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.”

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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.

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, 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.


12 Comments on “Failure to Launch: Millennials in the Workforce

  1. This article makes some pretty big leaps without a lot of data to support it. A handful of random studies makes you conclude that millenials “despise democracy” and have “little respect for liberty” or concern for others? That is a pretty bold and ridiculous assumption. I found the whole tone to be condescending. Millenials value different things but just because they aren’t pursuing a nuclear family or buying houses at the rate that boomers did (which didn’t exactly work out well for a lot of them) doesn’t mean that they are living in a state of adolescence. I find this article to be out of touch which just shows why so many companies can’t recruit, engage or retain millenials.

    1. Well said, Kara. There are more assertions here than there is data to back up those assertions. The premise of the argument is flawed, I think in large part because the data that is offered is out of date – the old “success sequence” (education => employment => marriage => parenthood) is a popular trope offered as a “one size fits all” solution to poverty, but it does not fit everyone’s experience, and it is largely based on pre-recession 2007 data (Sawhill/Haskins). Given the impact of the recession, as well as the changing social/economic/political landscape, and the growing impact of automation/AI, the success sequence is not a linear road to economic stability for Millennials as it was for Boomers in post-WWII America, when manufacturing industries were at a high, and housing/education was far more affordable than it is now. Good data is key here, and we have to avoid cherrypicking the data that fits our assumptions about cultural “norms.” This article offers a better, in-depth look at the data of the success sequence:

    2. Your comment that this article makes some bold claims without the data to support them is inaccurate. People that consider democracy to be a bad way of running a country aren’t exactly fans of that form of government. Civil rights are a precondition to ensuring individual liberties so an individual that doesn’t consider them essential obviously does not value liberty for others. These are conclusions arrived at by reasoning from data, not assumptions (which are things taken to be true, without proof). The underlying research is based on data drawn from the World Values Survey database, which is the single largest time series investigation of beliefs and values. It is based on interviews with over 400,000 respondents. The data is used by thousands of economists, social psychologists, and policy makers in over a hundred countries and at the World Bank. If you can highlight flaws in the research or cite alternative data to contradict it then you should post it here.

      1. “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.”

        This is an example of an assumption. Your article lacks depth and reason and is, at best, a hack-job report of varying statistics to support your preconceived notion of what ‘adulthood’ should be.

  2. This article is a great example of cherry-picking statistics to support a belief you already had. Some of your links don’t even make sense. You’re talking about millennials in the workforce and your article links to the National Society of High School Scholars homepage. Awful.

  3. I also want to point out that you appear to criticize millennials for not saving enough to buy a house, get married and start a family. Then you go on to criticize them for being open to a job that will pay them more. So you are in essence criticizing them for trying to get ahead. How do you expect them to launch? Very poorly thought out article.

  4. Like the other reviews, this is a reactionary view that is not an accurate snapshot of millennials. Do your research and get to know millennials professionally before you print your views. It also seems ERE will print a lot of posts/articles without validating the accuracy or depth of the content.

  5. I’ve never read a bigger pile of drivel in my entire live. This article is just an attack on the millennial generation from some trumped up bitter old man, who has preconceived ideas about what makes people successful in life. Raghav’s statement “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.”, does he honestly believe these situations are by choice? Does he really believe that millennials don’t want to buy a house or live independently from their parents?? Of course they do! The fact remains that the millennial generation simply can’t afford to own their own house, as the cost of living has increased dramatically ( Many millennials also live with their parents in order to save for a deposit to buy a house. Unlike the baby boomer generation everything hasn’t been handed to millennials on a plate from the government. Many baby boomers not only got to go to university for free but many were actually given grants to go (and they didn’t have to pay them back). So get off your high horse Raghav, and don’t try to cherry pick statistics to fit your own bias narrative.

    1. Nowhere did I write or imply that the situation that millennials find themselves in is of their own choosing. I cite published studies and statistics drawn from sources that gather data with no prior agenda.

      You claim that life is harder for millennials than previous generations. Your statements imply that you are familiar with the experience of previous generations but your arguments show otherwise. Some of the Baby Boomers did receive grants to go to college, but there is more financial aid available now than was available to them. There are plenty of low-cost options to get a college education so paying high costs or taking on debt is very much a choice. Essentially you are classifying this entire generation as victims instead of being beneficiaries of the most successful culture in history.

