What do Millennials want?

by  — 20 December 2015

Between selfies, status updates and social media posts, Millennials make up the most well documented generation in human history, but they are also the most misunderstood. A closer look at the research, both globally and in the Gulf, reveals a surprising picture of Millennials: Qatar’s majority demographic by far. By Mark van Dijk.

While Millennials globally and in the Middle East have many similarities with Generation X, these ‘digital natives’ are naturally much more adept with technology, which is deeply embedded in almost every aspect of their lives.

This is the year the kids take over. In 2016, according to research by global consulting firm PwC, Millennials will make up 80 percent of the global workforce. The rise of ‘The Millennials’ (also known as ‘Generation Y’), the largest generation globally, has enormous implications in the Middle East – and in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries especially, where more than 70 percent of the population are under the age of 25. In Qatar, that bulge in the population pyramid is particularly pronounced, with an overwhelming 95.8 percent of the local population aged younger than 55.

 By Millennials, we mean people who came of age around the turn of the millennium, or those born between 1980 and 2000. While it is difficult to pin exact timeframes on generations, this generation is generally considered to be the one that follows the so-called ‘Baby Boomers’ (people born before 1965, during the population boom that followed the Second World War), and ‘Generation X’ (people currently aged between 35 and 50).

In a recent Ashridge Business School report titled A New Generation: The Success of Generation Y in GCC Countries, Rory Hendrikz, Director, Ashridge Middle East noted: “Whilst Generation Y is a global phenomenon with an increasing preoccupation amongst organisation leaders around the world, it holds significant importance in the GCC countries, with the region’s demographic youth bulge and strategic focus on localisation.”

The challenge in understanding Millennials is particularly acute for Gen-Xers, who, though they are outnumbered by Gen Y, are often directly in charge of them in the work place and will be for at least another decade. The test for them arises through a natural generation gap – and is exacerbated by significant misunderstandings and stereotypes about who Millennials are and what they want.

As demographics in the world’s largest democracy marched towards this year’s tipping point, there have been numerous editorials worldwide on the subject in recent years. In a September 2013 cover story, the influential United States (US) magazine Time called this ‘The Me Me Me Generation’, with writer Joel Stein branding Millennials as “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow”. The IBM Institute for Business Value Millennial Survey 2014 restated this widely-held perception, saying that Millennials are commonly depicted as either “lazy narcissists or energized optimists bent on saving the world”.

But the IBM survey also quickly revealed those perceptions to be entirely inaccurate, and a growing body of research is finding that Millennials are much the same as older generations. The only significant difference lies in their relationship with technology.

 So, if Millennials are not lazy know-it-alls with little or no desire to develop their skills… then who, or what, are they?


And what exactly do they want?

Whether you are a Millennial yourself (and, statistically speaking, if you are reading this you probably are), or a Generation Xer who is trying to understand your younger, more switched-on colleagues, the answers to these questions might surprise you.


Workplace success

In the Ashbridge study, 76 percent of the GCC Millennials surveyed said that they felt a ‘strong’ pressure to succeed at work. The percentage in Qatar and the UAE was highest, at 80 percent. Crucially, though, the survey found that most of that pressure came from the Millennials themselves (59 percent).

Compare that to a survey published in early 2014 by the GCC recruitment agency Bayt.com, titled Millennials in the Middle East and North Africa. Here, 46 percent of GCC respondents aged over 35 described their Millennial colleagues as being ‘hard-working’. In Qatar that figure was even higher, at 62 percent.  In that same
Bayt.com survey, 35 percent of Qatari Millennials said they are willing ‘to a large extent’ to sacrifice their personal or social life to further their careers.

For colleagues over 35, that figure is only 21 percent. So not only are local Millennials ambitious; they are also willing to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve their goals. Here, the relationship that Millennials have with technology plays an interesting role. Millennials have grown up with technology that allows them to access their work e-mail anytime, anywhere. They are always connected – and, by extension, always connected to the office. This blurs the lines between their job and their private life.

As United States (US) author Chip Espinoza told Fast Company magazine recently: “They don’t mind accessing their work life during their personal life, but they also want to access their personal life during work.” For Millennials, then, there is no such thing as work-life balance; it is more like a work-life blend… and with that blurred line comes an expectation for flexibility.


