Millennials or Generation Y are a subset of a population who were born between the early 1980’s and the early 2000’s. In the west the word millennial is probably the most used term in media today, whether you are trying to attract more business, climb the political ranks, or build new audiences, millennials seem to be the ‘it’ group that is going to make you or break you.

Given that in countries such as the United States millennials are now the largest and most diverse generation, understanding their interests, goals, and aspirations only makes sense. For any country it is critical to understand the generation that are going to influence public opinion and develop new trends, so I asked the question, why are millennials the least talked about generation in the Arabian Gulf?

Technically a millennial can be anywhere between 15 and 35, so I want to focus somewhere in the middle, between 20 and 30. To be clear it’s not a matter of them being left out of the discussion intentionally, but a matter of them being overlooked. It seems like there is a regional focus on an older generation that holds a lot of influence economically, socially, and politically, which jumps all the way to the second focus on a younger generation still in high school planning their next awesome weekend, skipping over everyone in between.

The low level of interest surprises me. We are talking about an age group that should be the driving force behind the economy, the doorway to new ways of thinking and innovation, a tidal wave of creativity ready to unleash its energy across the region. I think the reason for the low volume on our generation is due to the amount of amazing social policies in place that keep us well looked after.

However understanding the Emirati millennial is critical because today they are the powerhouses that will drive the various national strategies set in place by our wise leadership forward. How do we connect culturally to our recent history? What motivates us to work hard? What makes us happy? What influences us? All these elements play a role in shaping a culture that allows millennials to thrive and add absolute value to their country and its people.

Let’s start with an environment you will find most 20 to 30 year olds, work. There has been a huge diversification shift in the UAE since the days the oil companies were the primary means for employment. Today you have sectors such as media, technology, aerospace, and education all staking their claims to lead the UAE into the future. Furthermore, with all these different industries fighting for strong Emiratization numbers every able and willing Emirati is literally just an application form away from taking part in that journey.

What I have felt the issue is from the many discussions I had had with millennials across the UAE is not a matter of where we work, but how we work and I think the fact that the Arab World missed the industrial era hasn’t done us any favors in this regards. Electronic card scanners, sitting in cubicles for hours on end and doing process driven work seems to build a wall around a hyperconnected, energetic youth unable to unleash their creative talents and leave their individual marks.

An openness to creativity and change is still a struggle, work from home or flexible working hours is nearly unheard of, and strong hierarchies stifle career paths which are unable to keep up with the faster pace of growth within the millennial generation. Sure we have a high degree of stability in our jobs which given the economic climate around the world is a blessing, but since companies are in a good position to experiment, to make mistakes and to make the changes that will inspire and motivate the shifting mentalities and lifestyles in the UAE today, there is no better time than now.

The second environment that’s important to touch on is the cultural environment that millennials connect with. This is by far the strongest environment that in many ways hasn’t changed since the days of our ancestors. When you think about how we dress, how we greet each other, how we eat within our homes, you could argue that in those specific regards things haven’t changed at all.

Beautiful desert nights during the UAE’s winter season gives us all a chance to relive the long evenings filled with discussions, stories, and laughter just as our ancestors used to do. The culture of falcon hunting, poetry, and camel racing is still very much alive and viewed by many millennials as strong sources of pride, kind of like a shout out to the world about how we still hold on to the things that defined our forefathers.

When I define elements of culture such as clothes, food, or falcons, I like to think of these as visual cultural references, things that are out in the open for all to see. What I believe is changing culturally in the UAE is the interactive elements, such as how we communicate and how we engage with each other. Social media has played an incredible role in breaking down social barriers, and providing anyone and everyone with a platform to voice their opinion.

For better or worse many have opted to use those various platforms, from my perspective as a strong social media user I think promoting different opinions and debate is an important process in developing a stronger and more unified people, where everyone feels respected and heard. Prior to social media it was near impossible for anyone’s voice to be heard unless you had a role in the media or a position of influence. Hence, culturally I feel that millennials of the UAE feel more empowered to bring forth their thoughts and ideas that can build on the strategies set forth by the leadership.

