Many businesses, parents and society at large don’t quite know what to make of the Millennial generation. Those aged between 16 and 35 account for 28 per cent of the population and an even bigger 37 per cent of the workforce.

Importantly, Millennials are exercising their power in elections here and even more so in other developed nations.

Older generations see them as peripatetic, thanks to their preponderance for travelling, job changing and taking time to settle down. But, compared to their parents, so were the baby boomers more than half a century ago.

Living much longer is some justification. Life expectancy in 1800 was 38 years, in 1900 it was 53 years, in 2000 it was 78 years and now the prediction is that many of us will live to more than 100 by the end of the century.

So for many if not most Millennials, family formation can wait until they are in their thirties. After all, most have studied for much longer, including a degree or two, compared to previous generations, before entering the workforce.

Most will work for 60 years before retiring, albeit for fewer hours a year. All generations work around 80,000 hours: the 65-hour week of 25 years length in 1800 is being replaced by an annualised 25-hour week over 55 to 60 years for the Millennials.

This is after allowing for holiday leave, public holidays, sick leave and long service leave, which equate to more than two months off work each year. This is also notwithstanding part-time work undertaken during the early, middle (if child raising) and later stages of life.

Differing generations

Two authors, Strauss and Howe, wrote the tome Generations in 1991. They drew on data from three centuries to discover four types of generations they suggest repeat sequentially.

IBISWorld has found a similar pattern. Here is a brief definition of the four types of generations:

  • Civics: the wealth creators and nation building generation, a can-do generation that is pragmatic and rational, but not blessed with social graces.
  • Adaptives: a generally silent, obedient but more socially aware generation, that adapts wealth-building to other social needs and make good leaders.
  • Idealists: the social visionary and idealistic generation that want to change the world now - not eventually - as reformers with many being humanistic and social re-engineers, and can be big spenders.
  • Reactives: a reactive, conciliatory generation that consolidate change, are peace-seekers, repair the collateral damage of idealists, and pave the way for new civics.

These days we use descriptors or nicknames for the various generations, more so than categorising them behaviour-wise, as above. Australia has had 12 generations since 1788, and half of them are alive today, or five and a bit are. Working back from the oldest to the youngest, they are:

  • Federationists (civics)
  • Silents (adaptives)
  • Baby boomers (idealists)
  • Generation X (reactives)
  • Millennials (new civics)
  • Generation Z (new adaptives)

The first pie chart shows these generations as citizens and workers. The second pie chart is reasonably close to the generational make-up of voters.

We are talking here about generalities rather than the specifics of generations. Clearly the attitudes and behaviours of individuals are fashioned by IQ, EQ, parentage, race, religion, socioeconomics, health, disabilities and other factors.

The four generations are not pre-formed or moulded into one of four types, other than being reactive to the generations that have preceded them.

It’s worth focusing in on the Millennials in terms of their emerging influence and power in business, politics and society.

Millennials and the following generation are children of the world, courtesy of the borderless internet. There is scant xenophobia in this generation. They have national pride and city pride and barrack for local sport teams. But their tribalism is more diffuse than any generation in history. They have virtual tribes via Facebook and Twitter, as well as physical associations.

Millennials have fewer hang ups about religion, politics and other man-made and man-flawed human beliefs and loyalties. The ready availability of facts and information has ruined good stories that have been around for centuries.

They give short shrift to urban myths and superstitions, but are temporarily taken in by scuttlebutt. Yet this generation can be sensitive, bullied and unsure all the same. Our DNA does have some emotional hard wiring as humans; we aren’t humanoids.

In business and work

Millennials are the most entrepreneurial generation for some time. More than 275,000 new businesses start up each year, a significant proportion by those under 36 years of age. While most will be lucky to survive three years, some are making it into the millionaire bracket at home and internationally in new age industries and technologies. They are making good managers, as has the older, silent-achiever Generation X.

As employees, they respond to measurement and rewards for outputs more than inputs; that is, turning up on time for fixed hour regimes. They tend to accept contractual arrangements, making them less of an employee, and more of a business-to-business relationship.

As voters

The political spectrum is perhaps more interesting. Australia and most developed western nations have had a vacuum of political nous and leadership for a decade, longer in some countries. Emotionalism – including irrationality and populism – has filled most of the void created by years of indifferent political and economic progress, and an acute shortage of statesmen of every gender.

While this has led to an increase in the swinging-vote category, the Millennials have begun to contribute to some extraordinary upsets as their numbers have grown to become the biggest share of today’s vote. Adroit use of social media has helped, as in the case of Barack Obama’s presidency. Brexit in the UK was won by the emotionalists, but the same result might not be repeated if the election was re-run. Emmanuel Macron’s elevation to the French presidency was a clear win for rationalism and the Millennials.

Politicians that fail to understand Millennials, rational thinking, vision and leadership deserve to lose un-losable elections. The Millennials are a powerful, digitally-adapted, savvy generation that won’t tolerate incompetents, ignoramuses and zealots indefinitely.