Austin, Texas — I learned something new at a recent diversity training session: I’ve held some unfair biases against millennials.
During an exercise where Gen Xers, including myself, were asked to list adjectives for millennials, I confess I yelled out “entitled!” and “lazy!” But when I looked across the room to where my millennial counterparts stood, I thought: “Wait a second, those people can’t be millennials, they actually work their butts off.”
But they were.
So really, who are these millennial creatures? What sort of trends and changes are they bringing to today’s workforce? And how will they transform the workplace of the future?
Millennials this year will eclipse in size the previous Gen X and baby boomer generations and by 2020 will comprise half of the U.S. workforce. And as it turns out, there’s tons of research chasing these estimated 75.3 million Americans — roughly those 18- to 34-years-old, born from 1981 to 1997 — who might be the most studied generation ever.
And what have these studies found? For one, millennials are approaching the workplace unlike any of the generations before them. They value societal contributions and they are looking for authenticity, flexible schedules and work/life balance.
“They value contributions to the world over monetary and material wealth,” said Diane Gayeski, dean and professor at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications in upstate New York, and someone who has studied the generation extensively. “They have grown up with war, violence, crime and environmental crises in their face literally every waking hour. They recognize the fragility of life and the planet, and most of them want to make a positive contribution.”
Gayeski says millennials would prefer not to get “jobs,” but rather be entrepreneurs. And those who do may have a side business.
Many millennials — especially those from middle- to upper-income families — have been guided into a lifestyle that incorporates leisure, sports and time for service activities, she said. They also recognize there is no longer an expectation of loyalty in the workplace, while expecting diversity to be the norm.
“They clearly will transform the workplace,” Gayeski said. “Overall millennials who are graduating from colleges and universities today will have vastly different expectations of the workplace. They very much want a ‘balanced’ lifestyle and are often willing to sacrifice money for the freedom to enjoy hobbies, family, volunteering, etc.”
Phil Hall, a 25-year-old Austin freelance email marketer, says many millennials don’t buy into the traditional “American dream” ideals.
“Millennials are getting sold an outdated product by our parents and authority figures. What worked for mom and dad in the ’80s and ’90s does not work any longer,” he said. “A college degree guarantees you nothing. Getting a job does not guarantee financial security. Getting married and having 2.5 kids with a house in the ’burbs does not equal a fulfilled life.”
Hall says he developed a new perspective while selling books door-to-door during several summers while he was in college. He met with an estimated 8,000 families and found the “rules” they followed could lead to unsatisfied and stressful lives.
“The people that always inspired me were the ones that ‘got out’ and did something entrepreneurial,” he said. “They were living proof that you don’t have to do what everyone else does to achieve financial freedom, that you’re not condemned to waiting until you’re a retiree in their late ’50s to experience the good life and travel the world.”
A survey by online job website FlexJobs recently found that a large number of millennials would rather work part-time so they can spend time with loved ones, pursue creative passions and travel, among other interests.
Michelle Nickolaisen, an Austin millennial who works as a freelance writer, among other contract work, says many people her age are turning away from the typical job culture because it doesn’t make sense for them.
Nickolaisen says her work week is typically about 30 hours and provides decent pay while doing what she loves, which she doubts would be an option through a traditional full-time job.
“Flexibility, freedom and doing work that’s fulfilling to me are at the top of my priorities list,” said Nickolaisen, 26. “I … have focused all my resources on building my career to look like what I want it to look like.”
Millennials could be drawn more to “work-life integration,” says Tara Sinclair, chief economist at Austin-based Indeed.com. That is, they might be drawn to certain types of jobs along with interests to structure their work hours around other life activities.
“They click more on community and social services occupations than older generations, perhaps revealing their desire to derive greater meaning from their jobs,” she said
Hall, meanwhile, contends that his ambitions for a better “American Dream” will have to be realized through significant change driven by his generation.
“We will have to create the solution. I do not expect companies to change their policies unless they see a significant risk in not doing so,” he said. “Humans will always expend much more energy to avoid a loss than they will to attain a positive gain. Because of this I believe the companies of the future will have to be created, rather than wasting a ton of time trying to convert the old-fashioned.”