Quo vadis, SA’s leaders? Think like a millennial.

I recently read an interesting monograph on the future of global leadership over the next thirty years, but, gazing into the crystal ball, what lies ahead for leadership in SA?

Globally, the talk is all about disruptive technologies, seismic social shifts and constant flux and change. I’m not too alarmed by all these dramatic postulations and predictions. If we look back on the history of humanity, there have always been cataclysmic social and technological revolutions, which are then happily embraced by mainstream culture – and we move on. This is human nature. Of course, we can’t deny the rate and pace of change – it feels as if it’s accelerating daily, but for this generation of millennials, this is their normal. And rather than fear the future, they’re adapting daily to it.

Change is a constant; it is what it is. In the property industry, we can postulate what will happen in ten or twenty years, but we still need to deal with today. Industry pundits say that, for example, retail is bad at the moment, and we should get out of that property market – that the death knoll of the mall as we know it has sounded, and we need to move on. I don’t share that sentiment. Maybe it’s precisely the right time to be buying up retail properties at ridiculous prices. Because, as I see it, when you look at behavioural patterns over the long term, they are always cyclical. We come back to where we began, we rediscover what we once discarded, and we reinvent the wheel. As for retail, people will always crave the experience of shopping – that little retail adventure that occurs on weekends across the globe. And yes, online shopping is the next big thing, apparently, but if you look at the stats, they’re not all that compelling. In the UK, online sales have peaked at around 20% of total sales; in the US, that figure stands at an underwhelming 12%, and in South Africa, internet sales account for only 1%. Sure, there’s room for growth, but at the end of the day, whether you’re buying a dress for a special occasion or a new bed, you don’t want a virtual sense of the product; you want to get out there and try it on or try it out. And that’s not going to change.

Because, knowing human nature, people will always come back to the experiential, the tangible and the concrete. It’s in our very nature to crave contact and to seek out meaningful experiences. So, while the Kindle may have revolutionised the way we read, Amazon has sensed a subtle shift in the demands of the market and will soon be building book stores across the globe. Because no matter how convenient our Kindles are (and I won’t travel on holiday without one), people still love the feel – and even the scent – of new books. And the experience of real-time browsing in a bookstore, where you can turn a page or two, will always trump the clinical coldness of a flat screen.

And for millennials, it’s all about the experience, stupid! In my conversations with young people, a clear zeitgeist has emerged. Millennials don’t want to be home-owners, they don’t want to be tied down by stuff and be bound by obligation. They want experiences, rather than possessions. They don’t want to own cars – because, anyway, most people only use their cars 3% of the time. So, fractional ownership, ride-sharing and driverless taxi services are appealing to these shapeshifters, who, it’s predicted, will go through about 24 jobs in their lifetime.

When millennial choices shape the future, new opportunities will open up dramatically, and any sensible leader needs to listen in. Tomorrow’s leader needs to intuit and react swiftly to the novel choices and demands that millennials will make daily, because change is their default mode. And with change and disruption come unprecedented opportunity. Driverless, drop-and-go cars? What does that mean for the miles of square metres that make up the parking levels of every shopping mall across SA? How will those vast parking areas be re-purposed when people are no longer driving their own cars? And what effect will fractional ownership and ride sharing have on the storage industry? If there’s no longer a need for a garage in people’s homes, the existing two-car garage space will be converted into a storage solution by the homeowner or tenant. That’s surely going to affect the storage industry.

Leaders need to keep an eye on millennials, and anticipate the new opportunities that will open up daily as a result of their choices.

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