Hillary Clinton and the Golden Mussel
What's common between Hillary Clinton's loss in America, Golden Mussels in Brazil, and Leket Israel, a food bank in Jerusalem?
More than you can imagine.
For each of them either benefited from or paid the price of the whimsy of a particular demographic that is and will continue to alter the world as we know it from here on. The Millennial.
Take Hillary for instance. Had the millennials voted for her as decisively as they had for Obama once, especially in key swing states like Florida, American democracy would have been headed in quite a different direction today. Or for that matter take the case of Marcela Uliano Da Silva, a research student at the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro inventing what she calls a ‘Bio Bullet’ to kill colonies of the Golden mussel, a prodigiously pernicious band of bivalve molluscs, that threatens the entire ecosystem of the Amazon basin, though originally from China. She too is a Millennial, bringing about change not through the ballot, but through definitive action.
And then there are organizations like Leket Israel, the largest food bank in Israel that redistributes high quality food to hotels, the army and those below the poverty line by leveraging ‘Voluntourism’, a millennial-centric phenomena that as of 2016 is a $2 billion industry*, tapping into the generation's need to travel and learn more than what their books can ever teach them. Leket alone drew over 52,000 volunteers last year mostly from Europe and the United States.
From volunteering to working in organic farms in Borneo to rallying behind Marine Le Pen and her far-right party in France, from joining five courses simultaneously on Udemy to making Kosaka Daimaou’s ridiculous track ‘Pen Pineapple Apple Pen’, a youtube blockbuster, this demographic seems to be set on changing the rules of the game in the strangest ways possible.
So how does this work? The same force that works for saving the environment on one side can go ahead and help a supposed bigot and climate change denier in the world’s oldest and most evolved democracy come to power on the other?
Is this contradiction reconcilable?
The children of Moore
To truly understand this paradox and to make sense of the seemingly inconsistent blips in their evolutionary EEG, we need to define who they are before all else. Specifically put, Millennials are those born roughly between the years 1982 and 2004, as opposed to the Gen Xers born between 1964 and 1982 and the Baby Boomers born even earlier, between 1946 and 1964. While the earliest of the three was born in an uncertain world after the Second World War, the last was born in the uncertainty of a shrinking world, where the security accorded by the very borders that the Baby boomers grew up in was being brutally hammered down by the first explorers of Gen X who wanted a borderless world and who used technology to bulldoze vast tracts of what was known to be safe and comfortable.
Imagine if you will a world transformed in the last fifty years in ways that the last five thousand did not and place three generations with completely different sets of eyes together to make sense of the chaos around them. Any guesses if the endeavor will succeed?
That’s where the problem began. Moore’s law changing the world around us in ways faster than the human consciousness could adapt. Children who grew up in a world where telegrams informed of someone’s demise began coexisting and even working with those who marked themselves safe in an earthquake on Facebook. As a result, the disruption and dissonance became acute with one generation accusing the other of being wastrels, and the other, of being too conventional.
And nowhere is this distrust more visible than at the modern workplace where all three generations come together to achieve a common purpose. There’s little we can do to change the world when it comes to the repercussions of this generational clash, but for the nonce we can try and set a new framework to understand the most elusive of the three - The generation that is going to take over from the old in ways that no one can begin to anticipate, inheriting a world that at best is a nebulous phantasm of both frightening and exhilarating possibilities as of now, and for whom all the Baby boomers and Gen Xers will have to make way in the next decade or so. The generation that already stands at 2 billion globally and counting with 58% of it living in Asia alone**. The generation that will determine the future of business and society in ways no previous generation has. It’s time we stop treating them as something that will happen in the future, because they’ve already happened, and they’re changing everything.
Benjamin & his buttons
If you type the word ‘Millennial’ in google today, there are a lot of surveys out there that spew out numbers and research on the demographic. Lots of percentages and pie charts spelling out what works for them and what pisses them off. Yet there is little that is being done as a framework to harness the potential that the generation comes with.
