Who are the millennials? Are they ambitious or unambitious?
Although they are defined in the West as persons who came into adulthood at the beginning of the 21st century and later, I tend to define them as young and well-resourced persons or simply young people spoilt for choice.
I came to that conclusion because there are those born within that period who don’t fit the common definition of millennials.
However, a greater majority that fit into the definition live in the West as well as in the newly industrialised Asian economies.
In Africa, there is a smaller number, based mainly in the cities, with larger-than-life influence among the resource-scarce group. Hence the generalisation.
In the past few weeks, there has been several articles about millennials, from Chinese ones to those in the Americas and Europe.
The debate centres on a general sense that young people are either losing their direction or have already lost it and need to be saved from themselves.
In my view, the answer to this debate lies between scarcity and abundance of resources.
It is perhaps why many analysts think that millennials have this sense of entitlement that is undermining their future.
When I reflect on my past, I recognise that there were signs of behavioural change among the young adults of my time.
One day in college, my social sciences professor asked each and every student to tell the class the best present their parents had ever given them for which they truly felt grateful.
He started at the front and in turn students responded, “a car,” “a motor bike,” “a holiday in Hawaii”.
When my turn came I said, “Chicken soup,” and the room went silent.
At the end of class, my professor asked me to remain behind. He was concerned that I may have failed to capture the essence of his question.
“Do I need to clarify the question”? He asked.
“No. Not at all. It was perfectly clear,” I responded.
“What did you mean?” He enquired.
“See, Prof, whenever I felt sick and had fever, my mother always cooked chicken soup for me and in each case I was healed not because of its medicinal content but because of the love with which she touched me and ensured that I had had enough of it to lower the fever. To me it was the best present that I truly felt grateful about and will never trade it for anything else.”
The professor was astounded. Never before in his experience had someone glorified such a valueless gift.
However, the point is that my mother had to use every means to ensure I was fine.
The resources were scarce then and there wasn’t a doctor in a 20-mile radius from our house.
Meat, or such soup, was a luxury. We didn’t have shoes or decent clothing. We barely met our basic needs and indeed it was not easy for any of my classmates to conceptualise my situation.
A few days later, my professor decided to speak comprehensively on inequalities that exist among societies, revealing the lack of knowledge on the subject among the many students who came from affluent families with abundant resources at their disposal. It was the first time I heard someone refer to a group of people as entitled.
The flip side of abundance in America was a booming opportunity for students like myself who came from poor countries.
Menial jobs were in abundance. Cleaning toilets, washing dishes, mowing lawns and even clearing snow were some of the commonest jobs that many American students disliked.
There was no expectation on our part that someone could pay for our tuition and fees.
Even though our fees were three times higher than what Americans paid, we managed to pay for our tuition and graduated without debt.
We simply had to survive with the hope of improving our lives in the days to come.
There was some drive in us that eluded many privileged Americans.
Our flexibility enabled us to focus and complete college within the normal four years as some Americans extended their studies to as many as eight years.
Some of these reflections show that there are powerful underlying factors influencing performance and behaviour, including that of the millennials.
Throughout history, empires have risen and fallen. The term empires could be replaced with individuals or societies. Every society, therefore, will work itself out of resource scarcity into contentment and perhaps destroy itself before restarting the process all over again.
The thought of such an eventuality is what is precipitating a plethora of analyses on how to redirect millennials into a more predictable and sustainable future.
The West and all the other high-income societies, including African ones, are worried that millennials do not exhibit characteristics of the ideal successors who will reproduce and sustain success to the continued glory of their communities.
The problem, however, is that wealth brings far greater problems even as it solves a lot of them.
There are the temptations of narcissism, which in some dictionaries is defined as “inordinate fascination with oneself; self-love, vanity.”
We have heard of “America First.” Good as it may sound, it is chipping away USA’s greatness and influence.
A poll by the Washington Post in the run-up to the 2016 elections showed that 41 per cent of white millennials would vote for Trump, the highest in any category of voters.
This showed that though many people reject Trump’s narcissist tendencies, there is a growing constituency for whom his message resonates.
China, after many years of wallowing in poverty, has made a breakthrough but its success is undermining sustained growth of her people.
A December 29, 2017 Agence France Presse (AFP) report said, “Years of a strict one-child policy and a rapidly developing economy have placed great pressure on young people to succeed academically and get ahead professionally.
Now, some of them are happily resigned to being ordinary. 'I am just average in everything I do," said Wang Zhaoyue, a 24-year-old master's graduate'".
Many in Africa will say China is going through a “good problem” since they have the money that can fix it. Not so easily, however, as human resources are are a major factor of production.
It must be seen as an African opportunity to step into the vacuum and fill the labour gap. A labour force that is resource-scarce and one that cannot discriminate on the jobs that are available is a good thing to have.
This is what Asian tigers did when the Western world shifted its production to Asia to take advantage of cheap labour.
The desperate attempts by Africans to migrate to Europe are unnecessary if African governments devised a containment strategy to produce for the world from Africa.
It is said that "No good deed goes unpunished". To manage ambition, Caroline Beaton, in a Forbes article of December 2017, suggests three ways millennials can manage their stress.
These include: First, setting the right kind of goals. Here she relies on psychologists to make the case that “ambition is typically centred on attainment of outcomes”.
But studies overwhelmingly reveal that exclusively extrinsic goals sabotage our health. She emphasises that research, especially by Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College, shows that “pursuit of external values like money, possessions and social status leads to reduced well-being and increased distress”.
As such, one needs to shift one's plans, goals and resolutions to an intrinsic orientation.
Second, she urges people to forfeit perfectionism. Perfectionism, she says, “is setting unyielding, unrealistic expectations. While healthy high standards can motivate us to accomplish great things, perfectionism feeds addiction and makes us unhappy”.
Instead, she says that one needs to set achievable goals and embrace surprise if you surpass them.
Thirdly, she thinks without connecting through social networks, stress levels among the youth go up.
Research “confirms the cliche that the happiest people are those with the strongest social connections. One 75-year Harvard study revealed that the most important component to a satisfied life is love and belonging. If you feel an empty craving, more accomplishments are not what you need”.
Here she suggests one find “people who care about you and can help you manage your stress”.
We may not fully understand millennial behaviours and future sustainability of communities but research points out that we need to manage millennial stress levels.
Resource abundance could be a curse but that too needs to be managed.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.