The millennial generation: no more playing by the rules.

Since 2012, I’ve been studying part-time at Birkbeck College for my MSc Organizational Behaviour. Having been to drama school – by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life – I wanted to challenge myself academically rather than so emotionally and physically. I did it for me, no one else, and while it took up all my evenings and weekends, ended my social life and eroded my bank balance, it was an experience that I would readily do again. I’ve now passed by Masters and will graduate in Spring 2016.

For my final research project, I wanted to explore how the millennial generation – those currently aged 21-36 – think about their career. The project grew from my own experience in the world of work: my reticence to commit to an organisation, the almost non-existent boundaries between my personal and professional life, my need to manage my own time, to not have a “boss” monitoring me, to learn and keep learning forever, to do valued and meaningful work, and the – at times overwhelming – fear of failing to live up to the expectations I have created for myself.

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The final submission: my research on the millennial career.

My specific research question was a little more academic, but through interviews with those working in the non-profit sector in the UK, I asked about their understanding of the term “career”, their expectations of employment for the future, the characteristics in a job that are important to them and finally how prepared they feel to enact that the career they seek.

The full research project can be viewed here. This blog is a summary of the findings – admittedly of a small, fairly niche study – that I think have most relevance for millennials. Some of the findings may be more focused on organisations, managers and policy-makers.

One caveat before starting. The group I interviewed were mostly well-educated, fairly economically secure and privileged. It was not representative of society, but probably representative of the charity or non-profit sector in London. This is a sweeping statement, but given the major challenges in youth unemployment, the wider low-pay economy and the large scale employment insecurity, the findings might seem to some as pretty middle-class problems. I think that they pose real challenges to individuals, organisations and the government, and I hope you’ll see that too.

So, here are the top 6 interesting things I found out:

      1. Promised a Mercedes, but got a Mondeo – Millennials grew up through “in a time of economic expansion and prosperity” but have “come of age in an era of economic uncertainty and violence.”[1] Simply put: young people spent most of their childhood believing the world would be one way for them, only to find it had completely changed when they finally grew up. In the world of employment, this has been characterised by high youth unemployment, short-term contracts, forced flexibility of hours and conditions, and the perception of low organisational investment (in training and development) and little career management. At the same time, participants felt the expectations of graduates were massive, with organisations expecting experienced, capable, autonomous staff members from the first day – with little on-boarding or support.
      2. Evidence of the “cocktail syndrome” – When thinking about the priorities for their career, participants want a career that makes a social impact, aligns with their personal values and life goals and where they can continually learn and develop. However, they are unable to understand their position and create an identity for themselves without benchmarking against “traditional career” elements such as formal position, salary and organisational responsibility. The “cocktail syndrome” – the need to explain to someone at a cocktail party what you do, your value and position in life – means that participants continue to measure their success against pay, power and position, rather than the things that they actually consider important. This isn’t to say that financial reward and seniority were not desired – they were – but that a new way of measuring people’s value and worth is needed that encapsulates the real motivations of their job.
      3. Mobility is expected, not necessarily desired – For millennials, the idea of a stable job – one where you join a company and stay until you retire, steadily progressing up the career ladder – is something their parents and grand-parents experienced, not them. But for them, this changed world of employment (away from one job, one organisation or one career) is merely their current employment landscape, with their attention more focused on how to navigate this. While participants said that they expect to move around a lot during their career, it is unclear whether the this is something they really want or simply what they expect to deal with. Mobility across organisations was seen as normal and anticipated, but was simultaneously seen as providing flexibility and precarious employment. It was something frequently mentioned in relation to the career landscape, but not as one of the desired career characteristics.
      4. A sense of identity is difficult to present – Participants often had multiple skill-sets, varied interests, and roles that had a range of responsibilities. Along with the reality (and perception) of having many jobs in different sectors, participants reported being unsure how to present themselves in interviews and explain their skills and abilities – especially to older people on the interview panel and who they felt were less likely to understand their employment reality. Creating a personal narrative was important to link together a set of employment experiences that may not – at first glace – seem connected or related. This narrative was not seen as something easy to construct and many felt they were “making it up” rather than relaying their genuine employment reality. Having a mentor was specifically identified as being useful in supporting people understand their skills and present them to future employers.
      5. Millennials are mostly winging it – Participants have a clear idea of how they want their career to feel like and the characteristics that matter most to them (social impact, professional development, autonomous working, etc). But they have no strategy for achieving that. Careers guidance was seen as irrelevant, poor quality and ineffective in supporting young people make well-informed choices. Similarly, it was felt that organisations need workers for now, and are less interested in career management – especially when people are likely to move jobs fairly quickly or are on fixed-term or flexible contracts. At the same time, no one seemed particularly worried. Participants are relaxed about their future – perhaps linked to their privileged backgrounds – but most felt that things would just work out and that a thought-through strategy wouldn’t work anyway.
      6. The world of work has changed, so must our response – Participants felt that their reality was fundamentally different to that experienced by their parents or grandparents. The way in which young professionals are supported needs to change: careers guidance at school and university needs to radically change to understand the new career reality for graduates; employers need to know how best to manage millennials but also how to support young staff members in progressing their career beyond their current job; professional bodies or trade unions can provide more training – particularly soft skills – within specific industry and sectors and should include non-formal learning; the government should provide life-long guidance through a National Careers Service. Finally, young people themselves must prepare themselves better – because it is unlikely they will get much support from elsewhere. If you want a mentor, find it. Ask your boss for career support. Network with other young people in your sector and support one another.

Primarily, the blog is about sharing the research that I’ve conducted to a wider audience than just the two assigned markers from my department – not for my own vanity, but because I feel researchers need to do better in talking about the work they do, their findings and its relevance in society. So much good stuff goes on in the libraries of universities around the world, but so little is shared beyond the tears, stress and need-for-wine, that comes with post-graduate studies.

Thank you to all the participants of the research – talking to you was the highlight of my MSc. Thank you also to Bill Badham and Jennie Fleming for all their personal and academic guidance – it wouldn’t have happened without you.

Looking back, the project was probably to understand something deeper: was I alone in the way I saw life – personal and professional – or were other people my age equally as messed up and lost?

I no longer feel alone, at least.


[1]  Eisner, S.P., 2005. Managing Generation Y. S.A.M Advanced Management Journal, 70 (4), 4–15, p6.

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