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Working with millennials

Every generation faces its own challenges, and the generation gap exists because it is hard to relate to people from other generations as the experience we had growing up differs a lot. The millennials - a group that reached adulthood in the early 21st century - are often thought to be entitled, narcissistic, lazy, tough to manage, self-interested and unfocused. However, millennials often think of themselves as purpose-driven and wanting to create a positive impact.

I must qualify that I am talking about millennials in rich countries and a small number of privileged young adults in poorer countries. How they behave is the product of environment and technology, and changing values over time.

To members of earlier generations, millennials can come across as disrespectful to their parents, to others and even to one another, verbally or otherwise. The last few decades seem to have ushered in a transfer of authority from parents to children, with the former trying to treat the latter like adults. Yet, when a child makes a wrong decision, the parents seem powerless to overrule the child. Technology has not helped. Engagement between parents and children at mealtimes is non-existent as children are glued to their mobile devices while parents often have to multitask and give only partial attention to their offspring.

Parents also often push to schools the job of teaching their children discipline and respect. When their children do not get good grades, some parents blame teachers. Instead of teaching the children the value of hard work and encouraging them to compete for the top prizes, these parents do what they can to prop up their child's self-esteem and, in contests, they want everyone to be given a participation medal so no child ends up feeling bad.

When these children grow up, they learn that the real world is very different. There are no medals for losing and if you do not perform well at work, you will be fired. As a result, many young people struggle to cope.

In today's world of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, millennials also live in a filtered universe where they easily tune out criticism from those who disagree with them. A study done by Harvard in 2012 provided some insight into why using Facebook in particular seems to be highly addictive. Disclosing information about oneself, the researchers found, is intrinsically rewarding. It activates the nucleus accumbens, a brain area that also lights up when cocaine or other drugs are ingested. But it's not just posting on Facebook that's addictive - it's also receiving likes and comments. And, when young people are unfriended on Facebook, some are actually traumatised by the rejection.

In the past, you built meaningful friendships that could help you go through hard times, but today, young people can put their bad experiences online and strangers respond with encouraging comments and likes. They do not need to practise their relationship skills to have friends. With mobile devices, they get temporary relief when stressed but, like other addictions, the relief is temporary.

Technology and poor parenting have combined to deprive millennials of opportunities to build up their coping mechanisms. And, this is happening at a time when the world faces stresses from a range of sources, including climate change, job automation and high costs of living in areas such as housing and education. Without reservoirs of resilience, young people can be deeply affected when things do not go as planned.

As a social activist, I have mentored young entrepreneurs and been impressed by their abilities and knowledge at a young age. The young entrepreneurs I interacted with were passionate and willing to work on their business ideas for long hours. However, many of them did not take criticism well. When questioned, instead of being open to others' perspectives, they became defensive and eventually stopped communicating.

Their view seemed to be that if they put in the hours and worked hard, they deserved to succeed. When they encountered failure, they became depressed and gave up. Only a few were able to adapt to setbacks and push forward again.

I also work with many millennials during my relief missions to crisis-hit countries. I find that while young people often sound motivated and passionate during interviews, out in the field, they struggle to even wake up early in the morning and are unwilling to do certain laborious tasks. Many have little or no ability to build things.

To be sure, there are cultural differences. In the United States, I find that many young people have poor knowledge of religion and culture.

Many of them can't tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim. In Asia, many young people don't really care about the crises afflicting other parts of the world because that "is not required reading", yet, they are fast to jump to conclusions based on a single article they have read.

It seems to be that the current education system does not prepare young people for the world we live in. With technology and mobile devices now such a big part of people's lives, the least we can do is teach kids programming. There is still too much emphasis on standardised tests which, though important, should not be the be-all and end-all of education.

The focus needs to shift to teaching young people how to overcome challenges and work in teams, and how to build inter-personal life skills.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge the generational differences and the challenges that millennials face. We need to find ways to leverage on their strengths rather than impose on them age-old rules that may no longer be relevant.

We need to create a more conducive environment for everyone to collaborate together.

•The writer is the co-founder of Relief 2.0 and Civil Innovation Lab and author of Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'Working with millennials'. Print Edition | Subscribe