Millennials have been hit by successive economic crises as they entered the workforce

Millennials have a reputation for playing the victim. But with a global financial crash and a pandemic hitting as they entered the workforce, this generation is probably entitled to complain

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The medium-term effects of the global financial crisis hit just as many Millennials were entering the world of work – they did not have the capital or assets that older generations had been able to acquire

The media has a tendency to characterise the Millennial generation as materialistic, narcissistic, mollycoddled snowflakes. This cohort of individuals has probably received more flak than any that came before it, but perhaps this criticism isn’t fair. If Millennials are always whining, maybe it’s because they have more to whine about than most.

In relatively quick succession, at a time when their economic and social foundations were unlikely to have been particularly solid, Millennials have had to cope with two cataclysmic events. First, there was the global financial crisis in 2008. Then, just when many will have felt relatively secure after years of austerity and hard work, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and turned everything on its head once more. Dealing with one huge economic crisis is bad luck, but two is enough to make anyone feel a little sorry for themselves.

If Millennials are always whining, maybe it’s because they have more to whine about than most

One thing after another
Defining generations is an inexact science. While the Millennial generation encompasses individuals born between 1981 and 1996, those born at opposite ends of this spectrum might not have much in common. Similarly, those who only just fall into Generation X or Generation Z might not appear that different from their Millennial acquaintances. Nevertheless, generational descriptors are seen as broadly helpful when describing certain trends – but for Millennials, these have not been much to write home about.

Although many Millennials do not remember life without the internet (and therefore the hassle of going to the library to find something out or waiting a week for the next episode of their favourite TV programme), they have faced far worse hardships. The 2008 financial crisis saw global unemployment rise above 200 million for the first time, and the COVID-19 pandemic could cause similar levels of job losses. It has already resulted in hiring freezes and pay cuts across entire industries.

“Career security is not as strong as it once was – this is one of the biggest economic challenges facing the Millennial generation,” Koen Vanpraet, CEO of PXP Financial, told European CEO. “We have been seeing an influx of new small-to-medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] emerging over the years that have, unfortunately, been forced to close their doors due to the recent pandemic. Given that the bulk of Europe’s economy is carried by SMEs, COVID-19 will have a knock-on effect on cost control and, ultimately, employment figures. Many workers face uncertainty as to when they will be able to return to work, if at all. For Millennials, many of whom were already struggling to find work, this blow will be all the worse.”

The problem is really one of timing. The medium-term effects of the global financial crisis hit just as many Millennials were entering the world of work – they did not have the capital or assets that older generations had been able to acquire. According to a 2018 paper by the Federal Reserve Board, individuals in their 20s and 30s have lower levels of homeownership, net worth and real income when compared with other age groups at a similar point in their lives. This has left them particularly vulnerable to the current crisis.

Keeping momentum
Of course, economic downturns have other effects beside job losses and falling GDP. The spread of coronavirus has led to social distancing and lockdowns in many countries. Vanpraet explained why this could affect Millennials so acutely: “Social distancing and enforced lockdown is particularly hard for the Millennial generation as many have either just begun or are early into their careers, and losing the interaction and dynamics of their newfound work life can have a knock-on effect on further career development and aspirations. Thankfully, we live in a world with internet access, where chat and platform tools (be it private or corporate), social media, and other channels are the norm. This should help groups to remain connected and lessen the social impact caused by COVID-19.”

Many businesses are trying to raise the spirits of their workforce during the coronavirus pandemic by maintaining daily interaction through meetings, presentations and even weekly challenges or games that all members of staff can play. “It is the Millennial age group who tend to be very creative, engaged and passionate about these sessions, which is no doubt a positive for their mental wellbeing,” Vanpraet said. Of course, it is difficult to remain upbeat when facing the second global crisis of what has been a relatively short working life thus far, but support is available. Staying informed, remaining connected via digital technologies and keeping physically healthy are all methods that can help individuals who are struggling.

Not a lost cause
When circumstances are beyond an individual’s control, it is easy for a sense of helplessness to take hold. It may seem dreadfully unfair that social safety nets are not as secure as they may have been for older generations, or that house prices are so much higher. Nevertheless, that does not mean Millennials should give up hope.

“There are some practical steps Millennials can take to turn the tables on their economic troubles,” Vanpraet said. “My advice is to target employers and businesses that have a strong digital and online capability. Through our own insights at PXP Financial, we have seen that companies with a robust digital presence are managing to grow continuously even in this climate. Millennials should take advantage of the opportunities this offers, where possible.”

The world of work is likely to change markedly as a result of coronavirus and the economic restructuring that comes with it. This will see jobs lost as businesses fail, but new roles will also be created by firms that react quickly. Individuals too will benefit if they can think of useful innovations suited to the ‘new normal’; a spirit of entrepreneurialism could see some Millennials prosper.

“The Millennial generation has certainly had a difficult time in the last two decades,” Jim Preston, Vice President of EMEA Sales at Showpad, told European CEO. “If nothing else, they will come out of this crisis with an unparalleled understanding of the importance of human connection and how to relate to others, be that in person or remotely. Similarly, to their credit, many Millennials have learned to adapt, constantly focusing on bettering themselves through learning at a distance and picking up new skills, with the drive to emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than ever.”

There is something to be said for turning adversity into an advantage. If the Millennial generation can manage that, then maybe they can show the rest of the world how unfair that snowflake reputation really is.