India Inc

India Inc and millennials: A cautionary tale

The average Indian corporate executive is in their late 40s. The average CXO is in their early 50s. Most owners and promoters are in their 60s and 70s, unless they have handed over their companies to their sons (and in very rare cases, daughters). There are two traits common to them all – none of them are millennials, and most of them are uncomfortable with the digital world. So, none of them know what to do with their largest base of customers, employees and upcoming shareholders. The millennials, of course.

I am in the same grey-haired age-group, and I have seen that India’s corporate illuminati have largely failed to understand this generation (and the one following them, GenZ or the ‘Greta Thunberg’ generation). Born after 1983, having seen nothing of the license-quota raj or the shortages of the 70s and 80s. But they are digital ‘natives’ – better educated, and certainly better informed through cheap digital media. They have lived through the 2008 Great Recession and how the older generations bungled it. They did see (and drive) the ‘color revolutions’. They have seen climate change accelerate. They have watched the older generations completely botch the response to the pandemic, both from government and the corporate sector. They are not beholden to old patronage structures. Indeed, they are ‘woke’, a word that is used by my generation to snigger at them and call them ‘snowflakes’. Corporate honchos know that they are already controlling purchase decisions, and will soon call the shots in hiring. Well, what will those shots be?

  1. They are not looking for a 30-year job. And they have two good reasons why. For one, they see jobs as a contract, whose terms must be met by both parties. They don’t see employers as their mai-baap or annadata, nor does the old stigma of job-hopping for money apply to them. But more importantly, they know that the 30-year job no longer exists. Job roles change as swiftly as technology does. Jobs that were meaningful in the noughties (e.g., Flash developer) no longer exist; professional gamer (i.e., player of video games, for Gen X and older) is now a real profession. During an interview, they ask as many questions as they are asked.
  2. Their whole world is social. They are strongly influenced by trends on social media. Their decisions are based on what makes them look good on Instagram, on LinkedIn, on Twitter. They want their employer to look good on social media too – whether its featuring on ‘Great Places to Work’ surveys, or spending CSR money on saving orangutans. They will research a company before they join it, including asking their extended networks about work practices.
  3. They care for more than money. They want a positive work environment that rewards them with more than just a salary. A shouty, abusive boss – no. A male-dominated, sexist work culture – no (and both female and male millennials say no). An uninspiring job profile with no personal growth – no (they actually have a word for it – the McJob). If they quit a job, it is rare that they can be persuaded to stay by offering a hike. That said, they still do care about the money they are paid.
  4. They need flexibility. My father’s generation, and to some extent mine, which grew up in times of shortages of everything (we had a two-year waiting list to get a landline in the 1980s), knew that having a job was a privilege. Everything else – your passion, your hobbies – was to be sacrificed so you could put food on the table. Millennials and GenZ (now entering the workforce) have fewer such concerns, and more choices with jobs. They want the time to pursue their passions – several have indeed turned them into start-ups and careers. They are happier to take on the ‘gig’ economy (which is more than just driving taxis or delivering food), where they work for some time, and use the rest to do their own thing.
  5. They don’t live in silos. Unlike their older generations, their economic, political and social lives are not separate. They will not work for an employer whose ethics or politics they disagree with. Google had to bend after some of its employees ‘revolted’ against some of its policies. They will happily sign petitions against their own companies for cutting rainforests to grow more palm oil.
  6. They were born digital. Their paradigms are digital. Their language is digital. Company policies developed for the era of fax machines and typewriters leave them non-plussed. Stiff hierarchies and stingy pay hikes don’t awe them at all.
  7. They are more entrepreneurial than any generation before them. Those who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s would not have heard of the phrases start-up or venture capital or series A when they were young. In those times, one started a company either by being born rich, or by making a killing on a deal, or by inventing something. They got the funds first and then started a company. Millennials will start a company first on the strength of an idea they believe in, and then look for funding. They don’t mind it failing – they have new ideas for new companies.

Any company that still lives by rules written in the 1990s is destined for the waste bin of history. Like their new employees, employers too need to keep reinventing themselves. 

Supriya Rai

The article has been written by Sanjay Dangi, Director – Authum Investment and Infrastructure Ltd., & Financial investor to many startups

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