Tuesday 14 March 2017

How to thrive in an uncertain world: New research for millennial leaders

How to thrive in an uncertain world: New research for millennial leaders Virginia State Parks, CC Licence https://www.flickr.com/photos/vastateparksstaff/9032453553/

In 2014, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England and Chairman of the G20's Financial Stability Board, remarked in his speech Inclusive Capitalism: creating a sense of the systemic, that "Within societies, virtually without exception, inequality of outcomes both within and across generations has demonstrably increased." Indeed, over the course of our research for The Millennial Challenge for Inclusive Capitalism, a report focused on themes such as precarious employment and long-term and socially-driven forms of investment, we spoke with over 50 millennials representing 12 countries, in 5 roundtables across the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Through these roundtables, as well as previous research and anecdotal observations based on interviews with hundreds of millennials both within and outside of North America, it became apparent that millennials live in a world of uncertainty and insecurity, and that these conditions now increasingly represent the lives of a significant portion of young people entering jobs or in the early stages of their careers. Aside from a very small number of highly-educated individuals -- possessing post-graduate qualifications or having attended prestigious universities -- millennials by and large believe that they must constantly compete simply in order to maintain their place in a workforce where opportunities for advancement are scarce. In this article, we share three challenges that emerged from our study, and then propose several ways in which millennials and employers can address these and in so doing narrow the inequality of outcomes that Carney highlighted in his 2014 speech.


Competing and "doing more": the safest route to career security

Over the course of our roundtables, millennials commented on how at the macro level, "western trends of greater top- and bottom-end jobs at the cost of a 'hollowed out' middle make the jobs market riskier, and by definition, more polarized." Participants in our study commented on the increasing difficulty of finding secure jobs in traditionally "safe" industries such as law, accounting and even medicine, aware that technology could make redundant entry-level, early-career roles. Worried about the potential negative effects of new technologies such as artificial intelligence on jobs, millennials questioned whether their financial investments in gaining professional accreditations would pay off as expected.

On the whole, the millennials we engaged felt that they must "do more" - participating in more extracurricular and professional development activities -- in order to set themselves apart. Several individuals described their efforts in terms of the notion of "personal capital"; that is, packaging and expressing one's personal qualities and skills in ways that respond to potential employers' perceived interests. These shifts occurring at the macro level, both real and predicted, mean that millennials are pressured to work harder in order to set themselves apart and earn one of the 10-15% of entry-level jobs in an organization that offer "fast-tracked opportunities for career growth." Crucially, few roundtable participants knew how much work should be "considered" enough in attempting to set themselves apart in the labour market.


The new reality of job-hopping: moving smoothly across traditional industry boundaries

Millennials participating in the roundtables believed that their careers will likely be non-linear, with shifts taking place across not only companies, but entire sectors. Among the participants in our roundtables were a millennial that had spent approximately ten years in insurance before transitioning into a non-profit role, academic-practitioners that have used their doctoral training in order to launch consultancies and innovative non-profit initiatives, and dozens of millennials that have already worked across countries in a blend of private, public and non-profit settings. Participants in our roundtables felt that increasingly, it will be necessary for individuals in the early and mid stages of their careers to spend time moving from one sector to another, acquiring new skills and experiences along this journey.

Indeed, as we indicate in our report, "Millennials have adopted with relative comfort and even enthusiasm a move towards cross-sector intangible jobs, tackling ambiguous problems with openness across sectors, in contrast to historical focus on single professions and sectors as homes for decades of professional practice." However, cross-sectoral leadership remains difficult in practice, with participants in the study believing that it will be years before employers are able to develop the employment structures required to allow their employees to move smoothly across sectors as part of employee exchange and professional development programs. Indeed, participants felt that such movement -- despite the advantages described above -- can incur significant transition costs in a person's career growth, with millennials needing to "start at the bottom" of a new organization when beginning work in a new sector.


