fresh thinking

India's millennials are bringing disruption to their workplaces. Their bosses are struggling to cope.

Mark Hannant, 29th April 2016

Around 1 million young Indians join the workforce each month and they're having a profound impact on the way Indian companies think about and engage their employees. In their early twenties these cohorts are India's children of liberalisation. They were born around 1991 the year India was forced to open up its economy. Shaking off the shackles of a planned economy the country embarked on a period of sustained, albeit uneven, economic growth.

Unlike their western counterparts facing unprecedented decline in living standards relative to their parents, India's urban millennials, will be more financially secure than their forbears. They were born into a period of relative prosperity that contrasts with the scarcity that stymied the lives of India's post independence baby boomers and generation X.

Other social changes have occurred simultaneously. Many millennials have been brought up in nuclear families rather than the traditional extended or joint families. Their life expectancy is much higher than that of their parents. In 1980 India's life expectancy was 48 years. By 2015 it has jumped to 68 years. More likely to live in cities they have been exposed to a broader range of influences and have a host of choices that were unavailable to their parents. They have economic and political power though perhaps do not recognise it as such.

India's millennials are digital natives, connected, not just with their indigenous peers, but as fans, followers and Facebook friends with other young adults across the world. Their content consumption is broadly the same as their contemporaries in more developed nations: Beyoncé's album Lemonade was being dissected by the young team in our Mumbai office on Monday morning just as it was in Memphis, Munich and Manila.

As a group their expectations of what they want from employers are transforming largely in line with what we've seen in the workplaces of the west in the past decade. There are of course things that distinguish India's millennials from similarly aged people in other parts of the world: Standing out from the crowd, challenging authority figures or speaking one's mind in front of one's seniors still do not come naturally to young Indians. A residual deference remains, and a general desire to conform too, but young Indians are demanding a different level and style of engagement.

Their parents were schooled and aspired to be engineers, physicians, bankers and traders and leapt at the chance to join organisations that offered jobs for life: security and status in a world of uncertainty and limited choices. India's corporations are still organised in ways that suit that previous generation's career requirements. They are often hierarchical, bureaucratic, risk-averse, paternalistic, rigid structures. Management is premised on a command and control model that tends to assume the worst of people. The Gen Xers who head functions and business units in these organisations are comfortable with those stable and reassuring aspects of their professional life. They are struggling to deal with the aspirations of a seemingly 'entitled', demanding, impatient bunch of young upstarts who they perceive to lack loyalty.

The decision-making systems, advancement policies, approvals processes of traditional Indian businesses are being challenged. Their corridors are teeming with smartphone-wielding, music-streaming, sneaker-wearing hipsters who refuse to see why they can't snapchat or tweet or take delivery of a package from Koovs during office hours.

Those companies that want to attract and retain the brightest of this best educated and most ambitious generation of Indians are realising that they have to change. Some have grasped the nettle and are stripping away layers of approvals, fast tracking promising talent, doing away with traditional length-of-service-linked promotion systems and being pragmatic about the fact that loyalty doesn't necessarily equate to a life-long commitment. Others still ban social media, and have separate dining rooms for management, and haven't quite figured out why they're losing talent to start-ups that pay less.

As with all change it's painful, uneven and unpredictable.

Having seen circumstantial evidence during the past seven years I've embarked on a more structured piece of work to capture stories and insights from the coalface. I'm interviewing business leaders in India to understand how they and their organisations are responding to the demands of the millennial generation. Many have already been generous with their time but I'm keen to widen the net.

So, if you have a perspective to share, and particularly if you're willing to be interviewed, I'd love to hear from you.


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