Thinking global, acting local

They were born at a time when Myanmar was in the throes of irreversible change; when the dictatorship that gripped the country for decades was losing its stranglehold on the people’s unrelenting and uncompromising bid to regain their freedom.

They were too young to understand the 1988 Uprising, but some of them were already old enough to witness the brutal crackdown against those who participated in the so-called 2007 Saffron Revolution.

They are highly opinionated but non-confrontational; adventurous but pragmatic; career-focused but ensure they have “me” time. They are the Myanmar millennials; the young adults in their 20s and 30s who are the first generation in the country to reap the benefits of the explosion of technology during the last five years after more than half a century of self-imposed isolation.

Tech-savvy and well educated, today’s generation enjoy much more opportunity and employment choices than those before them, as multinational companies and international non-government groups trickle into the country opening up more jobs.

The 2014 government census showed about one third of the country’s more than 50 million people can be categorised as millennials.

A survey conducted last year by a Yangon-based public relations company noted that some two thirds of these so-called millennials have a university qualification and more than three quarters earn an average monthly income between US$186 and US$458.

According to international marketing agency TODAY Ogilvy & Mather Myanmar, the majority of its clients and products being promoted in the local market are targeting millennials.

Suu Nwe Htun, from TODAY Ogilvy & Mather Myanmar, said, five years ago there were not many employment opportunities available in the country but with the reforms initiated starting with the previous government, investors came in and more jobs opened up.

“We consider ourselves lucky that this happened during our time, so we can take full advantage of it,” she said.

“Millennials like us are very conscious of our career path. We are on the lookout for opportunities that will advance our careers.”

Her colleague Nu Thazin Abel, a strategy director, agreed and added that a healthy work-life balance is achievable in Myanmar.

Nu Thazin Abel said, when she does not hang out with friends or work out in a gym, she stays at home and watches movies on Netflix.

For the millennials, family remains a very important pillar of their lives and most of them stay with their family if they are not yet married.

Zung Sau Lung, another TODAY Ogilvy employee, said usually millennials share part of their income for family expenses.

“Our culture is family-centred,” she said. “It is our responsibility to take care of our families. It’s like paying back our parents.”

Suu Nwe Htun, Nu Thazin Abel and Zung Sau Lung all believe Myanmar millennials are willing to go abroad for studies, to explore personal career opportunities and to travel, but only temporarily and will always like to return to the country to live permanently at some point.

Nu Thazin Abel, who worked in the food and beverage industry in Singapore for two years, returned when the country opened up its doors to foreign investors.

“Why would I go to another country and struggle if I can get a decent job in my country,” Nu Thazin Abel said.

Suu Nwe Htun pointed out that since the implementation of political and economic reforms, many Myanmar people who have been living abroad started to return and explore business opportunities.

She said that she has friends who have returned to the country after years of staying abroad, and who are now engaged in their own social enterprises.

Suu Nwe Htun, who helps visual artists promote their paintings during her free time, said she would like to go to other countries to further her studies and gain more experience and then return to Myanmar to use what she has learned.

“I like to travel and explore new things, see the world, but I do not see myself living in another country,” she said.

While older generations of Myanmar people would lament what they claim as a lack of patriotism among the present generation, the millennials believe they love their country as much as their forebears but have a different way of expressing it.

Zung Sau Lung cited the case of the millennial social entrepreneurs not only in Yangon and other cities in the country but also in the countryside who engage in business activities that are not only aimed at making a profit but also helping their less fortunate countrymen by providing employment.

“We always try to support our local products,” she added. “We take pride when our local products and businesses are patronised by foreigners.”

Zung Sau Lung, who is a native of Kachin, said that the current generation is more understanding about the different cultures and worldview of the 135 ethnic groups in the country.

True to their nature of staying under the political radar, the millennials did not stake any claim in the electoral revolution that catapulted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to power.

However, Suu Nwe Htun, Nu Thazin Abel and Zung Sau Lung noted that they knew some millennials who were actively involved in the last elections, creating apps to educate voters.

To the government critics, they appealed for more patience and understanding noting that the process of change cannot be hurried.

“No one would know better the situation on the ground than us, the Myanmar people,” Nu Thazin Abel” said. “In the end it is the Myanmar people who have to resolve all these problems and issues.”

But the three do have some wishes that they hope the Yangon regional government can act on.

Suu Nwe Htun wishes that the Yangon government could come up with bike lanes, which is a wishful thinking at this time when the sidewalks are teeming with street vendors.

Zung Sau Lung hopes that the relevant agencies will be able to resolve the problem of the drainage system in Yangon; while Nu Thazin Abel sees the need for more education on proper rubbish disposal in the city.

A survey conducted last year by Telenor Myanmar, one of the biggest telecommunications service providers in the country, showed that Myanmar millennials are most passionate about the need to provide opportunities for children to get an education (36 percent of respondents), followed by climate change and global warming (24 pc).

Other issues on top of Myanmar millennials’ minds are unemployment among the youth (21 pc), the stigma surrounding mental health issues (12 pc), and gender inequality (7 pc).

The millennials also believe that new technology, especially virtual reality and artificial intelligence, could help bring about peace in the country rocked by decades-old pocket wars.

Agreeing with the survey findings, Nu Thazin Abel adds: “We have also observe through our consumer research that, while Myanmar’s youths have similar passion points as millennials around the world such as music, sports and entertainment, they are unique in being active in giving back to society.”

“For example, Myanmar youths have proactively organised donation drives and volunteer initiatives on their own accord to help victims of local floods and disasters,” she explained. “As a result of growing up with restrictions, in terms of technology, society and education, Myanmar’s youth have built resilience that is manifested in terms of lifehacks. For instance, when Gmail and Facebook were banned in Myanmar, we found ways to get around it.”

She also cited the example of how a lot of students who can’t afford tertiary education, opt to attend full-day English language tuition at a fraction of the cost. This allows them to develop not only listening, speaking and writing skills but also social skills as networking with other classmates open up other opportunities.

Truly the Myanmar millennials are ready to seize all opportunities available in world today to help their country get back to its feet after over half a century of neglect; giving a new twist to one of the baby boomers favourite mantras: thinking global, acting local.


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