In February 2003, The Boston Beer Company flew senior Sarah Uhran out of snowy South Bend for an interview in Beantown with the vice president of sales. He asked about her five-year plan. She said she didn’t have one.
In more than five years since graduating, Uhran has whittled down her options through a web of extraordinarily varied work experiences. She said that at a very young age, “I realized that I was never going to be a cookie-cutter person so I didn’t have a cookie-cutter path. My experience was ‘touch something, experience something, and then make your decision.’”
Uhran spent 16 months selling East Coast beer in San Francisco, followed by six months marketing for a major law firm in New York City (while applying to law schools, since her parents had always hoped she’d go). But she felt lost in that job, wanting hands-on experience and opportunities for growth—and to make an impact in an environment where her ideas were encouraged and valued.
Those goals swept her to a TV station on Nantucket Island, where she worked in sales and gained exposure to the New York market and to her company’s higher-ups. Plus, she could bring her golden retriever to work. “It is an important added bonus,” she said.
Uhran was in Nantucket eight months before she got antsy for something more.
At age 24—three jobs into her career; nearly three years out of college—she said she got in touch with the “total dork” she was as a kid, who clipped ads from magazines and plastered them around her walls. Although a couple of years behind the curve, she decided to try advertising. So she trusted her gut and again started looking, this time at ad agencies in New York City, more sure about where she wanted to be but still somewhat foggy on how to get there.
Fluid and Open-Ended
Young adults in this generation—call them Millennials or Generation Y—seem to be growing up in their own way, according to Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Sociology of Religion
and Society at Notre Dame. During this new life stage of “emerging adulthood,” Smith said many young adults explore their identities, their relationships and career options for a year or two at a time, unattached to spouses. They begin to settle down in their late 20s or early 30s—later than in generations past.
“But it seems to me that they’re more aware than previous generations of the tenuousness of it all with globalization, with technological change,” Smith said. “They don’t think they’re going to settle into a career at 23 and stay there the rest of their lives. You don’t have the same contract with corporate America that you used to, which fits in with not settling down, not trusting, being open to change. They don’t trust the larger system but they’re optimistic that they’ll succeed within it personally.”
Despite recent economic turmoil, this rising generation has reasons to feel confident. Researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of Millennials Rising, report that they are more affluent, better educated, more technically savvy and more globally aware than previous generations.
As the principal investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, Smith recently interviewed a subset of young adults from around the country. He spoke to this same segment when they were teenagers and will follow up with them five years from now when they are in their late 20s.
While his research focuses on the Millennials’ approach to spirituality and religion, Smith said it also includes their unique approaches to careers. Despite all the differences in the paths they’re taking, he said the end goals—financial stability, a home and family—remain consistent with the
traditional middle-class American dream.
Senior Sara-Ashley Hernandez, 22, said, “I think we all want it all. I mean, me, I want everything. I want the job where I can be successful and have a career and be independent. But I want a husband and I want kids and I want a family. And I want to have a big-city lifestyle, but I want to be able to drive my kids to school.”
As far as achieving such dreams, Professor Smith said, “What used to happen in a much more compressed amount of time and younger and with more definition in the past, is now being stretched out and the rules or the channels through which it happens are breaking down. So it’s much more fluid and open-ended.”
Then again, it’s a much more fluid world. Changes in technology have flattened barriers in society and business and made it increasingly easy to move around and shift jobs, industries and locations. More and more candidates are operating as free agents in the marketplace, said Brian Buchheit, campus recruiting manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Chicago office.
After seeing the corporate world begin to crack and crumble, then crash, this generation has become inherently cautious of becoming trapped in the rubble. Enron, Arthur Andersen and
WorldCom collapsed as this group began entering the workforce, not to mention the Twin Towers. All of a sudden, their relatives, peers and friends had to reinvent themselves. They say that’s part of the reason keeping options open is so important.
“Things happened that have completely shaken the foundation of what we thought was stable,” said 27-year-old Lauren Brunell, ’03, a campus recruiter for RSM McGladrey. “And I think that, in the back of everyone’s mind, may contribute to, ‘OK, I need to make sure that I’m always learning new things and I have versatility in what I can do.’”
