Millennials and the digital revolution

Millennials have been a focus point of many large organisations in the recent and not so recent past. Research has been extensive and at the same time narrow with regard to the findings in respect of these much-maligned creatures that workplaces find seemingly impossible to manage successfully.

As a millennial myself, it is often frustrating to be so easily classified based on research attempting to demystify us as a group of homogenous beings. For me, millennials are nothing more than a grouping of people within a certain age group (22 – 37). Everyone within this age group will be defined by the experiences they have had during their lifetime. In the US, this could mean 9/11 or the election of the first black president, the sub-prime crisis of 2008/2009 and the numerous natural disasters that have affected that country over the past 15 years.

In South Africa, millennials are defined by the advent of democracy and the subsequent strengthening of the South African economy. We are also influenced by an era where widespread looting of national funds and ‘state capture’ resulted in a cautious outlook on life for many, as well as the virtual destruction of the South African economy. In South Africa, however, our exposure to technology/digital (arguably the most defining characteristic of millennials) has not been as widespread as that of the developed world and this drastically affects the extent to which we can be compared to developed-world millennials (on whom most of millennial research is based).

The cost of technology (in the form of smartphones and data) in South Africa has heavily weighed on our ability to leverage off the ‘connectedness’ as experienced by our developed-world counterparts. What’s important though, is that as millennials age, we are able to access technology more and more. This is a function of the increased earnings of millennials as well as the reduction in the cost of data and smartphones. Research by Growth from Knowledge indicates that 82% of millennials have purchased a smartphone in the past two years.

Digital and millennials

Let’s bring all of this back to the workplace and, ultimately, the retirement fund industry. The reason we need to do this is that millennials now make up the biggest proportion of the working population in South Africa. In the workplace, older generations’ perception of millennials is mostly negative (this hasn’t been helped by the research by many institutions that are funded by Generation X – probably just a coincidence).

Let’s take a step back and consider some of these perceptions in context. Student Village, a company based in Johannesburg that assists businesses to connect with the youth market in South Africa, has coined a great term that more appropriately describes young adults in South Africa: Afrillennials. The research they’ve undertaken also explains the different points of view of the afrillennial and the bosses of the afrillennial quite well.

In the table below the disconnect between the generations is quite clear:


Perhaps what we should be doing is taking note of what millennials are looking for and capitalise on that to improve outcomes, both in the workplace and from a retirement industry perspective.

Utilise regulations to engage with millennials

Default regulations make it clear that benefit counselling has to be provided to members of retirement funds. While it would be easy to simply do the minimum required by providing the information (in the form of written documentation) to retirement fund members and leaving them to their own devices, we should take advantage of this opportunity to engage and empower millennials through benefit counselling.

The regulatory requirement for retirement benefit counselling presents a fantastic opportunity to engage millennials. Engaging such members at life events translates into the kind of personal care and recognition millennials are looking for. Research with a focus group cited an example where a member was contacted to indicate that she was in the inappropriate asset class for a person of her age. She was engaged, educated and influenced to change her asset strategy. She felt that she was being cared for. Consequently, the others in the focus group requested the details of the provider as that is the type of positive experience they want, and it also demonstrates the impact of word-of-mouth communication. Counselling can achieve this and more by engaging millennials and influencing them to preserve savings. It is not a silver bullet but it is a positive action trustees can take that may achieve better outcomes.

While the above solution may be focused on millennials, there is no doubt that all other generations will also benefit from proactive and well-placed benefit counselling. It’s time we stopped looking at solutions for millennials in isolation of other generations, and rather start understanding that solutions for millennials are simply about ease of access and convenience – characteristics from which all generations will benefit.

Karishma Ramkelawan