When Millennials Go to Work


Articles in Millennials & Generations • June 9, 2016

Throughout the last few weeks, newsfeeds have been full of commencement speeches and convocation photos. It’s graduation season, and that means millions of young Americans (Millennials) are being awarded degrees from colleges and universities across the nation, and are now heading into the workforce—many for the first time ever. But what are the unique expectations of this generation when it comes to work?

Millennials live a life of paradox. Tech savvy and ambitious, yet perceived by many as lazy and self-centered. Passionate and serious about work, yet job-hopping as they experiment with and explore where to put that passion meaningfully to work.

Given these nuances, it’s no wonder that much ink has been spilled dissecting why and how Millennials (those born in the early 1980s through the early 2000’s) go to work. Barna’s research digs deeper, unearthing the pillars that form the personal identity of Millennials and tracing the paradoxical relationship they have with their careers.

Millennial Identity: What’s Most Central?
Although most Millennials agree their career is at least somewhat central to their identity, only a third say their career is very central. In fact, Boomers are more likely than Millennials to believe their career is central to who they are.

So what do Millennials deem most central to their identity? “Family” and “personal interests” are the top two categories. “Career” is actually one of the least likely categories to be named—the only category it beats is “technology.”

In order to make sense of these statistics, it’s important to recognize that Millennials are struggling to find jobs. The employment rate of Millennials in 2012 was only 63 percent, and 36 percent of them were living at their parents’ home, the highest number in this age group in four decades. Even young adults with a bachelor’s degree are struggling; their rate of unemployment jumped from 7.7 percent in 2007 to 13.3 percent in 2012.

Getting a job and starting a career is not a foregone conclusion—but it doesn’t seem like Millennials care as much about that as their predecessors. Millennials see their twenties as a time to explore options beyond the traditional career ladder. This may be a little confounding to their parents. Two-thirds of Boomers (64%) say “starting your career” is crucial in your twenties, while only half of Millennials (51%) agree. Nearly three-quarters of Boomers (72%) believe “financial independence” is an important accomplishment in your twenties, while less than two-thirds of Millennials (59%) do. So what do Millennials prioritize more than Boomers when it comes to the “bucket list” of young adulthood? Not their careers, education or self-discovery, but rather traveling, starting a family and becoming famous.

Career Priorities, Projections and Aspirations
Given that Millennials are more likely to select “personal interests” over “career” when identifying what is central to their identity, it makes sense that their top career priorities are “funding my personal interests” (29%) and “working for myself” (27%).

What these top two priorities have in common is that they enable one to pursue a life outside of work. The first priority provides the financial means to pursue personal interests, whereas the second priority provides, among other things, the autonomy to flexibly arrange one’s work-schedule around other personal priorities. Millennials approach their career priorities pragmatically.

The diminished importance of a career does not, despite the poor employment rates, come from a place of pessimism about Millennials’ career prospects. In fact, they are optimistic—even if cautiously so. While a fair number of Millennials doubt they will land their dream job in the next five years, over half of them (52%) believe they will.

While many Millennials certainly do feel anxious about making the wrong career choice, 52 percent of them do not. This could be partly due to their belief in the transient nature of jobs. Nine in 10 Millennials expect to stay in a job for only three years.

Even if Millennials expect to float from job to job, they are not searching aimlessly. When asked what their “dream job” looks like, the most common answer, trumping financial security (34%) and having enough money to enjoy life (24%), was “I feel passionate about it” (42%).

This is one of the biggest paradoxes of the Millennial mindset. It’s clear that starting and building a career isn’t as important to them as it was to previous generations. Millennials have many other projects and priorities going on outside of their work, and they want the financial means and flexibility to pursue them.

Yet, when they are prompted to think aspirationally and not just pragmatically, they clearly desire a lot from their jobs. They want their work to be aligned with their passions. But what does this look like? For recent university graduates, at least, “making an impact” is certainly part of the picture. In 2012, a study done by NetImpact found that 59 percent of graduating university students—compared to 53 percent of all Americans—believe that having a job where they can make an impact is essential or very important to their happiness.

This trend holds true among Christians. According to a 2012 Lead Well Research study, those under 40 (which includes Millennials) are more likely than those over 40 to have thought about whether they feel “called” to their current work (74% compared to 62%). For Millennials, “calling” is more than just about being called toward religious or ministry professions—they are thinking about whether they are “called” by God to their secular jobs as well. To be clear, most of them (69%) define “calling” not in a fixed, permanent way, but as something that can change over time as they age. This means they are likely thinking about whether they are called to their current work at this point in their lives, not for a lifetime.