With recent plunges in the stock market, buyouts, bailouts and bankruptcies, young people once again find themselves confronted by instability and an uncertain job market.
“Certainly advice that I got a long time ago was, ‘Don’t be married to a company because they’re not married to you,’” said marketing manager Aileen Haan, ’01.
A Wave of Millennials
Comprised of roughly 76 million people born anywhere from 1979 to 1996 (the exact birth years are still up for debate), the Millennials are outnumbered only by the Baby Boomers.
Nearly 78 million Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are inching toward retirement.
The oldest of the bunch turned 62 in 2008. As the Boomers hang up their working hats and hand over the workforce reins to younger adults, companies are treading through the demographic changes, scrambling to adapt to what experts say is a new mindset and markedly changed expectations.
“Millennials are proving to be a complex generation with some conflicting characteristics,” says Ron Alsop, former Wall Street Journal editor and author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. “They seem like a demanding generation focused on themselves, on their own achievements. Yet, they do have this altruistic streak of wanting to give back to the world. They want a lot of flexibility in how they work, where they work, and, yet, they really do need a lot of direction and guidance on the job. They want to work for companies that will invest in them in terms of developing their skills, but they also tend to be job-hoppers, ready to go out the door and find something better.”
While Alsop acknowledges that Millennials may have to make some concessions to employers during the current economic downturn, he says their sense of entitlement and strong expectations will resurface in a stronger job market as the Baby Boomers begin to retire in large numbers and talent shortages occur. How the older generations in the workforce will accommodate the demands of younger co-workers remains an open question.
“I’m expecting the next 10 years are going to be just chaos, because when the Boomers are gone, who’s taking their places?” recruiter Buchheit said. “I feel right now it’s like a pot of really hot bubbling water, and they’re trying to keep that lid on and when, all of a sudden, when they’re for the most part gone, it’s just going to blow off. And everything we see today, that is going to be reformatted.”
Self-edits already are under way.
Some companies are launching focus groups to crack the code to the Millennials’ expectations and goals. With online information instantly accessible, companies are testing new recruiting methods, including the use of social networking Web sites.
During her summer internship, Alexandra Chavez, 21, a senior finance and sociology major, was in a work group focused on using technology to recruit and retain young workers. But she said she herself wouldn’t choose one company over others because it offers instant messaging at work or telecommuting. “I’m going to go to a company where I love the culture, I love the work that I’m going to do. It’s nice to have those things, but I don’t think they’re necessary. I think they’re over-exaggerated.”
Flexibility and Work-Life Balance
Companies are marketing themselves to young recruits with such perks as flexible work hours and telecommuting. They’re offering social outings, from salsa lessons to baseball games, and onsite medical care.
It’s a much more blurred line now between work and home life, said Anne Bingham, MBA ’05, campus recruiting manager for Intel Corp. She said as an undergraduate, she and peers signed with companies understanding that their jobs would be their lives for the next two years. Not so the Millennials. “They want to see how we’re going to fit into their life,” she said.
In the past four years, campus recruiter Brunell said she also has noticed that some recruits have a different outlook. They “will in a first-round interview ask about work-life balance and what flexibility they may have available to them if they join the firm—which the partners are shocked by.”
Senior Laura Godlewski, 21, thinks that on some level Millennials are misunderstood. “The majority of our generation, we’re huge on time management,” the accountancy major said. If they’re just sitting at their desks watching the clock, it’s not worth their time or the firm’s time to be there. “But, at the same time, if we’re doing something of value, we’re willing to stay the 80-hour or 100-hour week,” she said.
Some companies that recruit widely on college campuses are promoting work-life friendly policies. For example, at General Mills’ corporate campus, people who work 45 minutes extra on Monday through Thursday can leave early on Fridays during the summer, said Maerenn Ball, corporate public relations coordinator. For commuters, an onsite medical facility, fitness center and hair and nail salon make the office more convenient. Most business groups at Intel Corp. are able to offer employees the option of working from home once a week, said Bingham.
