‘Stressed’ millennials are setting the agenda at work | Economics


A snowflake millennial is tougher than you think, especially in the workplace. They have watched their parents cope with an increasingly insecure jobs market since the turn of the century and in growing numbers told their friends and family that long hours, short term contracts and a shouty boss is not for them.

They don’t join trade unions or argue with the boss about a pay rise, though some do. Their confidence – however much they appear to quiver and quake – gives them the steel to quit and search for a different job that comes – they hope – without the debilitating stress that wrecks everyone’s physical and mental health.

It’s why many of the world’s largest companies, keen to avoid losing their better-educated younger employees, are adopting new ways of working. Firms like Unilever, which last month said it would pilot a four day week in its New Zealand offices, know that sticking to existing work patterns when the pandemic begins to ease means stagnation at best and commercial suicide at worst.

And to a great extent, Britain’s economic success rests on all employers recognising that the old-fashioned, board-knows-best, top-down ways of doing things – where the compact between worker and employer is largely a one-way commitment in the employer’s favour – are not only outmoded, they contribute to low and declining levels of worker productivity.

Even those who chase jobs in the professions – architecture, engineering, medicine and the law – and kid themselves that it is worth the bullying, low wages and debt, are questioning their priorities.

Cary Cooper, president of the British Academy of Management, who will give five keynote speeches in the next fortnight promoting a root and branch review of corporate life, says: “The millennials have it right. The older generation is wrong.”

An adviser to governments and countless large corporations, Cooper despairs at the reliance on command and control structures that mean managers manage, mostly relying on instinct in their dealings with people, while everyone else does their bidding.

He is not the only one. Like Cooper, the management consultant John Seddon has written several books on the subject and concluded that support, not control, is the answer to the problem of a dejected staff delivering barely adequate customer service.

In his latest book “Beyond Command and Control” Seddon points out that two of the founding fathers of modern management thinking – Peter Drucker and Martin Bower of the consultancy Mckinsey – say their chief regret is the way public and private sector boardrooms remain devoted to top down management to the exclusion of any meaningful involvement by employees in decision making.

There is a wealth of data bearing out their view that a business which involves and supports its staff is going to have a better relationship with its customers, and be more profitable.

Cooper struggles to understand why companies that spend money advertising a job, employing someone and possibly spending huge sums on training, seem happy to let them walk out the door, either to another firm or to the long term sick register.

Such is the rise in work-related stress, anxiety and depression that in 2018 official figures showed for the first time that these three categories accounted for more than half of all working days lost due to ill health in the UK.

Stressed millennials that get a doctor’s note are as strong as those that move jobs. Both have admitted they cannot cope when previous generations struggled on, alluding to a Dunkirk spirit that celebrates glorious failure.

The generally accepted definition of a millennial is that it includes everyone born between 1981 and 1996 and so this year the first wave of millennials will celebrate their 40th birthday.

There is widespread sympathy for the debts they must pay if they went into higher education and the exorbitant rent or mortgage loan repayments that weigh on their finances every month.

But the jibes about their delicate disposition and obsession with self-care and self identity are equally widespread. We might not have as many pub conversations or chats over the garden fence as we did before the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the derision has subsided.

In her instructive book about Labour’s catastrophic election defeat in 2019 “Beyond the Red Wall” Deborah Mattinson documents the responses of people in Darlington, Stoke on Trent and the Manchester satellite town of Accrington to life and politics. Mostly made up of older people, the focus groups had little positive to say about young people and graduates in particular.

Millennials are not going to save the country, only traditional values, say the red wallers.

Yet if the pandemic is going to offer anything positive, it must be a better balance in our work lives. Traditional values in the workplace will only accelerate Britain’s steady decline.


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