Millennials in the workforce have gotten a bad reputation. The media portrays them as entitled, lazy children, unwilling to conform to traditional professional norms and satisfied with nothing less than a six-figure salary and high-profile position without paying their dues.
Various studies, however, have found this isn’t the case. When Barnes & Noble College surveyed more than 3,000 students at two- and four-year colleges across 44 states, it found that although other generations might “believe that all students are graduating with expectations of high-powered jobs and lucrative salaries, respondents in this survey indicated that personal fulfillment trumps money and status.” The “College Student Mindset for Career Preparation & Success” survey found that “feeling personally fulfilled with work” is the top indicator of success for students: 93 percent of two-year students, 92 percent of four-year freshmen, and 95 percent of four-year juniors and seniors rated personal fulfillment among their top two factors for success. These same students rated “public recognition” as the lowest indicator of success, with “desired title” and “meeting financial goals” rounding out the bottom of the list.
What does personal fulfillment look like to millennials, and how can career services departments adapt to help them find the career paths that lead to achieving it? Answering these questions begins with determining how life after higher education differs for millennials compared to the generations that came before.
What millennials want from their lives
According to “How Millennials Navigate Their Careers,” a study of 1,000 millennials by Boston College Center for Work & Family, millennials — especially in certain geographic areas — delay making “adult commitments” far beyond when their predecessors would have. They get married later, have children later, and are less likely to own a home by age 30 than they would have been a generation ago — for both economic and societal factors.
Gender roles are also different in this generation, which affects the millennial household dynamic once they do settle down. In 2012, women earned the majority of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 2013’s “Breadwinner Moms,” by Wendy Wang, Kim Parker and Paul Taylor, showed that in a full quarter of dual-career-couple households, women earn more than men.
Overwhelmingly, millennials seek value from their roles as individuals as much as their roles as parents, spouses and employees. They value experiences and the opportunity learn and grow above material possessions, and find stability as their parents knew it more stifling than secure. Much of this mindset is likely due to the economic recession in which they reached adulthood — a time that taught them excess isn’t always admirable, loyalty isn’t always rewarded, and nothing is more sought after than agility.
What millennials want from their careers
At the end of the 20th century, millennials witnessed the start of a dramatic shift in the relationship between careers and employers. As layoffs reached record levels, workers realized the long-held belief that good employees would be rewarded with job security had turned upside down. This has led to many millennials viewing themselves as “free agents” rather than one-company players, a shift that many baby boomers view negatively. Yet ultimately, this has had positive consequences. Because millennials understand their careers are fluid, they are dedicated to learning, keeping up with best practices, and positioning themselves as neutral subject matter experts and thought leaders in an unprecedented way.
On top of that, millennials aren’t inherently disloyal to corporations — they’re just prepared. The Boston College study found millennials have low expectations regarding job security, although they still highly value it. They value work-life balance, career advancement, training and development, and meaningful work just as much.
“It has become almost conventional wisdom that most millennials are dissatisfied in their careers and in their rate of advancement,” according to the “How Millennials Navigate Their Careers” study. “But in our study, nearly 70 percent of the young professionals reported that they were satisfied with the success they had achieved in their careers, and three in five were satisfied with the progress they have made toward their goals for advancement.”
A 2014 Bentley University study predicted that by 2025, millennials will make up as much as 75 percent of the global workforce. This means that to keep the career satisfaction this generation claims now, we must adapt the way we guide them into these careers.
“It’s time for colleges and universities to rethink the traditional road map for career preparation to accelerate their students’ long-term career success,” said Joan Kuhl, president and founder of Why Millennials Matter.
Rethinking career services
Researchers for “The College Student Mindset for Career Preparation & Success” survey found that currently, students are “too casual” about their career searches and preparation strategies. Only 14 percent of four-year juniors and seniors have completed a career inventory, 19 percent have attended employer information sessions, 15 percent have participated in mock interview sessions, and only 25 percent have worked with their career center.
They may believe that traditional career services offices are outdated and don’t do much to address the ways millennials search for jobs — through connections and communities.
“The world of work has dramatically changed, yet the methods used to prepare students to enter it have remained static,” the study noted. “It’s important for colleges/universities and the students they serve to showcase the unique and innovative qualities of this new generation who will dramatically change the workplace. Career prep support and services must move the emphasis from securing the interview to job readiness.”
In an article titled “Changing Trends in Career Advising with the Millennial Generation,” Stephen Neynaber, who holds a doctorate of psychology, explained that college and university career advisors “need to develop new strategies and advising protocols that reflect the economic realities and interests of millennials. Their responsibilities also include the role of providing in-service training with curricular and cocurricular personnel that appropriately prepares students across the curriculum for success after graduation.”
But how can career services departments reach out to millennials in a way that speaks to them and their values, priorities and communication styles?
“The term 'career services' has been a phrase that has been used for several decades to describe what colleges have been doing,” said Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University. "It’s not working."
A variety of studies have shown that one of the most important factors in choosing a college or university is a school’s reputation for job placement after graduation, and the pressure is even greater for career colleges, whose placement rates are watched carefully by the government.
Career services millennials (and employers) will actually use
At career colleges more than anywhere, students aren’t necessarily following the traditional path through employment and to a career. Even among millennials, student bodies are “less homogeneous now, with more minorities and more international and part-time students,” according to Dan Black, director of campus recruiting at Ernst & Young LLP. This means their priorities and their methods for career searching have been modified.
“A student who has a job, for instance, might not be able to get to a resume-writing session, but he or she can listen to a podcast on the topic, watch a video of a mock interview or glean tips on dressing for business from a college career center’s website,” commented Tamara Lytle for the Society for Human Resource Management.
These students may not be able to attend traditional career fairs, either, which doesn’t necessarily bother them — their approaches to employment are very different than those of baby boomers. The No. 1 way millennials develop their careers is through referrals from friends, relatives and other connections. This means career services departments aren’t the conduits to careers they used to be — instead, they need to operate more like personal development departments.
"The best career services centers have shifted from being a moderator or go-between [for] students and companies and into career development preparation around their students," Adam Ward, university recruiting manager at Facebook, explained.
Your career services department can succeed with millennials by taking its offerings online and providing services that don’t just work as one-offs (like alerting students to open positions), but instead impart skills that they can carry with them throughout their careers — skills like interviewing, body language, communication techniques and benefits negotiation.
"The world has changed, and if you’re not changing with it, you’re doing the students a disservice," said Trudy Steinfeld, assistant vice president and executive director of New York University’s Wasserman Center for Career Development.
There’s still a place for career departments at colleges and universities. By keeping your services agile and focused on students’ long-term development, by working with employers to find out exactly which skills they’re looking for and embedding those skills into the entire academic process, and by understanding what millennials value in their lives and careers, you can develop a department that benefits both your placement goals and your students — for life.