As we enter the final quarter of 2016, greater numbers of millennials are joining the workforce. Often decried by older coworkers and supervisors as the “generation of entitlement,” their situation hasn’t been made any easier when coupled with their massive student debt. Millennials have the highest student debt burden in U.S. history. The statistics engine, Wolfram Alpha, cites data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis to show total student debt in 1980 at $2 trillion, which is a far cry for the $19 trillion total at this point in 2016. A slow economic recovery and dismal prospects explain the propensity millennials have to continue living with their parents well into their twenties. The concerns they have about making enough money for their basic survival necessitate this prolonged life support.
Millennials and their role at work have been focused on relatively recently by the media. In 2015, they accounted for 35 percent of the workforce, but by 2020, that number will climb to 46 percent. TIME published a scathing overview of the millennial cohort which appeared as their cover story in May 2013 entitled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.” Individuals coming of age have always struggled with how they were viewed by their older counterparts, let alone at work, yet the backlash and resentment baby boomers have displayed toward millennials appear oddly unique.
Unique for good reasons because millennials are only one part of a broadly ailing societal structure, as written by Sarah Kendzior for the online publication, Quartz. Kendzior believes millennials to be media scapegoats and a distraction from pervasive economic despair. She points to sources that support the facts that millennials have “lower incomes,” “less mobility,” and “greater financial dependence” on their parents than generations prior.
The recovery from the so-called “great recession” has been meager at best, as much as news outlets want to point to the once-again burgeoning stock market as a sign that all is well. In an open letter than appeared on LinkedIn in 2015, millennial Elizabeth McLeod discusses how purpose and meaning are extremely important to millennials at work.
“I was raised to believe I could change the world. I’m desperate for you to show me that the work we do here matters, even just a little bit. I’ll make copies, I’ll fetch coffee, I’ll do the grunt work. But I’m not doing it to help you get a new Mercedes.”
“I’ll give you everything I’ve got, but I need to know it makes a difference to something bigger than your bottom line.”
Today’s millennials are drawing attention to the often hollow nature of entry-level positions, and the close-minded focus of their superiors that centers only on the bottom line and continued growth. Why the company does what they do or what they are trying to contribute to the world seems to be a blatant oversight in many cases, according to McLeod.
What does this mean for millennials at work? They are literally rewriting the rulebook. In decades past, the working class wasn’t saddled with the same debt burden right from the start, meaning there was more freedom for them to save money and carve out their desired lifestyle. Millennials on the other hand, with much less spending power after their hefty student loan payments, are demanding that their work environment is more than just a corporate dungeon.
These demands come in the form of remote work. A 2015 FlexJobs survey divulged that 85 percent of millennials wanted to telecommute 100 percent of the time, while accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted an internal investigation as to why the average millennial leaves their post within three years of work.
“Millennials do not believe that productivity should be measured by the number of hours worked at the office, but by the output of the work performed. They view work as a ‘thing’ and not a ‘place.'”
A significant finding that millennials appear to value the quality of the work they produce over living by the book. They shun micromanagement in favor of flexible work conditions and more freedom to structure their lives the way they desire. A casual examination of this mentality has a firm implication. If the work is getting done, and deadlines are being met, what difference does it make if the employee is sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours per week, or working remotely, if they are finishing the same amount of work in a fraction of the time, thus allowing for unparalleled work-life balance once the job is done?
The changing landscape of work and the place millennials hold in it will take years to solidify as new norms and old thinking seem to have similar rates of emerging and ebbing respectively. One thing is certain, however. In less than a decade’s time, it is millennials who will be holding the reins and wholeheartedly captaining the ship of work. What this means for the organization of modern society and overall culture remains to be seen.
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