Nothing proved this more than when the Minister of Interior launched the “Insta-Meylas” hashtag initiative on their Instagram account which was inspired by the more connected and engaged lifestyle of the Emirati community. The ministries were obviously paying attention and joined millennials and youth in their territory, social media and in this specific case, Instagram. In all honesty, I feel there is no better way for them to create an interactive environment and use feedback from the community to develop policies that build on our needs. The reality is that even though all these discussions happen on our smartphones and computers, it is a significant part of where we live and work today.

Another important environment that defines millennials is that of influence, more specifically on ‘who’ and ‘what’ influences our generation. The one thing that has been carried forward from past generations is the impact the country’s leadership has on the hearts and minds of our people. Millennials are still very much connected to and influenced by the actions, words, habits and even fashion sense of our leaders, and I expect that to continue.

What has changed in the sphere of influence is that of the direct day-to-day figures that influence our lives. I remember just graduating university and starting at my first job, I wanted nothing more than to be one of the well known high flying business and government figures that have enjoyed success within our country. These figures played a big role in shaping how we all saw our futures, and also formed our definition of success.

Then technology came into the picture again. Social media played an incredible role in leveling the playing field of influence and shifting the direction from traditional business and community leaders, to leaders of thought, journalism, and entertainment who type away shaping thoughts and narratives 140 characters at a time. You simply have to think about it this way, does a traditional well payed executive or public official known in the community influence people as much as the 26 year old with and iPhone and half a million followers on Instagram?

With that newfound influence UAE millennials are now playing a critical role in shaping a sense of accountability within their country, and making their voices count. They understand the strategies set in place by the leadership to make the UAE one of the greatest, most forward thinking, countries in the world and will have a hard time accepting anything that holds back or slows down that progress.

I strongly believe that is what our leadership wants, an engaged and dynamic generation that helps shape social and economic policy. One need look no further that their Highnesses Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, both have found remarkable ways to harness the energy and voices of that generation through technology and social media to have a positive impact on the UAE we live in today, and the UAE we will live in tomorrow.

The final environment I want to talk about is the economic environment that UAE millennials will experience. I believe this is going to be the most important because the shift and the changes we will go through economically will completely change our lives, similar to how our forefathers lives completely changed after the discovery of oil.

When oil was discovered it laid the ground for the socio-economic policies that UAE Nationals have now grown accustomed to. Everything was taken care of, everything was paid for, education, employment, housing, healthcare, subsidies on fuel and staples, infrastructure, utilities, you name it, and it cost the Emirati people nothing. Our government asked for nothing in return except our well being and a responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities to better ourselves and our country.

The economic policy in the UAE took a strong top down approach, the wealth was created at the government level and shared amongst the population. Today with shifting policies the millennials will be the first to experience a bottom up approach where the population will be expected to support the government with their various National initiatives.

This year alone the country has removed fuel subsidies for the first time, the Ministry of Economy has announced that they will be introducing value-added tax and corporate taxes, and the pension fund has reported that a specialized committee will be reviewing pension fund amendments of citizens that could see it increase from its current rate of 5 per cent to anywhere up to 15 percent.

These are all significant changes, but changes many welcome as it builds the foundation for a self-sustaining economy and a more aware and resourceful population. It is also creates an ideology amongst the broader population to have a more vested interest and role in the day to day development of the country, an ideology that is very much present amongst UAE millennials.

I feel that is a big part of why the UAE decided the time was right to make these economic changes, sure the oil prices are low, and a growing population requires more resources, but the mindset of the people has to be right to undertake these new costs and responsibilities. In that sense the timing was perfect, the economic transitions have gone smoother than anyone could imagine, and I don’t expect that to change.

The UAE has always been described as a country that has been through dramatic change throughout history, from a land filled with nothing but desert, to a land of prosperity and opportunity. UAE millennials are making sure that things don’t slow down, they are a more engaged, connected, and passionate generation that I believe the UAE has ever seen.

If I have to describe their ambitions in one word it would be “Impact”, they want to make their presence felt, they want to do things that will impact their country for generations to come. When I think of it that’s the same feeling our forefathers had about us, and look at the country they created, I guess it’s safe to say that with UAE millennials leading a new wave of development, we have a lot to look forward to.

*This column was originally published in Shawati Magazine.