Millennials: Generation Misunderstood

Heading into the final semester of my prolonged education, the direction of my career path is a recurring question. But between confusion and conflicting advice, one consideration is always in the spotlight – exit opportunities. How is it that we plan for our next steps before we even enter the workforce? For Millennials (19 to 34 in 2016), this narrative sounds all too familiar.

To some employers, we are a generation of job-seekers with unreasonably high expectations. A group who saw every opportunity as a stepping stone for the next, and every resignation as a sign of a healthy capitalism. It’s an observation echoed by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, which described the new age workers as being less loyal than their baby boomer parents. But is it true?

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Not necessarily. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median years of tenure with current employers, for the 20-24 age group, has in fact remained relatively flat at 1.3 years since the 1980s. Why then, do we associate Millennials as being noncommittal?

One possible explanation is our growing interest in entrepreneurship. With the rise of Facebook, Uber, and the rest of the Silicon Valley, stories about job-hopping programmers are often thrown around. But not only is this a small subset of the entire workforce, Millennials are not working at startups any more frequently than they were before.

According to the Kauffman Foundation, a think-tank on entrepreneurship, business creation has not accelerated despite the buzz and optimism. Instead, startup activity tracks the business cycle and is mostly consistent with historical data. Expansionary periods leading up to a recession see an uptick in interest, which fizzles thereafter.

Kauffman Startup Activity Index (1997-2015)

Source: Kauffman Foundation

From us becoming more vocal about our work dissatisfaction over social media to people making assumptions based on our values (sharing economy, fear of ownership), there are several reasons for our lousy reputation. But one thing is for sure: people have always moved around. In my view, we all follow the ebb and flow of the business cycle. It is our motives that define our generation.

An appropriate example of this is how the different generations react to the many financial crises. The market initially panicked and people held on to what they could. But as the bull market began to take shape, people also started looking for other opportunities to better align their self-interests. This isn’t a “Millennial” problem. Our values change over time, but the issue remains the same.

If companies cannot motivate their workers, they will look elsewhere for it. For many Millennials today, it’s about a connection with their work, a career with opportunities, and a better work-life integration (and not balance). In the absence of it, employees may choose to test the labor market or leave to become an entrepreneur.

This is not a rebellion against the corporate world, but a yearning for something under-provided. Jamie Gutfreund, CMO of Wunderman, dubbed the job-seekers today as “venture consumers,” who see employers not just as providers, but also as career mentors. And that makes sense. Our knowledge-based economy doesn’t depend on what we know, but our capacity for learning.

At Grassi Lake with my roommate

This past summer, my roommate taught me a new phrase: FOMO (fear of missing out). While he was using it to describe being absent for the big parties, I thought it applies perfectly to the workplace as well. There is a constant pressure to remain relevant in today’s dynamic market, which makes a supportive employer that much more important.

As demanding as it sounds, the opposite is true too. If companies can create an engaging and challenging environment, Millennials will work tirelessly to rally behind those ideas. Their social awareness and aptitude for technology make for productive employees, but their desire to drive change may be the much needed catalyst for the businesses of tomorrow.

The problem that senior management faces today is not a workforce that is difficult to manage, but one where the two sides don’t speak the same language.



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