The Truth About Millennials in the Workplace
by Sheila Grinell
There are 83 million young adults in the U.S. born between 1982 and 2000, called Generation Y or Millennials. I used to employ some of them, and I raised one myself. Don’t believe what you hear about their being spoiled or presumptuous on the job. Let me explain what I’ve discovered, thanks to a Brookings study and several surveys, about what’s really going on.
Millennials work hard
Two business writers tell about a retirement party for a department supervisor where a young employee stepped up to the division boss and asked to be considered for the soon-to-be open supervisory position. After listening to the 25-year-old’s lengthy explanation, the irritated boss said, “Don’t you think you’re a little young for the job?” The employee answered, “What does age have to do with it?” To his way of thinking, good ideas about how to do the work faster, better, and more easily should qualify him for the position. Well, shouldn’t they?
Writers Sujansky and Ferri-Reed explain that Boomer managers are often baffled by their youngest workers. Millennials expect to be given responsibility and the freedom to exercise it, yet they want mentoring from elders, with plenty of real-time feedback. They are smart, tech-savvy, hard workers, but if they find the social atmosphere of the workplace stifling, they move on. Growing up, they saw that jobs don’t last a lifetime, and it’s okay to pick up and go. Losing a Millennial employee can be expensive, so Sujansky and Ferri-Reed have written a book about keeping them. Essentially, they advise Boomers to stay calm and play to the youngsters’ strengths.
And Millennials are strong. They are the best educated of the three generations now in the workplace. They are competent and confident, having been nurtured by parents who couldn’t do enough for them. They are demographically diverse and tolerant, and comfortable with global perspectives. They are ambitious and care about the quality of their work. But they also care about the social forces shaping it. The most socially conscious cohort since the 1960s—but in a less confrontational style—they care about fairness, equality, and sustainable practices in commerce as well as the environment. They want their employers to demonstrate corporate social responsibility, and they strongly prefer to use products from brands that appeal to their passions.
Perhaps more than the generations before, they value balancing work and life. In a 2006 survey about desirable employee benefits, Millennials ranked health number one, work-life balance number two, promotional opportunities three, and salary down at number four. In a different survey, Millennials put health benefits that included flexible work hours and parental leave at the top of the list. In that survey, at Ernst & Young, it turned out young men valued parental leave even more than young women. (I can’t wait to see what kind of fathers they make, but that’s another story.)
You’ll find plenty of media accounts about “impatient” young workers whose bosses believe they’re a new breed. But surveys show that workers in an all three generations in today’s workplace—Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial—want the same things: meaningful work; fair compensation and benefits; security, flexibility, and some autonomy on the job. What distinguishes the generations are the ways in which they prefer to learn and communicate. Boomers are comfortable in a traditional classroom, and they like to teach. Gen Xers use technology to address their individual tasks; they look to peers for reinforcement. Millennials, the first “digital natives,” scour the world’s databases, and they expect to work collaboratively, with peers or friendly elders, to solve problems and improve processes. Using the latest technology to do so is a given.
Millennials know the value of a dollarDespite coming of age during the Great Recession—and, for many, moving in with their parents to save a buck—Millennials are optimistic about the future. They are buoyed by a conviction that the world’s problems can be solved by technology and the new forms of social intercourse that technology enables. Nonetheless, they think their children will not have it as good as they did. (They want kids anyway. They also expect to care for their parents sometime in the future.)
Consuming goods and services doesn’t rank high among their goals, which is fortunate, because they average $30,000 in student debt. Fiscally conservative, they don’t like the stock market. As did their great grandparents, who endured the Great Depression, they keep a good share of their money in cash. They prefer to get financial guidance from networks of friends than from banks “too-big-to-fail.” Indeed, they don’t trust the people and institutions responsible for the current economic status quo.