Matt Bloom, an associate professor of management in the Mendoza College of Business, said he often hears students talking about work-life balance, many of them expressing the view that their parents sacrificed too much for their careers. Young alumni also seek him out to talk about the topic after being in the workforce a few years.
“Usually what I hear is most of them are still hoping for balance, but realizing that work may not be built to provide that naturally,” said Bloom. “So they may have to sacrifice promotions, or they may have to take a different job. Sometimes they find themselves in an organization that seems to want to facilitate it [work-life balance]; often they don’t. I think they come back and talk to me because they know what I’ll tell them. I say, ‘You’re going to have to make tough decisions sometimes.’”
Other young adults have embraced grueling schedules, at least for the time being. Now into his third year of investment banking, Steve Wang, ’06, acknowledged that he’s a bit of a contradiction, hoping for a future family life but content with the current reality of 90- to 115-hour work weeks as a financial analyst at Houlihan Lokey.
“The fact that I’m working those kind of hours and don’t really have a life, and really had ... an engagement break up because of it, it’s unfortunate, but realistically speaking, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. And he seems sincere. The hours are the worst part but he thrives on his work, motivated every day by the challenge of learning something new. “I probably like my job way too much,” he added.
Personalized Career Development
Recruiting is one hurdle, said writer Alsop, but retention is another; and it is much harder with Millennials. They have options that many earlier generations did not. Millennials are seeking advanced degrees in record numbers, and many report receiving ongoing financial support from their parents into their mid-20s, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Before joining the Chicago office of Huron Consulting Group, Bill Bonner, ’04, worked for Accenture. As far as career goals, he said he doesn’t want to go to the same cubicle to do the same thing every day for the next 20 years. “I promised myself when I graduated that every two years, I’d sort of take a step back and re-evaluate where I was and how I was progressing.”
Nestlé Waters North America aims to keep new hires on board by providing structured career development and by giving them significant work experiences early in their careers, said Michael Swinton, the company’s vice president of human resources. In addition to a bonus and incentive program to reward performance, every professional hire in the company receives a 360-degree evaluation once they’ve been on the job nine months to a year—and every year thereafter.
“Students are less interested in ‘how do I get from point A to point B’ in a particular organization, but rather ‘what is the organization going to do for me to help develop me, give me skills?’” said Swinton.
A flat work structure and being able to work with senior managers and partners on a daily basis as a summer intern drew 21-year-old Chanel Scott, a senior accountancy and economics major, to accept an offer from True Partners Consulting in Chicago. “Everyone being respected on an even playing field was something that really sold me on the company,” she said. In addition, the company’s transfer policy allows employees the option of switching jobs after 12 months in their current positions.
“It’s really interesting to go into another field and just try something new and just push your boundaries and expand that way,” said Chip Marks, ND ’04, marketing associate in California for Nestlé USA, who has had six jobs in four years with the company. “And I think it’s just become easier to do.”
Source: MonsterTRAK/Michigan State University Collegiat Employment Research Institute survey of 10,000 young adults, ages 18-28.
Source: CareerBuilder.com cited in The Trophy Kids Grow Up
Promoting Social Good
Another hallmark of the Millennials, surveys show, is a desire to work for a company that
cares about social and environmental activities and giving back to the community.
According to Alsop, more companies are seeking to satisfy the Millennial generation’s
desire to give back by touting their companies’ environmental and philanthropic programs and by organizing volunteer projects for their employees.
Many companies, including Nestlé Waters, are trying to capitalize on these trends by building “socially responsible employment brands,” which promote the health and sustainability benefits of their products to recruits.
Some Millennials are foregoing the traditional corporate route and setting up social entrepreneurship ventures or joining nonprofit organizations.
Last year, as a junior, Matt Quering, 22, a senior finance and economics major, had his mind set on investment banking. After a summer internship in the field, however, he’s gone back to the drawing board.
“I’ve kind of almost taken a complete 180-degree turn,” he said. “I’ve switched over to Teach For America, where I think that’s a lot of responsibility, where you have these kids who might be 11, 12 years old, and if you screw up then you’re going to hurt them in the long run.”