Technological secularism

If you were to do a Google Image Search on the word ‘Millennial’, your search results will produce thousands of pictures of young people either texting on their smartphones or using their smartphones to take ‘selfies’ with their friends. And while Millennials may share many things in common with their older colleagues – from their shared work ethic to their common desire to grow and develop in their careers – this is the area where the generation gap is at its widest. Millennials, naturally, have a completely new take on technology. Baby Boomers did not even have mobile phones until many reached middle age, and the Internet was still a nascent technology when Generation X reached their 20s. As the IBM report states: “The fundamental distinction between Millennials and older employees is their digital proficiency. Millennials are the first generation to grow up immersed in a digital world. Using mobile and social technologies, immediately accessing data, ideas and inspiration and instantly communicating and collaborating is second nature for these digital natives.”

In that IBM study, 96 percent of global Millennials claimed that their organisation has issues implementing new technologies. For Millennials, technology – whether that be mobile devices, applications or social networking tools – are simply a part of life. Why should  their employers not see technology  in the same way?

And even here, Qatari Millennials have a surprising approach. According to the Bayt.com study, if given a choice of communication method, local Millennials would prefer a face-to-face meeting (52 percent), rather than speaking on the phone (24 percent). For Qatari Millennials, email is a last resort (23 percent).


Desire to learn

In the Bayt.com survey, almost all Qatari Millennials (92 percent) said that they believe their education has prepared them for the workplace, either completely (44 percent) or at least to some extent (48 percent).

Yet Qatari Millennials also rate themselves very highly as students. In a survey of GCC Millennials conducted by The Talent Enterprise, 29 percent of GCC national students rated themselves as ‘exceptional’ students – far higher than the GCC expatriate students (3 percent) and UK students (5 percent) surveyed. Yet 76 percent of Qatari Millennials still feel the need to pursue higher education in order to enhance their promotion prospects or to find a better job, or to meet the requirements of the job market in their industry. This is consistent with the response among GCC Millennials (73 percent).

So Millennials want to learn – and, specifically, they want to learn from their mentors. In the Ashridge study, 28 percent of local Millennials said that the biggest difference between them and their older colleagues is that “I am willing to share all the information I find. I don’t keep it secret.” The inference was, “I don’t keep my knowledge a secret… but my older colleagues do.” Added to that, the Bayt.com survey found that 59 percent of Qatari Millennials agree to a large extent that they can learn a lot from their older colleagues.


Governing the Gulf

While Western Millennials are widely regarded as anti-establishment – and, to a degree, anti-government – this is not the case in the Gulf. In The Talent Enterprise survey, 34 percent of GCC nationals said that they hoped to work for the government after completing their education. For expatriate students and UK students, those figures were a mere five percent and four percent respectively. What’s more, only seven percent of GCC students said they hope to work with private sector employers.

For GCC Millennials, then, a government job appears to be first prize.

Among Qataris, this finding is confirmed in the Bayt.com study, where 40 percent of respondents younger than 35 named the public or government sector as the sector they would prefer to work in. A further 20 percent of Qatari Millennials listed a multinational company in the private sector as their employer of choice, compared to just five percent who said they would prefer to work for a large local company.

Asked to select their reasons for their preferred employment sector, Qatari Millennials listed ‘attractive salary’ (51 percent), ‘greater job satisfaction’ (44 percent), ‘more opportunities to learn on the job’ (43 percent), ‘more opportunities for career growth’ (42 percent) and ‘better work-life balance’ (42 percent) as their top reasons. Again, the idea of Qatari Millennials being unambitious or unwilling to learn appears to be completely unfounded.

The key finding here for employers is that only nine percent of Qatari Millennials currently work for the government – suggesting that those who are currently in the private sector will move on, if given the opportunity. And make no mistake: Millennials will move for the job they want. In the Bayt.com survey, 24 percent of Qatari Millennials said that they only intend to stay with their current employer for less than a year, with a further 31 percent intending to move on within the next two years.

That means that more than half of Qatari Millennials are planning on leaving their jobs within the next 24 months. This is consistent with the short-term approach many Qatari Millennials have to employment in general. The Bayt.com survey found that 65 percent of Qataris under the age of 35 have already had three or more jobs, and 12 percent have already had more than five.

The message, then, is clear for Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers who are tasked with managing a team of Millennials: Don’t expect your younger staff to stay with you for very long – at least, not unless you can offer the job satisfaction, career development and work-life blend that they – or we, as Qatar’s most signification population group – now demand. 


Mark van Dijk is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. 



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