Millennial antipathy to the finance industry extends to employment. A 2011 survey of 10,000 Millennials with one to eight years of experience in the workplace asked respondents to select ideal employers from a list of national firms. Along with the predictable high-tech and entertainment giants, Millennials chose government agencies: the State Department ranked fourth, between Facebook and Disney, and the FBI ranked seventh. When high school students were asked a similar question in 2013, health care providers ranked highest, followed closely by Disney, Google, Apple, and both the FBI and CIA. Millennials would seem to prefer employers whose mission is to change the world, not trade its assets.
Of course, Millennials do have material desires, but they manage them. In order to enjoy an urban lifestyle, many new college graduates choose to settle in smaller, more affordable cities with a pedestrian-friendly cultural scene. In newly popular Charleston, North Carolina, businesses can hire software engineers and rent space for a fraction of Silicon Valley rates, and Charleston’s inner core is redeveloping quickly. Millennials know that if you live close to where you work and play, you can get rid of a car. Government statistics show that Millennials drive much less than the same age group in the prior decade.
Today’s young adults want to understand the post-cold war world they’ve inherited, along with their student debt, and figure out how to improve it. Their ideas flash like lightning across their networks. Some of them embrace a civic-minded kind of capitalism—think of Airbnb, which is both a service to penny-pinching travelers and a source of billions to its three Millennial founders. But it’s not all about the money—indeed, an Intelligence Group study found that Millennials would rather make $40,000 at a job they love than $100,000 at a job they find boring.
Millennials don’t buy big-screen TVs. (TV sales in the U.S. have dropped markedly in the past several years, for a variety of reasons.) Will they spring for the latest “home theater” when they start earning more, or when their future kids ask for stuff? I suspect the lessons of the Great Recession will not fade, and mature Millennials will be measured consumers. Our economy may never be the same.
Millennials are creative in novel ways
The term “hackers” originally meant people who chopped up bits of computer code without official permission to enter a given computer or computer system. When hacking first came to popular notice in the form of consumer identity theft, it had a bad smell. Later, Chinese government-supported incursions into U.S. data made the smell far worse.
But many Millennials use the term positively. Consider Code for America, a nonprofit that does “civic hacking”—it gets volunteer technologists to help local governments accomplish a task or provide a constituent service that the governments couldn’t do on their own. Its projects range from a Boston program allowing citizens to assume responsibility for shoveling out fire hydrants after a snowstorm, to a data analysis system built by a Texas geek-turned-cop that automates the process of locating fugitives. “Street Cred” frees police from paperwork so they can spend more time in the street. (Disclosure: Code for America was started by Generation Xers thinking ahead of their peers.)
Millennial hacking extends beyond computers. Think of remixes and mashups in music. Think of the “maker faires” now held in many American cities and, increasingly, elsewhere around the globe. Makers are like TV’s MacGyver, a tinkerer who used found materials to jerry-rig his way out of tough situations. Today’s faire participants, mostly young, value innovation and a “do it yourself” attitude in all sorts of media: they grow their own food, brew their own beer, build their own houses, craft their own instruments, and so on. They exercise creativity in ways that can seem quaint or quixotic to Boomers, like crafting artisanal cheese at twice the supermarket cost.
The Internet gives this experimentation an order of magnitude more power. Some young inventors launch their products on line, asking the world to help solve their technical issues or find new uses for their idea. When one team wanted to build an inexpensive, remotely controlled under-water rover, they appealed online and got thousands of people to help create and then deploy it. Millennials readily see creativity as a collective practice. They grew up with “open source” technology and “crowd-sourced” answers to questions launched into the ether—they can “wiki” anything. Of course, with more power to connect comes more danger. But I bet we will see more heroes than villains in the next little while, because Millennials care about the commons.
What will the workplace look like twenty-five years down the line when Millennials are in charge? A lot like today, I suspect, but with more teamwork and diversity. Perhaps the Millennial-run company will be socially responsive to an uncommon degree. In the meantime, if you hire a Millennial, you’ll get a collaborative, hard-working, innovative employee—for as long as you can keep him or her engaged with the job.
Shelia Grinell spent 40 years creating science museums before turning to writing at age 63. Her debut novel, APPETITE, will be published in May 2016