Quering is not unusual in seeking a public service path for a while. In fact, at Notre Dame, roughly 10 percent of graduating seniors each year sign on for community service through
organizations such as the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Catholic Education and Teach For America.
To attract these talented, service-minded Millennials, Alsop reports that some major campus recruiters have begun partnering with Teach For America, letting new recruits teach for a couple of years in poor communities before starting their jobs. Some companies that are offering two-year deferrals even pay signing bonuses and offer summer training.
Feedback and Attitude
Many Millennials grew up under the close tutelage of coaches, tutors and attentive parents. This may be the reason that Alsop said young adults crave a lot of direction and feedback on how they’re doing at work. In fact, he said taking the time to give informal feedback about job performance and
the value of their contribution may be the key to gaining more loyalty from young workers.
Dennis Rankin, 21, a senior accountancy and English major, said as a summer intern in Florida, “often I would be really yearning for that information: How did my piece, however small it may be, but how does it fit into the puzzle; what’s the bigger picture?”
Professor Bloom researches in the areas of employee motivation and engagement. He believes that the traditional approach to business is not going to work with young workers.
“The old approach was, ‘Here’s your job assignment; this is what you’ll get paid. If you don’t do it, you get fired. If you do it, you get your bonus,’” Bloom says. But a new, more relational approach is needed now, which he says will be a lot harder to implement.
“The managers have to be out there more, know people, and encourage them and find that match [between skills and tasks]. It’s messier and not as clean as the old approach,” continues Bloom. “My sense is that it is a lot more fulfilling as a leader, though.”
Buchheit of PricewaterhouseCoopers is in the organizational trenches with the new approach. PwC is reaching out to younger recruits with a talent development program that gets college freshmen and sophomores working in support roles with professional staff. “When they come in, they want to be a manager,” Buchheit said. “They want to skip a couple of levels because they feel like they’re prepared for that kind of work, and they want it now.”
To bridge the generation gap, the company has to educate supervisors. “It’s preparing our people—our managers, our supervisors—to provide the best experiences, meaning, especially for our interns, giving them access to client work because that’s what they want,” Buchheit said.
At the same time, new hires have to learn: “That doesn’t mean you’re not going to be making copies. That doesn’t mean everything you do is going to end up with you giving some presentation to all of these high-level people.”
Even allowing for these conversations and more upward feedback, it’s still a balance, Buchheit said. “Yes, we want to hear your thoughts. But you also kind of have to earn your stripes.”
No Two Paths the Same
On the cusp of the Millennials at 29 years old, Haan has been with GE Healthcare for seven years. She is married and expecting her second child, works on a part-time schedule and is grateful for the flexibility. As for the Millennials, she isn’t convinced that bouncing from place to place and job to job can last forever.
“We can’t continue to just float around,” she said. “At some point in our lives we’re going to have to make a call, and I think at that point we’ll require the same specialization that generations before us required, but we’ll have this sort of courting period in our 20s, maybe early 30s, where we get to figure that out. So I think we’re getting a pass for now, but it’s going to come to a point where we’re going to have to make a decision.”
Sarah Uhran, like many Millennials, is still on a journey.
Nine months into her current position with Munn Rabôt, a small New York ad agency, Uhran seems sure, at last, that advertising is her fit. But still wary of getting bored, she said, “I like to take on as much as I possibly can, because there’s only so much your job can do for you as far as satisfying your drive.”
At work, she appreciate s most of all that her input is encouraged. She comes in every day with ideas for her boss, who gives her the green light to try to make them happen.
“I definitely want to stay here for a long time,” Uhran said. “I think everything I’ve done thus far was all about finding experience, doing hands-on things, until I can find a place where I know, based on my past experiences, I can be and grow. And I’ve found that here.”
So what does a long time mean?
“We’ll go with, like, two to five years,” she said. “Because I can’t over-promise.”
—EMILY DAGOSTINO (ND '02) IS A WRITER IN OAK PARK, ILL.