All previous generations had a system in place that marginally bettered itself over the years to give a semblance of streamlining the raw material into a fine produce. School curricula changed mildly to account for human inflation and textbooks got new covers to stay in step with the times. When computers arrived on the scene they got introduced, and when an MBA became a buzzword, everyone fell into a single file and applied.
But things have changed since then and the Millennial has to shout out to hear himself from amidst the deafening din of information that surrounds him. Pulled in opposite directions by old school parents and new world technology, the Millennial has to process tomes of greater information to come to a correct decision than the previous guys ever did. Even the term ‘correct decision’ that I have just used is untrue when it comes to them. I sound as outdated when using it, for today the correct decision could most likely be one we never had even accounted for.
The objective of this series is to arrive at the framework of an organization that is best able to build what some might call a Utopian world of seamless coexistence between generations not trying to make the youngest fit in, but trying to make the older members younger, and thereby making the organization itself ready for all challenges that tomorrow presents.
Somewhat like the film ‘The curious case of Benjamin Button’, the intention is to induce ‘Progeria’ into the adherents of the Kindergarten Organization thereby making them get younger with every passing year till finally there is no difference left between the parent and the offspring.
While it may sound fantastical to implement, it is highly actionable if we start now with a dream, because I indeed do have one. Through this dream I intend to consign to paper and ideally implement across some organizations the blueprint of what can be the best possible scenario for corporate excellence by harnessing the greatest resource there is available to us – Human; and this time working bottom-up, taking the millennial are the kernel around which everyone bases the future of their organizations. No longer should the corner offices decide who will get recruited, when will they be appraised and judged on what, but will ideally follow a ‘Why’ of existence and a ‘How’ of change to truly address the consumers and the workforce of tomorrow, derived from a shared vision based on staying young, like the children in a Kindergarten.
Limbic & Prefrontal go to a bar
I heard a joke once which was rather funny once you get it, and highlighted to me the delusions we all live under.
A woman was once in bed with her husband’s best friend when the phone rang. After hanging up she says, “That was Harry, but don’t worry – he won’t be home for a while. He’s playing cards with you.”
Each day we believe that we know the answers to everything and our way, tried and tested as it is, is indeed the best way forward. The times will change but the fundamental rules won’t alter, and the way to do things will always stay constant even if the phone in our hand has turned into a watch now. Hard work, diligence, humility, seriousness, accountability, a performance bias and extreme sacrifices to reach a set goal are still, to our minds, the unshakeable axes around which the earth rotates. No wonder the culture shock is acute when people half our age with a totally new set of priorities, untried, untested, enter our professional work streams and start fishing for the same accolades and recognition that we have worked so hard to bag.
The consternation is understandable as is the complete inability to get a hold of their triggers which seem to shift ever so easily since most of them appear to have the attention span of a goldfish, but the intransigence to dig deeper into their psyche isn’t. It’s time for us to understand the generation in question a little deeper and we begin by taking a trip down our own memory lanes right back to the time when none of this mattered, to the time when we were children.
A time when everything was possible. A time when life and it’s many challenges hadn’t seeped deep into our souls and darkened them. When there were opportunities, challenges, and fun in everything we did, from climbing a tree to having a shower, splashing water all around our laughing selves.
If we were to define who we were back then, then we’d all get awards for performance year on year. We took risks, were open to criticism, took up new challenges with gusto, were curious about everything around us and learned new things every second of every day, absorbing them like over zealous sponges.
But then we grew up and the rest, as they say, is history. I do not wish to take you back to that journey, but instead, wish to ask you why those days were some of our most cherished. Well, the answer lies in a part of our brain that is the first to develop, and till the day we die, the part that is most important to being human. The part science calls the ‘Limbic system’.
The Limbic brain is also called the emotional brain, nicknamed as such due to the kernel of its intelligence that focuses on our most primary instincts – care, memory, stress, fear, rage, social bonding, hormone control among others; it is this part of the brain that develops first and between the time we are born and till the time we reach the age of five, is the part that grows the fastest and governs most of our behaviour. It is the part of our intelligence untainted by cognition and worldly intelligence, untainted by logic, self-awareness, prediction, and problem-solving. These components form our more obvious intelligence, the ‘Thinking brain’ as scientists would like to call it, or the Prefrontal cortex. The Prefrontal cortex grows over a period of time, but only after the Limbic system has come into its own, and for the rest of our lives, when presented with situations that deeply challenge, threaten, frustrate or confuse us, it is the other system, the emotional one, that takes over.
