Millennials will make up half of the Australian workforce by 2020, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Is this a challenge or opportunity for your law firm?
They’re the generation we love to hate. Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the demographic cohort of young people born after Generation X. They have earned a reputation for being lazy, entitled, narcissistic, digital addicts.
Demographic studies define millennials as the generation born between 1981 and 2000 who grew up during the global financial crisis and graduated into the subsequent recession. They saw, among other things, the rise of the internet, mobile phones, social media, global travel and post-September 11 terrorism. More than any generation, millennial law graduates are being forced to think outside traditional legal career paths so as to get their feet in the door of a changing industry.
Rightly or wrongly, older generations say many of these young professionals are disloyal employees because they change jobs four times between graduation and their 32nd birthdays, according to LinkedIn. They are often labelled narcissists because they demand flexibility and rapid progression, and they don’t want to trade off career aspirations for work/life balance. Global studies of millennials by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Deloitte confirm these aspects, with about 73 per cent of millennials reporting they would like to work from home occasionally, and a majority saying work/life balance is more important to them than salary.
Love them or hate them, millennials are coming to your law firm. They became the largest generation in our global workforce in 2015. PwC forecasts that by 2020, millennials will comprise half the Australian workforce.
As millennials march onwards in the legal profession, how should law firms answer the challenges or opportunities they present? We pitted the wisdom of a baby boomer against the upstart ideas of a millennial to find out.
THE BABY BOOMER
Bernard Salt, 59,
is a demographer and partner at KPMG Australia, and is one of Australia’s leading social commentators. Salt earned himself a name as the infamous “smashed avo” critic, when he wrote a provocative column in The Australian last year implying that young people might be able to save for a house if they ate at home more often, rather than paying $22 for smashed avocado on toast. The resulting outrage catapulted Salt to the forefront of debate on Australia’s housing affordability crisis. Salt hosts a weekly TV program on Sky News Business which investigates demographic issues, writes two weekly columns for The Australian, and flies around the world on a jam-packed speaking circuit. Salt has two millennial children of his own, one of whom is a lawyer in Copenhagen.
Holly Ransom, 27,
is a law and economics graduate from the University of Western Australia, who began her career as a paralegal in Perth. She changed tack by entering the business world as Chief of Staff to Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh, and leapt to global attention when, in 2014, the (then) Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed her to run the G20 Youth Summit. Since then Ransom has caused a stir on the speaking circuit across six continents, delivering commentary on intergenerational economic and social issues. In 2016, she became the youngest-ever woman appointed to the board of an AFL football club, as a Director of Port Adelaide Power. Ransom is the CEO of her own consulting company, Emergent, and runs Ironman endurance triathlons in her spare time.
What are the defining characteristics of millennials in the workforce?
BERNARD: Millennials were born into a time of economic prosperity, before the global financial crisis. They’re the most confident generation because they haven’t really experienced an economic depression in Australia, or a world war. They are also more educated than any generation in history and are very digitally connected – perhaps a bit show-offy about their digital skills. They are creative, entrepreneurial and particularly global in their thinking. I think this is very different to the baby boomers, who are more local in their thinking, more measured and conservative, probably because they were raised by parents who went through the Great Depression and World Wars.
HOLLY: Millennials are really purpose-driven. They are five times more likely to work for an organisation where they believe they are connecting with a greater purpose, and they want to feel like their work matters – that they’re not just a cog in a machine. Many surveys have found that millennials have incredibly low levels of institutional trust, and it doesn’t really surprise me. When I think of the formative years of this generation they probably feel like a social contract has been broken with them. They’re burdened by extraordinary university debts, they’re struggling to find full-time employment in the sector they studied in, and they’ve been locked out of a housing market where, in Sydney, it costs 12 times a couple’s combined annual income to enter. We’ve got the most educated, diverse and largest generation in history entering the workforce; the challenge is that they’re disconnected.
If millennials distrust large organisations and traditional hierarchies, how can law firms make themselves an attractive option for millennials to work in?
B: Millennials change jobs regularly and challenge the old-fashioned law career path of coming into a firm as a graduate, paying your dues and making it to partner by your 40s. This is going to be uncomfortable for some partners from my generation who made it to the top by sitting down, shutting up and taking orders from above. But those who maintain such fixated views really need to retire. Perhaps we could just move them off to the side like an embarrassing old uncle on Christmas Eve. You want to create a culture that embraces change and new ideas, and that, in turn, will engage your employees. Anyone from junior lawyer to senior partner should be encouraged to put forward ideas. Because the skill set you will need to adapt for the future in law is not just technical excellence in legal matters; you will need to have fluidity, flexibility, agility and creativity.
