Generation X is no longer the largest generation of workers. Millennials, who are currently 18-34 years old, surpassed Generation X in 2016, now making up the largest population in the workforce. According to Pew Research Center, there are 53.5 million Millennials working, compared to the 52.7 million Generation X workers. Baby Boomers still make up 29 percent of workers, while the Silent Generation are at just 2 percent.
Millennials grew up differently than older generations. With the innovations of technology, the generation has been forced to easily adapt. Millennials also place great importance on personal care, making the balance of work and home life a priority. Ernst & Young’s Global Generation Research surveyed full-time employees and found that one-third of employees think it is getting harder to balance their work and family. This is due to increased hours and family expenses without an increase in salary. Millennials want flexibility in their schedule so they can focus on mental health.
Ball Bearings met with four different workers to see how a generational shift in culture can affect the workplace: Terry Miller, 22, a Ball State marketing graduate working as the assistant store manager at Mattress Firm; Trake Carpenter, 26, the owner of Let’s Spoon; Jennifer Bott, 40, dean of the Miller College of Business and associate provost for Learning Initiatives; and James Mitchell, 41, the associate director for Career Relations.
Ball Bearings: Millennials are on the rise and are beginning full-time jobs. How prepared are college graduates to enter these positions right out of college?
Terry Miller: I think college graduates are very prepared to enter the workforce. Mostly you just need to be able to conduct yourself in a professional manner and work hard in the beginning. There can be a lot of information to absorb at first, but absorbing a lot of information quickly is something we are accustomed to doing.
Trake Carpenter: I would say the average Millennial, myself included, is less prepared than they think they are. I probably thought I was more prepared for opening a business than I was. I learned very quickly it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. But I think that’s true for pretty much anything after college. It’s a big change of pace, and I think it’s more of a “Can you adapt to the new environment?” than an “Are you ready?” Because I don’t know if you can be ready.
Jennifer Bott: I think all students who, whether they’re Millennials or the generations before, are prepared for work if they’ve engaged in the workplace as part of their education. I think having experience in the workplace, understanding workplace etiquette, [and] understanding workplace values is so critical in developing their confidence to succeed. And I think the best way to do that is for students to take advantage of internships throughout their years in college. And [having] as many internships as possible helps students learn the differences between organizational cultures because some organizations may have – either intentionally or unintentionally – created a workplace that’s more favorable toward Millennials or they use technology differently, which is certainly something Millennials bring to the workforce. So having students engage with the workforce prior to joining is absolutely critical.
James Mitchell: I think college graduates, specifically Ball State graduates, are well-prepared – especially academically – to enter the workforce. Employers look to hire from Ball State and they look time and time again. I think often it relies on the college student. How well have you been preparing to graduate and move into the workforce? That’s a key sometimes students don’t consider. What have I done? Have I taken advantage of the resources available to me? Whether that’s with professors in my academic department, across the institution through student or professional organizations, through career coaching or other services the career center provides. So I think so much of it really relies on the student if they are prepared to graduate and move into the workforce. And there are lots of people who are there to help them.
BB: What kind of challenges do graduates face entering their careers?
Terry: The biggest challenge is switching gears from being a full-time student to being a full-time employee. Because when it’s time to go home, there is no homework. So suddenly your free time is actually free time. So finding ways to fill in those gaps can be the hardest part.
Trake: I think just like the quality and quantity of jobs. People are ready to graduate and make $35,000 to $50,000 and it’s just not… I mean that’s not what the average college graduate does these days. But I think a lot are learning from other avenues you know, whether that be starting their own business or consulting, or an internship that turns into a full-time gig. But it’s hard to just graduate. Tons of people have diplomas and there’s just not tons of jobs. It seems like everyone wants you to have two to three years of experience, but it’s like, how do I get experience without experience?
Jennifer: You know there has been so much conversation about how Millennials are different and what their generation does differently, both positively and negatively. And having a sense of humility when anyone enters a new organization – whether you’re a brand new college graduate or a more experienced worker switching to another organization – is critical to you getting accepted into the workforce. No one likes someone who knows everything even if they’ve been somewhere else and they’re coming to a new organization. There’s always opportunities for them to learn. And so I think they should be being more open to the stereotypes people may have about them and confront that in a very delicate way, and certainly just have humility around their newness to the organization. And that can go a long way to helping bridge any perceived gaps.
James: Think about it this way: you’ve never had that job before. Your job has always been being a student so you retire from that job of being a formal student when you graduate and move into this whole other world. That would be challenging for anybody, and so just the ability to figure out how a new life schedule works, what different responsibilities are, and how you use your time. What kind of work are you doing learning new things? Because while you finished being a formal student in a classroom setting, you have to learn things all the time. I’ve had to learn to use Excel. We were just in a meeting about marketing and marketing tools to hit in specific populations of people. That’s stuff that I wasn’t trained to do in my undergraduate or graduate programs. I’ve had to learn those on the job. So there’s a lot, potentially, that can be fear-inducing for people because you don’t know what you don’t know, and going out into that world of work can be a place that you don’t know. So I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that students face, that they don’t know what’s beyond the horizon. But there’s lots of good things beyond the horizon and that’s where I think, going back to the first question, ‘How do we tap into people that have been across the bridge and are willing to be there and help make that transition?’
BB: How are Millennials perceived at work?
Terry: In my personal experience I don’t think we are perceived any certain way.
Trake: I would say that people probably think they’re not as capable to handle things right away. I feel like people kind of try to make employees robots a little bit rather than teaching them some problem-solving skills. They should teach them the how and why, rather than just the set schedule and set task and turn them into robots.
