Failure to Launch: Millennials in the Workforce

Millennials are now the largest living cohort in America, numbering about 75 million. Every generation is different from the ones that came before, but this group is different in one unusual way. They seem determined to delay accepting adulthood for as long as possible. That conclusion comes from a recent study done at Bowling Green State University. The study reviews how millennials rate on markers of adulthood such as independence (living on their own), marriage, children, and homeownership. Compared to baby boomers at the same point in their lifetimes far fewer millennials are married, live independently, have children of their own, or own houses.

The majority of millennials have never married and a minority own a home. About a quarter are still living with their parents or grandparents. Include those living with other relatives and the total rises to almost half (47 percent) of all millennials. At the same point in their lives, the majority of baby boomers were married and owned a home, and only about 9 percent lived with a parent or grandparent. Other indicators of adulthood, such as failing to save for down payment on a house, suggest that adolescence, which had been a transitional phase on the path to adulthood, is now a permanent goal for many millennials.

The Rational Response?

But is the behavior of the millennial generation really a cause for alarm? A major study concluded that meaningful differences between generations don’t exist. What we’re seeing about millennials may just be a static view observed at this point in time.

One can make the case that what they’re doing is the rational response to changed times. Take the issue of not saving. Nearly 90 percent of millennials enroll in college within eight years of graduating from high school. Payments on student loan debt and rising rents in major cities make saving difficult. Many are also likely to inherit substantial amounts from their parents. It’s estimated that Baby Boomers will pass down an estimated $30 trillion in assets to their children and grandchildren.

The amounts will vary a great deal and plenty of millennials will get little or nothing, but for many who can count on a decent inheritance is it really surprising that there’s not much incentive to save? Are they delaying adulthood because they expect to live much longer than previous generations? Given advances in healthcare, it’s not inconceivable their generation will have average life expectancy of well over 100 years.

Finally, given the economic upheavals of the last two decades is it any wonder that many are not interested in buying a house and getting tied to a place they may have to leave if the lose or change jobs?

Changing Attitudes

There are some genuine areas of concern regarding millennials. For one, when it comes to work they are the least engaged. A Gallup poll found that only 29 percent are engaged at work — emotionally and behaviorally connected to their job and company. The majority (55 percent) are not engaged, leading all other generations in this category.

More disturbing is that millennials have considerably more authoritarian and anti-democratic attitudes than past generations. A major study found that only 30 percent consider it “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government. Incredibly, 24 percent consider democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. Only 32 percent believe that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.”

The Recruiting Challenge

The millennial generation offers both opportunities and challenges for recruiters. The lack of anchors (family, houses, and engagement) means that they are more likely to turnover and have little sense of employer loyalty. Another Gallup poll found that 60 percent of millennials say they are open to a different job opportunity — 15 percent higher than the percentage of workers from other generations who say the same. They are also the most willing to act on better opportunities: 36 percent report that they will look for a job in the next 12 months, compared with 21 percent of other generations. So they’re easier to recruit but also more difficult to retain.

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Various surveys have suggested that recruiting messages to millennials should emphasize corporate social responsibility since they value social responsibility a great deal and claim that helping to make a positive difference in the world is more important than professional recognition. Having high-minded ideals is great, but as with anything that’s undefined these are mostly empty slogans. Fully half would take a job with another employer if they got a good raise. An equal number consider financial incentives and career opportunities as the most desirable qualities when selecting an employer.

Millennials are unusual in many respects. They’re attracted to jobs that require using your hands to perform a craft in a public setting, such as barbers, butchers, and bartenders. But that attitude doesn’t extend to jobs like electricians and plumbers since that kind of work isn’t usually done in sight of anyone, suggesting an element of narcissism is a factor in selecting a career. But in general their career choices reflect market trends — they’re gravitating more toward careers in healthcare, business, and technology — based on college majors they’re choosing.

The big concern for employers should be the anti-democratic attitudes among the millennial workforce. A person who despises democracy and has little respect for liberty is not likely to have much concern for others. Putting someone with these attitudes in a position of authority can be highly detrimental to their team and the organization. The implications of millions of people with those attitudes in the workplace may not be known for decades.

Raghav Singh

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.