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Let's not misjudge the 'millennials'

When we're not fussing over Twitter or prematurely predicting the End of Something, people like me enjoy trying to scare the business community. Our favourite scare story is the one about the next generation: a hazily defined group of teens and pre-teens we call the "millennials". You will know them as "pupils".

The story runs something like this: they are an intimidating rabble of disloyal, technology-obsessed narcissists. They will soon burst out of school and into the workplace, stopping briefly to eat your lunch before they shake up the company on their way to world domination.

This revolution will not be televised but recorded in minute detail on YouTube, Bebo and the flying computers that are just around the corner. It was a cosy little arrangement.

We commentators made a series of intriguing but gross generalisations, and they were consumed by the business world in the same giddy spirit that drives us to read horror novels or ride the roller-coaster.

We were trundling along quite happily with this nonsense until Morgan Stanley decided to publish the thoughts of a 15-year-old intern early this summer. The intern said: "Dear Granddads, newspapers, Twitter, wires and paying for stuff are yesterday's news." Or words to that effect.

The backlash has begun. Overstatement and half-truth will no longer cut it. Our audience wants truth. They want data.

About a year ago, I was commissioned to lead a major research project on how the millennials will change the world of work. A little later, I made a series of short films in which children explore their vision of a future digital Britain.

I had already written several pieces on these themes, but - whisper it - I had only ever spoken to teachers and other grown-ups. It was time to go into some schools and youth groups and actually talk to children. Would I even survive?

As it happens, I did. And if schools are full of workplace time-bombs, I failed to hear the ticking.

My findings may not surprise teachers, who work with these children every day. But they were almost heretical in the business world.

The cliche goes that the next generation's attachment to social networks and being heard, allied to levels of self-confidence usually only found in US sprinters, will soon invert the old ideas about hierarchies at work. The tail will wag the dog.

Such children were nowhere to be found. I saw the odd naughty child, but inquisitive and polite pupils outnumbered them heavily.

When I pressed the issue of hierarchies, I found that these children were more likely to see older and more senior people as possible mentors rather than targets to usurp and undermine. Perhaps they are dictators at home, but then I wasn't all that great to live with at 15.

Commentators like to say that millennial children are egotistical "trophy kids", cosseted by their parents and demanding constant praise. Sadly not. Excessive ego would have been preferable to what I observed among many children. In sessions where we discussed their dreams for the future, I found depressingly low self-esteem. Ambitions tended to be modest, and several times I wanted to shout: "But you're young! You can do anything!"

There were noble blue-sky exceptions: the 15-year-old girl who wanted "the lifestyle of a writer while working as a designer", and the 14-year-old boy aiming to split his time between "rock star and hedge-funder". More power to both of them.

How about looking at what will motivate them at work? Received wisdom is that millennials value softer measures such as flexibility, creative potential, social responsibility, gadgets and perks over the banality of salary. Not the children I met.

Primary and secondary pupils were both clear on this: they will be in it for the money. In one case, I facilitated a discussion on what other motivators may be relevant, asked the question again and found that three- quarters still wanted to see the colour of our money.

We all know that digital immersion has given our millennials the attention span of a distracted goldfish, right? Not in my experience. I helped to establish an experimental classroom of the future at Teddington School in west London.

One of the most compelling observations in the space has been that children's concentration levels and engagement with the lesson are improved when lessons take place over a longer period. The breathing space of half-day lessons saw groups of children absolutely absorbed in the task in hand.

Of course, I am piling anecdote on to anecdote, and the plural of anecdote is certainly not "data".

Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that we need to calm down a little. To label the next generation as a breed apart may appeal to our sense of the dramatic, but there is little evidence to justify it.

Rupert Murdoch and others have called children "digital natives", but if they are behaving differently from previous generations, it is because they are immersed in the digital world that we grown-ups created. Judgmental labels tend to be unhelpful and erroneous - or both. There is little for the working world to fear.

So my suggestion is this: when the commentators overplay their hand by pointing to changes in the nature of young people, politely tell them to calm down a little - or, better still, just send them back to school.

Richard Leyland writes on the future of work at

Richard Leyland is a futurist and technology writer.

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