This article originally appeared in HongKongEcho 86: THE MILLENNIALS CHOICE: A new era for HR
For HR managers, meeting the demands of millennials means going beyond the clichés, believes David Baverez, author of Paris-Pekin Express. Leave your preconceptions at the door and discover the generation that continues to puzzle.
“And to think that when we grow up we may be as stupid as they are!”: French writer Louis Pergaud, in the closing remarks between Lebrac and Grand Gibus in his classic novel La Guerre des Boutons (The War of the Buttons), already highlighted in the 20th century how each generation ends up, ultimately, the victim of its own perceived generational gap.
Marketing and sociologist gurus are now trying to make a living by promoting concepts such as Generation X, Y or Z, and pretending to decode new kinds of human beings. The reality is that these new ‘generations’ haven’t changed in nature; it’s just that the world in which they are growing up is going through an unprecedented revolution since the end of the 18th century. And like in any revolutionary time, we all have to face the tough decision of whether we prefer to “protect the past from the future, or the future from the past?” as Professor McAfee from MIT elegantly puts it.
Better then to leave the pseudo-gurus to their own game, and rather shift the focus to understanding the future world in order to best foster and exploit the promising talent of this forthcoming generation.
At first sight, Hong Kong seems to be an odd place to address this topic, when its elite seems to firmly turn its back on its youth: recent elections saw close to 40% of 18-30 year-olds voting for ‘localists’, highlighting the divide between the government and young voters. At the same time, a few 80-year-old real estate tycoons continue to encourage the biggest ‘sur-real estate’ bubble in the world, forcing young graduates to leave the country given the (un)affordability of housing and creating a situation whereby 75% of 18-35 year-olds still live with their parents.
More than anywhere else in the world, it will therefore be down to Hong Kong companies to not only understand this new generation, but also to help adapt our society to a more sustainable way of life through establishing the right balance between citizens’ rights and duties.
So, what should HR managers do?
The main challenge for HR managers will be to integrate the main paradox of millennials into the daily lives of companies: while being generally presented as revolutionary, they are actually quite the opposite, staying very conservative in their values, far away from their grandparents’ roots of Woodstock and May 1968. Their main factor of differentiation stands out as their attachment to often surprisingly traditional aspirations: looking for a sustainable world; a balance between work and family life; desperation for authenticity – rejecting politicians, ‘fake news’ on social networks and challenging meaningless consumer brands. In a very positive way, they are quite eager to share experiences and resources to move from a world of 700 million privileged Westerners to a planet of 7 billion citizens; eager to learn through trial and error in fast-moving surroundings and in a very risk-prone manner; eager to act for the good of society while creating meaning in their daily lives.
Processed food, beer, napkins, golf, cars, home ownership, low-fat yoghurt, bar soaps, diamonds, fabric softener, banks, department stores, designer handbags, gyms, oil… the list goes on for yesterday’s champion industries that see their raison d’être being challenged as a result of new millennial trends which will force them to reinvent themselves. These companies are usually the ones complaining about the supposedly ‘unwarranted demands’ of millennials, trying to spread the wrong image of spoiled kids in order to save their own business. Fortunately, this desperate attitude will prove only to be a dead-end over time.
Because far from drowning in negative criticism of consumerism in a systematic manner like their grandparents in the late 1960s, millennials are actually still keen to work and consume, but in a much more sustainable and responsible manner. They are simply rejecting the world order of the last thirty years in all the aspects that have clearly reached their limits.
As a result, the task of HR managers will not change in nature: the key ingredient to success will remain in listening to existing and potential millennial employees, and promoting a corporate culture which identifies clear values that are at the root of authentic products and services. In a place like Hong Kong which faces annual staff turnover often as high as 30%, this will put a particular emphasis on all traditional staff retention tools: corporate culture, weekly trainings at all levels of the organisation, continuous learning and process rather than purely short-term results.
No doubt Hong Kong will benefit throughout that process from its ability to keep on attracting millennials from all over the world. These foreigners are actually responsible for close to half of the setup of Hong Kong startups. Similarly, no doubt the French Chamber of Commerce, as the largest multicultural chamber in Hong Kong, will have its role to play in helping the Hong Kong business community exploit this tremendous human wealth in the most beneficial manner.
David Baverez is the author of Paris-Pekin Express (Editions Francois Bourin 2017). The views expressed are purely personal.
See below for more content from the French Chamber.