      It is true that the cost of living has increased dramatically, but incomes have risen substantially more. People spend far less on living expenses today, as a share of their income, than at any time in the past. Over the last hundred years households in the US have seen a tripling of purchasing power, allowing for a much higher standard of living.

      There are millions of millennials that have done as well, if not better, than earlier generations, but the proportions are lower.

      1. You said exactly this:

        “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.”

  6. Hello again, Raghav.

    Thank you for debunking (with facts) the claims of those who claim that generalizing behavior patterns (and recruiting tactics) based on birth year is better than using astrology. However, I do commend these charlatans and hucksters of recruiting snake oil for finding another way of getting the desperate, clueless, and well-financed recruiting leaders to part with some of their company’s cash…
    (These charlatans/hucksters have the makings of self-proclaimed “recruiting thought leaders” who make pronouncements on high without any factual basis…)

    This is how I see the situation here:
    1) Raghav has used a statistical survey to make opinions re: Millennials, or as I affectionately refer to them: “millies”.
    2) Some people challenge the validity of this study, saying it is too old or too limited in scope to from which to make assertions.
    3) Some people strongly object to opinions that Raghav makes. Let me address these points: 1) From my experience, very few people on ERE use actual facts to back up their assertions. If you doubt their validity, come up with *something factual that backs up YOUR viewpoint.
    2) If there is a fault in the use of the study, it is because it appears to be a static, one-time study. I would be interested in finding out if more recent versions are consistent with this.
    3) People are perfectly entitled to react at what ever level of feeling they have. At the same time, terms like: “There are some genuine areas of concern” and “More disturbing” don’t strike me as particularly inflammatory, but what do I know?

    As far as changing attitudes:
    1) “…only 29 percent are engaged at work “: I say “Millies, you’ve learned a valuable life lesson- much work sucks, and you can’t trust the people running an organization to take care of you, reward you fairly, or consider your views.” Furthermore, the whole idea that you’re entitled to work that is meaningful and that you’re passionate about was a hoax perpetrated by the middle/upper middle-class members of the “Me Generation” aka, “Older Boomers.” Our parents/your grandparents knew better- work should be your livelihood and not your life, and the best you can realistically hope for is a position which pays the bills and won’t destroy your body, your mind, or your soul and gives you enough extra time to develop the other areas of your life.
    2) “…only 30 percent consider it “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government: Despite being a (digital) card-carrying ACLU member and a staunch liberal, I can empathize with these folks- you grow up watching planes crash into buildings and being told by the government (the George W. Bush administration), Fox News, and talk radio (or more recently Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos, etc.) that people who are different color than you or don’t go to your church are out to get you and yours- you may tend to be less tolerant and secure than I might hope you’d be. IMHO (and that of others: we don’t live in a democratic republic, we live in a plutocratic oligarchy. For all you anti-democratic, authoritarian-minded millies (and others): Hey, you got what you wanted! How’s it working out for you so far?

    Anecdotally, this is what I think:
    You’ve got massive debt to pay for those college degrees, which still won’t get you a decent job in many cases. Automation is going to eliminate loads of what used to be lower-middle- and middle-class jobs, and with a big surplus of labor, there will be downward wage/benefit pressure on many of the jobs that remain. In the next 20-30 years, I see 20-40% of working-age people will still have well-paid, well-benefited, relatively stable jobs (for which they will be expected to put in lots more than 40 hours/week), another 30-50% being part of the “precariat” putting together two or three short-term, part-time, variably paid, largely unbenefited, unstable gigs, and the rest basically not getting by at all except for some who work in the “informal sector”. You’ll be seeing several million angry, unemployed, young (mainly) men with few if any prospects who are going to be ready for a strong competent “Leader” to tell them what to do to “Really Make America Great Again,” this time the right way…Did I mention that over the same 20-30 years, climate change will likely be starting to make things rather nasty for us in the USA, as well as the rest of the world?

    Do I think these things are inevitable? No.
    Do I think we have solutions to these problems? Yes.
    Do I think we’ll implement them (in time to avoid massive social and economic dislocations) No, and I REALLY HOPE I’M WRONG!
    What should Millies do? If you think you can “fight the good fight “to get the necessary things done- then do so. WE NEED YOU! If you’re even gloomier than I am, then I suggest you emigrate to any freedom-loving OECD country that will take you in- maybe you can continue the “good fight” from a safe and stable location.

    Few Cheers,

    Keith Halperin 415.672.7326

    *I’m unclear what point the other study is trying to make, besides “It would be good to help people out of poverty”, and we should work to establish ways to do so.”

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