Take a look at the world through their eyes and see how your company stacks up
BY SCOTT SNYDER AND MORGAN S. SNYDER
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at Wharton University’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management, and Morgan S. Snyder, a software engineer with Palantir, a software and services company that specializes in big data analysis, are the authors of this opinion piece on how companies need to shift their thinking if they want to understand millennials and Gen Zers—as customers and as employees.
We asked digital natives to share their perspectives on large companies, as both consumers and employees. This article reflects what we learned.
Who are we?
They call us millennials and Gen Z. We are 140 million strong and represent 25% of the workforce and nearly $2 trillion of buying power, even though more than 60% of us still live at home with our parents. We are politically liberal leaning and the most diverse generation by far. We don’t read the newspaper, listen to the radio, watch network TV or use a home phone number. We spend a lot of time online, building our digital network and consuming information from it. Unfortunately, due to fewer opportunities and record levels of student debt, we probably won’t have our own car or house for a long time (and maybe never). If you run a company and want us to love your brand or even work for you someday, here are some more things you should know about us.
We are networked
Smartphones are an extra appendage for us. Through the screen in the palm of our hand, we lead networked lives driven by immediate gratification.
We know how to get the information we need and have unlimited access to it through Google. With this wealth of competing information, it’s rare for something to hold our attention for more than 10 seconds.
We continuously connect with friends through text, share our creations, log our lives, control our entertainment, order food, find a ride and plan our next adventures on our phones. We want all of the things in our lives to be easy to access through our phones, from our banking to our dating life. We prefer purchasing products online; it’s a plus if we can subscribe to the product, so the box automatically arrives at our door every month. If it can be avoided, we’d rather not check out with a physical cashier or call someone for services. Our phones are a one-stop shop for entertainment and are the only device we need to consume our favorite music videos and Netflix series.
We spend time curating our digital identity and network on social media platforms, even though we don’t trust them to keep our information safe. We like the immediacy and control of Snapchat and Instagram but are less enthusiastic about Facebook, which is becoming too corporate and feels corrupt after the Cambridge Analytica breach. Our friends from China run their lives through WeChat. We trust our friends and their friends over corporations, especially when it comes to news. Some of the news you see on HuffPost or Buzzfeed has turned out to be fake, so why bother unless it’s for sheer entertainment? Our inner circle of friends points us to information worth knowing and news stories worth reading. They are also our main source of affirmation when we need to make a big purchasing decision like buying a bike or traveling to a foreign country—we just take a photo and post it to our group to get opinions.
We are mobile
Since we grew up connected via our screens, we are great at creating things (pictures, videos, code, narratives) on the move, wherever we are, and now companies are starting to pay for it. Some of us make money as part-time designers, artists, journalists, coders and even gamers. The gig economy doesn’t scare us; we love the freedom, though the prospect of not having full benefits is starting to sink in as we see our debt pile on and friends deal with real health concerns. We assume we’ll hold more than 10 different jobs over our lifetime, and some at the same time. Change and mobility are constants for us, so don’t expect us to stay in one place for long.
We know that what seems like a good major or career now may not be in the next few years. Our friends who studied math and physics are killing it as data scientists with companies like Google and Facebook, even though they would have been pigeonholed to become a professor a decade ago. Even our friends who studied engineering have titles we never heard of in college, like growth hacker, design technologist, forward-deployed engineer. But it feels like titles matter less and less as we seek out hybrid roles that allow us to wear many hats.
We hope to live in two or three different countries over the course of our lives and spend most of our time in cities. We spend money on experiences over material things. While we love the outdoors and extreme sports like rock climbing, kite surfing and adventure racing, we want to work and live in cities where everything is a walk, bike or Lyft ride away—including where we work. And if we can’t live in the city, then put us in the mountains or at the beach. Anything but the ’burbs.
We are ‘woke’
We see major issues in the world around us but believe we have the power to move the needle. We are not afraid to speak up if we see something wrong with the status quo, and our online networks affirm our opinions and reward outspokenness. We expect the politicians, celebrities, athletes and chief executive officers whom we follow to weigh in on important issues like immigration, sexual assault in the workplace, racial discrimination and climate change. We are acutely aware of the power and influence that our individual online presence can have. We’ve witnessed massive movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo create change in our lifetime, many starting and spreading online. We even saw the Diversify My Emoji movement change a critical component of our digital language. We yearn to be part of efforts that make our world more inclusive, accepting, and socially and environmentally responsible. We hold ourselves, our friends and leaders accountable to this end and constantly wonder what good we could be doing and how we could do more.
We peg most big companies as being interested in profits at the expense of people or the planet. It seems like every day we hear about another discrimination case, privacy breach or environmental disaster that was caused by the negligence of a large corporation. If their CEO would speak candidly about the problem and planned solution, it would make a difference for us and our friends in choosing to do business with them. We don’t see it as difficult for companies to be both fiscally and socially responsible. We see examples of big companies doing good with Patagonia preventing deforestation, Warby Parker improving a global health issue and IKEA pushing diversity and inclusion in hiring. In our eyes, it should be the standard for organizations with power to try to give back more than they take. In spite of our critiques, there is a good chance we will end up spending half our careers working for big organizations including corporations, large non-profits or government agencies.
If you want us to be your future customers and employees, here are some suggestions:
- Encourage exploration. Job hopping used to be a negative term, but we like it. Companies lost
$30 billion from regrettable attrition of our generation last year. The chance to take a job with a big company but know you have the option to try three or four different tracks in a few years is really appealing. We believe this also could be good for the company to create a more flexible workforce. As consumers, we appreciate products that furnish us with new experiences, by constantly reinventing themselves, and us, in turn. There is too much noise in our lives to pay attention to products that are redundant or no longer relevant—onto the next thing!
- Let us lead. Most of us want to lead something (a team at work, a fund drive for an important cause or our own company), but no one has taught us to really lead in adversity. Most of the best leaders have failed a bunch of times, especially entrepreneurs. How do we deal with this and get teams to follow us and believe in us when things aren’t going well? We want people to respect us for our beliefs and accomplishments, not just a big title. We want to be trendsetters and activists. We are open to personal coaching, but not pedantic lectures. Don’t hand us a business book that we won’t read. For us to pick up a book, it has to speak to our emotions. Help us lead by talking to us on a personal level.
- Stand for something. We think money is something you should earn if you do things that matter. Unfortunately, the world is not set up that way today. But if you want our input and help make your business better (and we think we have a lot to offer), then you need to get out of the mindset of making money first and start thinking about making an impact and treating people fairly, no matter where they come from. We are ready to get on board and would love to be part of building something special. If you want to know what we think, we are right here, all around you. All 140 million of us. Just ask us.
Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton (Knowledge.Wharton.UPenn.edu), the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania based in Philadelphia.