ATLANTA--Millennials are different. It’s essential for HR professionals to understand who they are to make workplaces that build on their strengths and help them with their weaknesses. That’s the message reporter and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell brought to attendees of the June 25 general session at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Annual Conference, held here June 24-27.
People born in the 1980s and ’90s are at the forefront of a new social paradigm that will profoundly influence how things are done in the workplace and in the wider world, Gladwell said. The older generation generally views social movements and organizations in the context of a hierarchy. Hierarchies generally have a strong leader, a powerful and experienced organization, and a guiding ideology and strategy. Millennials have a different view. For them, it’s all about the network.
Gladwell compared the civil rights movement to the Occupy movements to illustrate the differences between the generations.
Martin Luther King wanted to bring Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence to the United States. In a seminal moment in the civil rights movement, King and other leaders in 1963 went to Birmingham, Ala., one of the most segregated U.S. cities. They organized a series of nonviolent marches to force the hand of Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety. Connor had marchers arrested until the jails were overflowing. More marchers, including children, took to the streets. When Connor turned fire hoses and dogs on them, news organizations and photographers sent those images around the world.
“That’s it. It’s over for Bull Connor. People really understand what is going on in Birmingham,” Gladwell said. “And one year later, what happens? The Civil Rights Act is passed.”
That movement had the components of a hierarchy: a strong leader, a disciplined organization and a guiding ideology. Compare that to the Occupy movements of the past year, which had no leader, no clear ideology or strategy, and a loosely organized and undisciplined organization.
“This could not be more different than the civil rights movement of 40 years ago,” Gladwell said. “That difference between the way social organization is done by this generation and … the previous generation is incredibly significant,” Gladwell suggested.
“The differences between Occupy and civil rights are symbols of the very powerful differences in the paradigms that each of those generations carry around in their pockets. What happened over the past 10 years is that we have seen a fundamental shift in the way people of different generations have chosen to see and interpret the world.
“We have to take this notion of a new generational paradigm seriously.”
He pointed to another major paradigm shift in the mid-1970s that greatly impacted workers and employers. Free agency started in baseball and spread to basketball and football. Similarly, writers gained more leverage over publishers in the mid-1970s, supermodels began to make tens of thousands of dollars per day, and George Lucas demanded from 20th Century Fox the full rights to all Star Wars sequels and merchandise. “You know what that cost them? Probably a couple billion dollars,” Gladwell said.
“You add all those things up and you get a pretty dramatic shift in the paradigm of the workplace. Prior to that time people assumed, took it for granted, that employers would have the final say on how employees were treated, about how they are compensated.” But Baby Boomers came along and said, “We want things redrawn in our image. And that’s a huge shift. The world we’ve been living in ever since bears the mark of that paradigm shift.”
A very similar kind of transformation is happening now, Gladwell argued, with Millennials’ profoundly different ideas about social organizations.
Hierarchies are not their default notion. “In fact they’ve gone about as far away from a hierarchy as can be imagined,” Gladwell said.
Millennials don’t learn from expert sources, they learn from their peers on Wikipedia. To learn chess, they don’t take lessons. They go online and find players from all over the world to play. “They take a profoundly different attitude toward authority and toward expertise.”
In comparing hierarchies and networks, Gladwell maintained that one form is not better than the other. “We are not superior to them because the hierarchy is better than the network and they’re not superior to us because the network is superior to the hierarchy. They are simply two different forms with very different sets of strengths and weaknesses.”
In some situations, the hierarchy works, in others the network is best. Many kids start college intending to study science, math and engineering, but the drop-out rates are very high. Why? Because the courses are too hard. To master these topics, kids need to learn from expert instructors, practice discipline and learn on their own. “The task is ill-suited for the paradigm that many kids today are bringing to school and the workplace.”
At other times, the network is a powerful force. Social networking played a huge role in organizing the Arab Spring. But in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak wasn’t overthrown until the government shut down the Internet and people gathered at the mosques, which represent a traditional hierarchy. “That’s when the [revolution] got so large and out of control that the army could no longer contain it. It was when people moved away from the pure network model toward something more traditional that that revolution led to change.”
Now, though, the revolution has led to political uncertainty. Why? “Because the networked revolution didn’t take the time to build the kinds of structures and systems that came naturally to people like Martin Luther King.”
“The current generation has stumbled on an incredibly powerful and important model for changing the world and dealing with the workplace. … All of us can learn from this generation when it comes to the network. But networks may be able to start revolutions, but they can’t finish them. It is up to us—everyone in this room—to remind the Millennials of the importance of hierarchy.”
John Scorza is associate editor for HR Magazine.