Only 31 percent of Millennials feel “called” to their current work. Forty-four percent of them actually feel called to do something other than their current job, but haven’t been willing to make change yet because of their current situation.

Current Career Satisfaction
It is not too surprising to find that 19 percent of Millennials are not very satisfied with their current career. First, since they are younger than their colleagues, they are likely working in lower-rung jobs with little autonomy over their responsibilities. Second, the present economy means that they don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing jobs according to their interests, but simply have to take jobs that pay their bills. Lastly, Millennials clearly have wide-ranging expectations—funding for personal interests, autonomy, alignment with passion or calling—for their career, making it naturally difficult to find a job that meets all their criteria.

It’s worth noting that their dissatisfaction does not stem from how they are treated because of their age at work. Most Millennials feel respected by older coworkers and do not feel held back at their job because of their age. In fact, they are more likely to agree than not that their age is an advantage in performing their current or most recent jobs.

Despite their poor career satisfaction, seven in 10 Millennials are satisfied with their lives overall. So while it is true that Millennials want a lot out of their jobs, it’s also true that if they don’t get what they want, they find other ways to be satisfied. A job might be much more than just “a job” to Millennials, but they are not placing all their efforts into their work; to them, life is about much more than just a job.

What the Research Means
“Throughout our research on Millennials over the years, we’ve seen them demonstrate a consistent desire to make an impact in the world,” observes Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group. “Yet they are not limiting that desire to their occupations. While many would love to have that dream job through which they can change the world and express their personal gifts and talents, they also recognize the limitations of the workplace. Whether it’s a result of a poor job market and few opportunities, or because they are simply still at the bottom of the ladder, Millennials do not see their jobs as the ultimate expression of their calling. For many this means pursuing their interests outside of a nine-to-five job—freelancing on the side, for example, or using vacation time to film a documentary, or working on a start-up in the evenings.

“As Millennials progress in their careers, this pattern may change,” continues Stone. “A lifetime career trajectory is not an expectation for most Millennials; they anticipate changing jobs often and will likely do so in pursuit of work that better aligns with their passions. As Millennials become a larger and larger segment of the employee market, companies will need to shift policies and incentives to appeal to these desires. Training, mentorship, opportunities for independence and fluidity within roles will become important factors in employee retention.

“It is also true that Millennials are waiting longer to get married and to have children—two milestones that require more financial stability,” says Stone. “As more Millennials begin to have families, their ideals for a job—to make an impact, to pursue their passions—may take a backseat to financial compensation. However, it is also true that we continue to see a rise in single adults and in married couples without children. In our research, we’ve seen Millennials express the desire to get married and have children someday, but they also point to a number of things they want to do first. The perceived restrictions of family life—a loss of independence, financial responsibility, less time to dedicate to their passions—may continue to keep many Millennials from making that shift.”

Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @roxyleestone | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

About the Research
June 2012 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys from June 2012. A total of 1,116 interviews were conducted among U.S. adults, ages 18 years of age and older who identify as Christian and/or Catholic. Data in this study is based off a total of 587 interviews with Christians currently employed full-time or part time. The sample error for employed Christians plus or minus 3.9 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The questions in this study were conducted by Barna Group on behalf of Brad Lomenick for his book The Catalyst Leader (Thomas Nelson 2013) and were used with permission.

June 2013 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys in June 2013. A total of 1,400 interviews among all U.S. adults, ages 18 years of age and older were conducted. The survey included 297 interviews with Millennials and 407 Gen-Xers. The sample error among Millennials is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. Sampling error for Gen-Xers is plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.

July 2013 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys in July 2013. A total of 1,400 interviews among all U.S. adults, ages 18 years of age and older were conducted. The survey included 404 interviews with Millennials and 513 interviews with Baby Boomers. The sample error falls between plus or minus 2.4 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level for the total sample of 1,400 interviews to plus or minus 4.8 percentage points for smaller sample segments (Millennials).

August 2013 study: The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys in August 2013. A total of 1,000 interviews among all U.S. adults, ages 18 years of age and older were conducted. The survey included 222 interviews with Millennials. The sample error among Millennials is plus or minus 6.5 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Busters/Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier

About Barna Group
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2016.


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