H: Adding to the fluidity and flexibility piece that Bernard mentions, millennials, more than any past generation, want to work flexibly and to be judged on the merit of their work, not facetime at the office. They want to see diversity in the leadership of the organisation and that people of any cultural background, gender or sexual orientation can make it to partnership, even when working flexibly. Millennials also want to see that that there’s a pathway for them personally to succeed and grow within their firm. I watch young talent all the time jump horizontally to opportunities, not even to promotions. The partners will get really frustrated and say, “They were on our partner track, we had so much in mind for them,” and I’ll say, “Did you ever tell them that?”
Australia has far more law graduates than jobs for lawyers. Is our education system adequately preparing young people for a world where jobs are non-linear and may not even exist yet?
B: Law is a wonderful degree because it teaches logical, rational thought, and analytical problem-solving skills that can apply to any career. But I think there is an important skill set for millennials to learn that is not necessarily taught at university. That is the skill of being flexible. If you are precious, if you think you are special, unique and just waiting to be discovered, then there are problems ahead for you. Millennials need to accept that there are going to be hits and misses in life. When you get a hit you don’t crumble and fall in a heap. You adapt and come back stronger.
H: I would agree and note that we haven’t incrementally built resilience into this generation. I say this as a millennial. We were a generation of kids where everyone got a medal for running in a race and everyone got to be a school captain. That’s really challenging when you get into the real world and your degree doesn’t lead to a job, or you face tough feedback from a manager. We have to think about creating the conditions, at a university level, to test our young people, allow them to fail safely, and get comfortable with critical feedback.
What is the biggest lesson millennials need to learn when they enter the workforce?
B: I would suggest respect for experience. We get it, that you’re very good with technology and social media and that you’re connected, have travelled the world and have all these creative ideas. It’s wonderful and we want to harness that for the commercial advantage of the firm, which hopefully you will be part of. But you also need to be patient. Accept that not every idea you suggest will work.
H: As a digital generation, millennials need to focus on building their soft skills capacity. This has been diminished by the tendency to message and Snapchat and email. But if you’re always communicating on screens, you might not be able to have crucial in-person conversations and you don’t necessarily have the confidence to address a boardroom. It’s important for millennials to practise these skills in order to build informal networks of people who can be your advocates, your advisors, your confidantes. So much hiring is done via platforms such as LinkedIn and via informal networks these days.
What has a millennial taught you?
B: I look back and regret how hierarchical my early career was. I was too respectful of authority. Millennials know no fear. They will have a go at anything. Their boldness, their chutzpah, their self-confidence at the age of mid-20s is extraordinary and breathtaking. On one hand, that annoys older people. But I look at it and think, “My God, imagine what I could have achieved in life if I had gone onto the speaking circuit at 28 as opposed to 35.”
H: I’m the same. I get so inspired by the purpose of this generation and the belief, which was instilled by their baby boomer parents, that they can be anything they want to be and they can make a difference in the world. I think there’s an incredible positive to that belief and optimism.
Do you have any advice for millennials?
B: Occasionally, millennials, someone in authority will look you in the eye with genuine concern and say, “You’re on the wrong track.” I was told in 1997, by the partner to whom I reported, to “let go of the demographics thing. It will never get you anywhere”. You need to have the self-confidence to disagree. Sometimes advice from a mentor can be wrong; it can be biased, it can spring from jealousy that they don’t even know themselves. Older people might find your youth and potential threatening and want to sideline you. So my best mentoring advice is, “Do it yourself. Believe in yourself and don’t put too much store in someone who might have a range of other agendas.”
H: That is interesting because I think it’s really important in navigating your own career path that you’ve got mentors who you can reach out to and pick up the phone and call. I figure if it takes a village to raise a young child it must take an army to raise a young woman. For me, it’s been invaluable to sit at the feet of people I deeply admire, and draw insights or ideas from them. I also have some advice for older generations – 50 per cent of the world’s population is under 27, yet this is a voice that goes unheard in boardrooms. CEOs, look at how your consumer base is shifting, think about the future of the workforce. Any leader worth their salt needs to be thinking about how they accommodate, deal with, harness and empower this generation here and now.
Busting the millennial myths
Lazy or working smarter?
B: I don’t think they’re lazy. I think some are disengaged.
H: Working smarter. The old-school thinking that,
“If I’m not in the office by 8am and I’m not there until 10pm means I’m not working hard,” doesn’t make sense in a flexible economy.
Fluid and open-minded or lacking loyalty to companies?
B: They are fluid, but they need to temper that with a long-term vision. At 25, establish what you want to be famous for and be loyal to that vision.
H: Fluid and open-minded. They need to be, because they’re entering a dynamic, much less linear, much more self-guided type of career environment.
Asking for regular feedback or needing mollycoddling?
B: Feedback is good if it’s genuine, but you need to have the self-confidence to know you’ve done a good job. The client doesn’t give a partner a pat on the head. They’ve paid a bucket-load of money.
H: Probably the latter. I think that’s where we’ve got room for improvement. The side that I worry about is not necessarily mollycoddling but wanting to only hear feedback that is good.