Managing millennials: Sri Lankan scenario

Monday, 26 March 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Attention of the management thinkers is increasingly being focused on millennials. They are also known as Generation Y. The concept of classifying generations of the workforce is a very much western concept. However, in a globalised, connected and a “flat” world, we cannot afford to miss out the insights and implications. Today’s column deals with myriad thoughts on managing millennials, with emphasis on Sri Lankan scenario.

Multiple generations


As scholars say the term generation comes from the Latin generre, meaning “to beget”. It is also known as procreation in biological sciences, is the act of producing offspring. In a more general sense, it can also refer to the act of creating something inanimate such as ideas, sound, electrical generation using technology or cryptographic code generation.

A generation can refer to stages of successive improvement in the development of a technology such as the internal combustion engine, or successive iterations of products with planned obsolescence, such as video game consoles or mobile phones.

Generational names are the handiwork of popular culture. Some are drawn from a historic event; others from rapid social or demographic change; others from a big turn in the calendar.

The Millennial generation falls into the third category. The label refers those born after 1980 – the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.  

Generation X covers people born from 1965 through 1980. The label long ago overtook the first

name affixed to this generation: the Baby Bust. Xers are often depicted as savvy, entrepreneurial loners.  

The Baby Boomer label is drawn from the great spike in fertility that began in 1946, right after the end of World War II, and ended almost as abruptly in 1964, around the time the birth control pill went on the market. It’s a classic example of a demography-driven name.    

The silent generation describes adults born from 1928 through 1945. Children of the Great

Depression and World War II, their “Silent” label refers to their conformist and civic instincts. It also makes for a nice contrast with the noisy ways of the anti-establishment Boomers.

The Greatest Generation (those born before 1928) “saved the world” when it was young, in the

memorable phrase of Ronald Reagan. It’s the generation that fought and won World War II.

Generational names are works in progress.

One obvious factor among all these generations is that the very names are associated with events took place in the west, and to a very high extent in the USA. The degree of relevance and applicability to Asian countries such as Sri Lanka is questionable.

Details of millennials

There are multiple names to describe the crowd. Generation Y, the Millennial Generation (or Millennials), Generation Next, Net Generation, Echo Boomers, all refer to the next wave following Generation X. As there are no precise dates for when the Millennial generation starts and ends, commentators have used birth dates ranging somewhere from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s (decade).

Experts differ on the start date of Generation Y. William Strauss and Neil Howe use the start year as 1982, and end years around the turn of the millennium, while others use start years that are earlier or later than 1982, and end years that in the mid to 1993.One segment of this age-group has often been called the “eighties babies” generation, in reference to the fact that they were born between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989.

These generation Y employees who were born between 1980 t0 1999 have differences in their perceptions, preferences and performance.  They are much more tech-savvy compared to their generation X predecessors, having exposed to rapid advancement in information and communication technology during past decades.

They are also for more flexible work arrangements. Rigid eight hour work rule will make them bored and unproductive. They are also much more ecological conscious in going green.  These triple aspects of tech-savyness, work flexibility and green-consciousness act as key indicators with regard to their preferences towards work arrangements.

Millennials have a ‘can-do’ attitude about tasks at work and look for feedback about how they are doing frequently. Millennials want a variety of tasks and expect that they will accomplish every one of them. Positive and confident, they are ready to take on the world.

They seek leadership, and even structure, from their older and managerial co-workers, but expect that you will draw out and respect their ideas. Millennials seek a challenge and do not want to experience boredom. Used to balancing many activities such as teams, friends, and philanthropic activities, millennials want flexibility in scheduling and a life away from work.

Millennials need to see where their career is going and they want to know exactly what they need to do to get there. Millennials await their next challenge – there better be a next challenge. Millennials are the most connected generation in history and will network right out of their current workplace if these needs are not met. Computer experts, millennials are connected all over the world by email, instant messages, text messages, and the Internet.

Millenials in Sri Lankan organisations

They are the emerging future. The young, tech-savvy, inquisitive boys and girls. A clear appearance is in the technology-driven industries. Many a software programmer falls into this category. However, what about the sewing worker who joins an apparel factory? Do you see a commonality in both “brain” users and “muscle” users?  This is one major deviation we see in the Sri Lankan scenario.

My fundamental criticism with regard to the multi-generational approach is its very western nature ignoring the culture realities. Blending of tradition and technology which is common in Asia is not reflected in Gen X to Gen Y approach.  When Prof. Uditha Liyanage speaks of “mod-tradi” consumer representing a young Sri Lankan wearing a “pirith nool” as well as Levis jeans, we see this clearly.

In a globalised world, we get influenced, or even dominated by a western thought process, overshadowing the indigenous realities. Multigenerational classification is one such example.  Despite its incongruence and inconsistency across industries, we have to be aware of its influence to an increasingly global workforce. That’s why Sri Lankan organisations should be cautiously adapting global practices locally.  

Reality in managing millennials

How to enhance the performance of the millennials is one key challenge managers of a multi-generational workforce face. There are several practices that have worked well in the west with regard to managing millennials. Let’s see the applicability of f those to Sri Lankan scenario.

Millennials want to look up to their seniors and to learn from them. Also, they want to receive daily feedback from their seniors. They want “in” on the whole picture and to know the scoop. One should Plan to spend a lot of time teaching and coaching and be aware of this commitment to millennials when they are hired.

This is an acute area where Sri Lankan managers can do better. There are instances where the newcomer is put into the deep end to see whether he/she would sink or swim.

Encouraging the millennial’s self-assuredness, “can-do” attitude, and positive personal self-image is another key aspect. Millennials are ready to take on the world. Shattering their dreams by being rigid on existing procedures is a crime. We often see this happening in Sri Lankan organisations.  

Taking advantage of the millennial’s comfort level with teams is another key factor. Encouraging them to make great teams should be the way forward. Some significant progress can be seen in Sri Lankan organisations in this front.

As we are aware, listening is the neglected component of communication. This applies to millennials as well. Millennial employees, particularly in the west, are used to loving parents who have scheduled their lives around the activities and events of their children. These young adults have ideas and opinions, and don’t take kindly to having their thoughts ignored. After all, they had the best listening, most child-centric audience in history.

Millennial employees are up for a challenge and change. Boring is bad. They seek ever-changing tasks within their work. ‘What’s happening next’ is their mantra. Don’t bore them, ignore them, or trivialise their contribution. Also they are multi-taskers on a scale you’ve never seen before. Talk on the phone while doing email and answering multiple instant messages. Their tech-savvyness is sufficiently demonstrated in all these.  

Way forward

Millennials are already in our workplaces. They want to be lean, seen and green. Recognising their differences and harnessing their potential for organisational success should be a top organisational priority. Despite the less association of the roots of the multi-generations, the emerging Sri Lankan workforce is exposed to the multi-generational leaders. Recognising the generational differences and synergising the common threads that cut across generations is the need of the hour. It is not a case of blindly adopting a western concept but blissfully adapting the culturally conducive aspects.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour.  He can be reached on [email protected].)

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