Jobs and the Future of Work

How millennials will save us from our broken economic system

Tim Chae gazes out a window where he attends "500 Startups," a crash course for young companies run by a funding firm of the same name, in Mountain View February 16, 2012.

We need leaders fit for the 21st century: do millennials fit the bill? Image: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Henrik Storm Dyrssen
Managing Director, Leksell Social Ventures, Stockholm
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In a crisis of economic and political leadership, who should we turn to for a vision of the future, for the rebirth of our society? Turn to the young, for they shall inherit the earth.

A crisis of capitalism and leadership

Capitalism is coming under attack. The way of the free market, with its gospel of globalization and the primacy of growth and GDP as a measure of happiness, is under siege.

From the financial crisis of 2008, via the great recession that followed, into the quantitatively eased pains of low consumption and investment, the emperor of profit stands naked, undressed by the Panama Papers. Many people have had enough.

Faced with these challenges, our leaders have been called out and found wanting. If you're not convinced of the crisis of democratic governance and its ability to provide sound leadership, you need simply look at what's been happening in the US elections.

New problems call for new leaders

Our national, regional and international institutions and paradigms have been called into question. The state of affairs is hardly catastrophic, although some of the forecasts sound eerily similar to those that precipitated the rise of communism, fascism and the world wars.

But look beyond the pre-millennium institutions and to the problems we face here and now. What is their nature and why have these institutions been unable to tackle some of today's biggest challenges? Who has ownership for and is able to solve things like:

  • Economically frustrated and disillusioned youth in the Middle East, Africa and European suburbs being targeted by extremists promising to give them meaning, significance and identity in supposed holy struggles?
  • Corporations siphoning of profits from welfare markets with poor quality control?
  • Politicians becoming advisers to industries they were not long before in charge of regulating?
  • Non-profits freed from VAT and income taxes competing in free markets?

Are these social, political, business or cultural questions? Is it even possible for one institution to take on all these problems and their multi-faceted causes? No, the challenges of our time require strategies and solutions that span the private, public and civil sector spheres. We live in a time when corporations see their markets continually shaped and reshaped by politics. Politics is determined by lobby money and the consumer media news cycle. And a frustrated civil society has disconnected from political grassroots movements to challenge markets and national politics directly.

The leadership for this day and age is the leadership of cross-sector experience and collaboration. Harvard professor Joseph Nye calls them tri-sector athletes – individuals and organizations that nimbly cross traditional spheres of influence to translate and broker these different institutional logics into private-public, government-civil and civil-private partnerships and solutions.

Leadership development for 21st-century challenges

But where will we find these leaders when our universities still offer siloed professional programmes such as business, engineering, law or medicine? How will such medical schools train the doctors needed to develop user-experience-design for medical technology that will make many doctors obsolete? What business school programme helps students acquire the socio-political business savvy needed to develop legitimate participation for private enterprise in welfare sectors without sacrificing trading quality for profits? What about the socially conscious engineers needed to develop scalable technologies to support social development and catastrophic relief efforts?

There are people out there that have seen their careers straddle sectors, defying the labour market siloes. We see a disproportionate number of them in our sector, the nascent impact investment industry, the business proposition of which is indeed to make the link between private, public and civil society organizations, resources and activities. We call them multilingual leaders. What we have further learned is that millennials in particular are natural multilingual leaders.

A case for the millennial promise

Millennials are widely criticized for their infuriating intolerance for norms and institutions, their disloyalty and self-centred focus, and their tendency to chose meaning over traditional, respectable pursuits such as career or money.

They are the most educated generation in history. At the same time, they shun higher education, because skills like programming are easier and faster to pick up organically, and are rewarded by strong labour market demand. This generation sees dropping out of Harvard as more worthy of merit than graduating from the same institution.

Millennials love employers that mix purpose with socio-professional development and economic opportunity. In the impact investment industry, we notice this because our combination of social or environmental purpose, professional skills development across private, public and civil sectors, and ethos of creating solutions that straddle sectors, attract millennial talent like bees to honey. Millennials frustrate managers and parents. Yet they also offer great promise, as digitally native, entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan world citizens.

 What millennials look for in employers
Image: Harvard Business Review

I believe millennials will save the day because they have the ideal attitudes to develop as tri-sector athletes.

1. Millennials demand purpose in their careers, not least from business: They will not accept politicians who do not understand the consumer markets they grew up loving. They will not stand for markets that undermine the welfare they were promised. They will not stand for employers that do not live and lead by the values they attract talent with.

2. Millennials demand authenticity from leadership: They question everything and they respect no given truth. They demand leadership that recognizes an organization's challenges, limitations and failures, leadership that invites them to collaborate to solve difficult problems impacting the triple bottom line.

3. Millennials do not respect or trust authority or institutions: You will never own them. They will not join you, but they will take up your organization's employment offer. They will not stay – either at your compay or in one single sector – but will instead transit across traditional boundaries to chase the problems and purposes that engage them, shapeshifting from professional to political to entrepreneurial as they go.

4. Millennials are ambassadors, not employees: They instinctively develop understanding and make and market their decisions through dialogue and interactions with others.

The employers that learn to attract, stimulate and leverage millennial talent will have a fierce competitive advantage in the decades to come. They will see the limits of their firms challenged by the continuous flow and interaction between politics, business and engaging purpose that already provides the license to operate in most sectors of society. Here is one tip for success: value and reward cross-sector experience and skills-building in millennial talent. You will train powerful ambassadors across the social fabric of society, whether they stay for a summer or for years.

This article is part of our Beyond GDP series. You can read more here.

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