Now it is my conjecture, and I am sure, not a far-reaching one at that, that with a set pattern of problems presenting themselves to previous generations and a rate of change that was acceptable and digestible, this part of the brain stayed in its place, acting up only when extreme situations presented themselves, but allowing the prefrontal cortex to take the lead nine out of ten times. The Traditionalists, the Baby Boomers and to a large extent even the Gen Xers grew up in a world where the Prefrontal Cortex was king. Friends met up unannounced in the evenings, families were close, telephones were used to convey information alone and economies grew silently at a normal rate of growth using technology mildly modified over the previous generation.
But with Moore’s law working itself up into a frenzy and with the global economy going through a never before seen spurt since the early eighties and deep into the nineties, everything changed, and the first area to be hit was that very kernel at the heart of our intelligence – the Limbic system.
Technology and it’s ensuing blitz caused speed and efficiency to seep into every part of our everyday lives. Emails replaced the post and soon they could be read on our computers and then on our handheld devices. The compartments between life and work began to fade at an alarming rate, and soon a 24X7 routine became the new normal. Devices became slimmer and our task list fatter. Work could be done from home and assignments could be evaluated real time at school at the click of a button. A maddening rush settled on us all and time became the only truly valuable commodity in the history of human existence. No longer did the connect matter, the work did. No longer did understanding people matter, their performance within a deadline did. Families were relegated to distant priorities and genuine concern was replaced with result orientation, and somewhere along the way while we dove head first into this maelstrom, was born the Millennial.
Ladies & Gentlemen, ‘Come Undone’ by Duran Duran
Born into a world where the decrease in the number of hours a parent could spend with a child was directly correlated with the increase in the number of cable channels, the Millenial raced towards the gifts of the Prefrontal Cortex way before his time.
Families began shrinking as jobs required people to work overseas and away from their homes in cities where commerce was coming together across fiber optic cables from around the world, and soon technology replaced parenting to a significant extent as did self-reliance replace emotional growth and stability.
In the world we live in today the things we take for granted in the name of efficiency would be startling to someone who had been asleep for the last three decades, only to be awoken on the first day of this year. Take for instance the humble SMS. The first commercial text message was sent in December 1992. Today over 7 billion get sent and received each day.
From video streaming to dating online, from selfies fanning vanity to smartphones talking back to us inside driverless cars, the life that we consider normal has today has come at a price. That price is isolation. The house that the Limbic system built has come undone.
Despite an interconnected world and Facebook bringing long lost friends back with a simple friend request, the tragedy is that all of this is being done in front of screens and not other people. The hours spent in front of our phones today eclipses by far the hours spent in meaningful conversations. According to a report by Common Sense Media, a Nonprofit for children parents and educators, an average American teen spends more than nine hours using media for enjoyment alone. Add to this the umbrella of the internet that engulfs us and you have a near-perfect system of infecting each and every human alive. Taking another example, the number of internet devices in 1984, when the Millennial began to come to life, were just 1000. Today that number is already over 10 billion and is expected to touch 20 Billion by 2020.***
For those born before the Millennial, the web of an all-encompassing network ensnared us well after our Limbic system was formed, healthy and strong, with minor glitches of course, but more or less uniform in a world of uniform inputs. But for the Millennial, this web caught him early on and while he struggled, and continues to do so to balance between what earlier generations expect of him and the gossamers of the trap he’s in, the isolation he faces only increases.
It is because of this growing isolation of a connected world, that the millennials are more sensitive to emotional slights. Courtesy an overresponsive Limbic system thanks to the stressful world they are growing up in and the increasingly self-reliant childhood that they have had, their natural reaction to most stimuli is to judge it from an emotional standpoint before they do a logical one. Even a career path that has been chosen by a Millennial seemingly logically, is rooted deep in the seabed of social recognition and a fear of rejection. Earlier generations might have chosen a career path basis a tried and tested formula of success – a good salary, a reputable company, and a known career path with an end goal of retiring well – all reasons to embrace social convention, not fear it.
