The Young Ones

It’s difficult to know how much value to attach to surveys like that showcased this week at the FT-Telefónica Millennial Summit in London (that’s FT for Financial Times). They always throw up interesting statistics and observations but I’m often unsure as to exactly what they mean.

The “millennials” are those in the 18 – 30 age group; the generation that has displaced Generation X as the generation that believes it will never be displaced. Telefónica and the FT recently surveyed 12,000 members of this generation worldwide, the largest study of the group ever undertaken, both claimed.

The study focused largely on the influence of technology on the lives of these young people and Telefónica wasn’t trying to hide the fact that this was market research. After all, the firm has 90 million millennials on its books and it was with “enlightened self interest”, said O2UK CEO Ronan Dunne, that the investigation was undertaken.

We were repeatedly told at the London event that this is the brightest, most highly educated, ambitious, engaged and optimistic generation there has ever been. Statistics around smartphone ownership (76 per cent of Millennials surveyed have one) and perceived opportunities (68 per cent globally believe they can become entrepreneurs) were deployed to back this up.

But does this mean that these assessments of the generation apply across the whole of it, or is it simply that the privileged few are even more privileged than their GenX predecessors? It’s not clear.

The most arresting statistics were the most discordant—and given the necessarily positive nature of the event, the most discordant were the most downbeat. So while 69 per cent of those surveyed felt that technology has creates more opportunities for all “as opposed to the select few”, 62 per cent believe that technology has widened the gap between rich and poor.

And wealth isn’t the only gap opening up.  While 80 per cent of millenial males believe themselves “at the cutting edge” of technology, only 69 per cent of females feel the same. 39 per cent of males believe that technology has been influential in their life, while just 22 per cent of females concur.

This is not the story of technology as empowerment that we are so often fed, and fair play to Telefónica for highlighting these numbers.

Much attention was paid to the opportunities for entrepreneurialism. That technology should ease attempts at successful entrepreneurship seems to go without saying, particularly in light of the rise of cloud services. But entrepreneurialism does not sit comfortably with the other supposed hallmark of the millennial generation: the desire to work for the greater good, both locally and internationally.

Being an entrepreneur is pretty much the purest expression of capitalist self interest that there is, and the end game is almost always personal wealth and success.

There was an onstage interview at the event with Joe Gebbia, one of the founders of crowdsourcing accommodation startup AirBnB. Gebbia is clearly well practiced at telling the story of his company’s rise, and the sheer tenacity that was necessary to make a go of it is impressive. But when he was questioned—gently—about the attention that his aggregated suppliers are receiving from their national tax agencies, the smile started to look a little fixed. It is up to the suppliers (from which AirBnB takes its cut) to sort our their own tax affairs, Gebbia said.

Quite how many would have signed up in the first place if the site was plastered with reminders along these lines we’ll never know, but it goes to show that entrepreneurs can’t afford to care too much for the wellbeing of others because it will divert them from their goals.

Equally, when Generation Y looks at the great startups of its time it sees organisations that exert themselves on tax avoidance and exhibit questionable attitudes towards the vast quantities of customer data that they collect.

Technology is making a lot of things easier and faster—particularly communication and information access—and this may be changing some behaviours. But it isn’t changing human nature. As one panellist commented, the Millennials may well be spending six hours a day online but many of them will be spending six hours looking for confirmation of opinions that they already hold.

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