky to observe, first-hand, these cross-generational suspicions — and sometimes complete misunderstandings — play out between older bosses and their younger employees.
I’ve sat on hiring panels where we’ve debated whether a muted candidate showed enough enthusiasm for the job. Too impressive, and the concern immediately shifted to whether they’ll even hang around for three months. Both concerns were legitimate by the employer because they’d been equally flummoxed by infuriatingly detached hires as well as job-hopping prodigies always seeking the next best thing. That’s the curse of the millennial job-seeker. Many are unaware of this existing bias.
So, do millennial workers really make for feckless employees who will leave at the first sign of difficulty? Or worse, disloyal hires who will lap up the next best offer that comes along?
Well, in my experience it’s not that simple. What is often overlooked is that the millennial condition is not a bug, but a feature of my generation. The millennial worker was never supposed to fit seamlessly into the traditional career roles and workplaces of the Baby Boomer and Post-Independence generations.
Millennials were shaped by the forces of globalization. This was the test generation for a new society. An increasingly connected and interdependent one in terms of economic integration, communication and cultural exchange. In Kenya, its effects kicked in during the early 2000s, just as my parents’ generation was exiting the workforce and the first wave of millennials was joining it. It’s important to remember that we were given this world, we didn’t make it. Yet we grew to understand this world better than those who walked us into it.
In a globalized world, the workplace shifted fundamentally from a people-driven one to a results-driven one. Globalization by its nature demanded cut-throat competition where you either picked up the pace of the world or got dropped by the wayside. Here, there was no room for inefficiency.
Millennials who were to make it in this world had to internalize the idea that they should be working all the time. Because everyone in our lives reinforced it – explicitly and implicitly. We wrapped the fear of failing in the somewhat jocular quip, “narudi ocha” – a Swahili phrase which translates to ‘going back to the countryside’, implying the fast-paced city life isn’t for you.
Naturally, job security, a luxury which my parents’ generation enjoyed, was always going to be the first victim. Millennials understood this quite early. The older generation who in Kenya held (and still do) most of the power to employ were too eager to take advantage of globalization to realize it. Out went key issues for employees like unionizing and collective bargaining. In came KPI’s and performance appraisals.
Somewhere along the way, a silent trust was broken. Power slanted towards one side. Millennials understood this too. More was demanded of them, less was given back. A choice had to be made between professional obligations and social ones because it increasingly became harder to fit in both as my parents did. Many millennials are unequipped to deal with this reality or even find ways to articulate it. Hence, non-commitment and job-hopping became our currency.
And so I ask again, do millennial workers really make for feckless and disloyal employees? Or does the employer have an obligation to make sure that they understand their realities? Should the employer update their expectations of new millennial hires? Or am I making excuses for a “spoilt”, “lazy” and “entitled” generation of workers?
This column seeks to delve deeper into the psyche of the next wave workforce and unravel these questions to hopefully bridge the cross-generational gap within the workplace, and provide a healthy understanding between older and younger employees.
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