But now it’s the fear of failure and the need to find a purpose to gain greater acceptance and recognition that drives this generation.
In other words, much like children below the age of five, an over-reliance on the Limbic system can make the Millennial ‘Act before he thinks.’ But surprisingly this does not mean that it’s all bad. Children are possibly the smartest people in a room when it comes to thinking emotionally, and judge every situation with regards to how it makes them feel about a situation or about themselves, and when it comes to the Millennial, his cortical development, his thinking brain, kicks in to give him a wider spectrum of EQ than previous generations.
Child is the father of Man
This similarity between children below the age of five and Millennials can easily be seen with a simple plotting of key need states across surveys. Not surprisingly, the conclusions are self-evident.
Every aspect that infuriates us about a child is also the very aspect that helps shape his or her future. They need instant gratification, patience, understanding, learning, care, discipline, fun, a sense of purpose, a strong sense of community; and all of these attributes are to be patiently cultivated in them by their parents.
The surprising part is that despite being from an earlier generation, we find it pretty easy to understand and manage a child, even though in many cases children can be more stubborn than any adult you’ll ever meet. I have yet to see an adult kicking and screaming inside of a toy store when denied a remote controlled car, and yet all we display when faced with such a situation with a child is even greater understanding. We try convincing them, luring them out, distracting them and finally threatening them till the despicable act is stopped. Why? Because we consider all such transgressions to be part of growing up. Something we too as kids did. Yet when it comes to Millennials we expect them to be level-headed, grounded and mature even though their emotional intelligence is geared towards instant feedback, much like a child’s, but caused due to a proliferation of information and a poor filtering mechanism.
Simon Sinek, in a conversation with Tom Bilyeu of Insidequest in October 2016 talked about how it is today the responsibility of corporations to parent the Millennials in the power of balance and focus, moderating the extreme influences pervading their lives on a day to day basis. ‘Reaching the peak’, as he puts it, ‘comes with climbing the mountain.’ The technique to teach them to climb the mountain and making it fun is where the whole revelation lies.
If we keep an eye towards the future, much like we do towards our own children and accept the mild truancy as integral parts of the process, we will have employees who can create vision and a future for the organization in ways that we could have never imagined.
In other words, a seemingly incomprehensible generation on whom contradicting research reports have been coming out for years now, can, in my opinion, be handled in the one way that every organization should handle each and every one of it’s employees, irrespective of the generation – like a peer group, connecting emotionally before intellectually.
Let the world view of the Millennial infect our ‘seroiousness’ and herd mentality to question everything and inject a sense of enjoyment, acceptance and single-minded future orientation, forming the kernel around which our organization develops. Let the change begin from within basis not what makes the higher ups comfortable, but basis what the future will hold in store for the organization. In a VUCA world, it’s time we broke down all pre-conceived notions and embraced a renovation of our entire belief structure basis what I’d like to call The F3 Principle
Combining the 3 essential elements of fun, flexibility, and Futurism, the F3 Principle focuses on the child inside each and every one of us, especially inside the Millennial. His quest to know more, do more and be more is satisfied at the core, in an organization that itself wants to reinvent itself to embrace the future. No more is there is dissonance between the corporate values and individual values, nor is there a generational war within a system.
Each and every individual, much like Benjamin Button, grows younger, and in the process embraces what the Millennial and his successor, the Gen Zer stand for – adapting at a molecular level to an unknown tomorrow by making most of the changes today. Like a Kindergarten school where the goal is to shape a class for the future, by having fun today.
Coming Up in Part III: Implementing the Kindergarten Organization. Techniques & ideas to action the concept at work.
* Jeff Fromm. ‘How Leket Israel is leveraging Millennial influence to amplify Voluntourism trend. Forbes Magazine, January 2017.
** ‘Where are the global millennials?’ - AT Kearny Global Business Policy Council report, July 2016
*** ‘The internet of things’, Don Clark, WSJ, January 2014