Overcoming personal anxiety and the impulse for inter-comparisons: the downsides of our "curated" lives

Whether expressed overtly or not, millennials in our study commented on a constant underlying anxiety in their personal lives, especially stemming from increased opportunities for inter-comparisons in their professional achievements. In previous research based on hundreds of interviews with millennials, I have found that millennials often remark on the idea of "ruthless comparison": because of the prevalence of social media, millennials are constantly exposed to their peers' "curated" images across multiple platforms and channels. In one roundtable discussion, for instance, participants asked whether not actively maintaining a presence on social media would lead to a person's achievements in the world counting less than if they were active social media users. Many felt that their online worlds are as important in career growth as their offline worlds; that is, in the more private, person-to-person interactions that take place both within and outside of work. Few roundtable participants believed that not maintaining an actively social media presence would not harm an individual in their career growth. In other words, our report found that "at the personal level, millennials are both more socially and ethically expectant, and more persistently aware through online media of bumper peer successes, making personal consideration of careers much more fraught with personal anxiety."

Despite these challenges, we do, however, we outline in The Millennial Challenge for Inclusive Capitalism three ways in which employers and millennials can address the uncertainty and insecurity described above.


Committing resources to early-career leaders: equipping millennials with skills for the future

As noted in the report, "employment insurance products and cross-sector skills qualifications and accreditations, flexible and rapid training programmes – can form the foundations of some security." Both anecdotal observation and recent reports on the future of work suggest that in an age of austerity, employers have gradually withdrawn their investments in employee training and development. Instilled with the belief that their millennial staff will eventually depart for jobs elsewhere, employers are hesitant to commit resources to their early-career leaders. However, our roundtables suggest that innovative employers can set themselves apart through offerings that equip their staff with skills and resources that prepare them for the increasingly uncertain job market.


Instilling social entrepreneurship and purpose into all jobs: an imperative for executive leadership

Among our findings is that the is an "opportunity to mirror in opportunity the preferences of millennials for roles which simultaneously combine social purpose, entrepreneurship aspects and work that carries self-worth, rather than separating 'day work' from separate social purpose pursuits." Some employers, such as Unilever, have made tremendous strides in this aspect of their workforces in recent years. There is, in short, a genuine commitment to providing millennials with jobs focused on more than just economic growth. Crucially, millennials in our study believed that this can only take place in organizations where genuine leadership and commitment at the executive level is present. It is this leadership and sense of ownership, in short, that is conducive to developing a culture focused on social entrepreneurship and purpose across the whole organization.


Offering project-based and flexible work options: helping millennials build their career portfolios

Finally, we found that "As in mainstream technology firms, millennials could be well-served by the development of similar flexible, short-term product cycles delivered by teams comprised of multiple discipline professionals. Doing so not only adds to millennial interest in their roles, but also prepares the multiple skills foundations and signalling that will be crucial as the jobs market develops." In the 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey, it was found that 28% of respondents did not feel that their employers take full advantage of their skills. This finding was generally seen across the roundtable sessions, with millennials feeling that it is possible for their employers to better engage them on an individual level, not only as employees, but as people looking to build their careers and both sharpen and acquire skillsets. Our roundtable participants felt that these skills could be further developed through work in inter-disciplinary groups focused on tackling short-term and high-intensity projects.

The Millennial Challenge for Inclusive Capitalism serves a step forward in what millennials feel is a wider conversation needed on the risks resulting from uncertainty and insecurity in the modern era of work. As stated above, millennials from all levels of educational achievement increasingly believe that their jobs are not secure, and that they must work harder simply in order to keep pace with their peers. There are many reasons for this culture of heightened competition and inter-comparison; however, our roundtables and secondary research suggest that these trends are unlikely to abate in the short-term. Consequently, it is important that this conversation continues, with both employers and millennials considering what combination of strategies and initiatives is best for providing meaningful and worthwhile work.


This article appeared in Issue 1 of Imperica Magazine.

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