Jennifer: Millennials enter the workforce with a higher level of awareness of stereotypical traits, whether they be positive or negative. Certainly understanding that people may have a perception about them simply because of their generational identity. And so of course, having done work with generational diversity as a research area, we can believe the Millennials are ninjas at technology. They may not be good at face-to-face communication and tend to be more volunteer-oriented. And so all of these things are stereotypical. So, that might play a role in some of their initial relationships at work.
James: You know, I think we’ve talked about generations for a long time in career services because there are potentially up to four different generations at work right now. The Baby Boomers are the bigger ones, and then my generation – Generation X, and then Millennials. And then there could be a generation that is post-Millennial, whatever they’re being called, or depending on how old they are there could be the Traditionalists – the Baby Boomers’ parents. They would have come at the very end of that generation if they’re still in the workforce. So there’s just a lot of diversity when it comes to that. And every generation has thought that the generation after it is going to ruin the workforce and the reality is we’ve all changed the workforce because we want different things, so you know Baby Boomers bring in some values that weren’t for my generation. Now your generation is wanting to change the workforce. But what you have to remember is you will change the world of work, but the people in my generation and the generation before me, we’re still there. And so you can’t expect everything to change because you’ve entered the workforce. And I mean ‘you’ in the global sense, but even on the individual sense of a student going in and thinking that in their first job out of college they have all of the authority over somebody who’s worked in that company for 40 years. Not every organizational structure will work like that. You won’t be able to come into the CEO’s office and put your feet up. And that doesn’t mean you’re a bad employee or that it’s not a good place to work. It could be the opportunity in the right organization, but not every organization is going to work that way. So that’s where the expectations come in, and managing those expectations really helps. Do stereotypes exist? Probably. Are they true? For some students I think they are. And so how would a student work to not be one of those stereotypes? By exploring ‘How do I learn when I get into a new situation? What do I have to offer? How can I be of the best service as opposed to expecting things to be done for them or that the world would revolve around them?’ The world of the workplace has, most likely, been there for a while and you’re the new person. It doesn’t mean that it won’t adapt since somebody new has been introduced. Expecting everything to change is probably not the best attitude. You’re setting yourself up I think, if that’s the thought you go into the workplace with.
BB: Do new college graduates tend to have a hard time collaborating with more experienced co-workers? If yes, what kind of problems arise?
Terry: I don’t believe so, at least not in my personal experience.
Trake: I don’t know if I could really speak to that. I’ve never done anything other than open my own business. But I can definitely see a disconnect between the older generation that has been in the workforce for a while and new generation coming in. You know they probably have newer ideas and are more adapted to technology and everything, where the older crowd’s probably maybe stuck in their ways a little bit, and there’s probably some disconnect on how to move forward versus keep doing what you’ve been doing.
Jennifer: You know I think it’s really an individual thing. I think that as a generation they are certainly perceived to be not as good with face-to-face communication or conflict, but on an individual basis that may or may not be the case. So I don’t believe that they’re behind in terms of their preparation or ability to succeed, and I think one of the things that we know is that Millennials, because of their lifetime of exposure to technology, come at things differently than perhaps their more experienced colleagues. The differences they have would benefit in those organizations, and you know I would say as an educator, collaborating while you’re in college is certainly different from in the past. I think most of us talk about the importance of teamwork and of working with like-minded and diverse-minded individuals more than we ever have. And so I think the exposure to collaboration is certainly, I would imagine, higher in Millennials. But it’s usually peer-based. And I think most people working with diverse others, whether that be age-related diversity or experience-related diversity, that always takes a level of adjustment. In my experience, Millennials tend to be very collaborative-minded and certainly with experience in the workplace will be really, really successful at that.
James: I can probably only speak to the times when I was a new person in a workplace. And granted I’m a different generation, but I think it’s hard to be new. It’s hard to sometimes face the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude, or “we tried it this way and it doesn’t work.” Sometimes we have to listen to those words of wisdom because it’s true. But other times we have to think, ‘Can we try that again or can we do it a little differently?’ And so it might take more energy to collaborate across generations in a workplace at times, but at the end of the day is the work fulfilling? Is it what you want to do? Is the mission engaging? Is that what you want? And are you willing to go there and be in that? And I’m not talking about it in a confrontational, negative sort of way. The reality is that it takes hard work to collaborate across those generations and figure out how to work together. So I think yes. I think that it could be challenging to collaborate, at least from my experience. But at the same time, that’s what makes the workplace a vibrant place to work.
BB: Work-life balance and personal care is very important to this generation. Have you seen this becoming a problem in the workplace?
Terry: I do actually. I think more and more people expect you to put your whole self into your job and some people want to do that and others do not. You have to be able to find your own balance. It can be challenging at times, but college has definitely prepared us for this kind of thing. Time management is a skill that every college graduate has and that will definitely help them set up a better work-life balance.
Trake: I have no personal life, personally. I do have days where I would love a nine-to-five so I could clock in and clock out. There’s some people that are fine taking on jobs where you’re never really off the clock, but it is really exhausting just to never be able to kind of relax and not feel like you have something to do or you’re responsible for something. I definitely think the balance of work and life is very important to people but it’s hard to get somewhere without sacrificing.
Jennifer: It’s interesting. I was just with an organization, a large accounting firm that is addressing this head on, and I think this will benefit everyone. So they’ve created a work where it’s a ‘your-philosophy’ program, so if you need to come into the office then come into the office. If you’re on a client visit and you stay an extra day on that client visit and get more work done then stay there. So I think the Millennial and dual efforts of Generation X on work-life balance changes the way we do work. And I think that’s for the better of everybody. But it does come with challenges that I don’t know if every organization has fully thought out. And so how do you monitor performance or deal with worker compensation? How do you manage communication if everybody’s kind of doing their own thing? Organizations are, because of technology, working to consider those kinds of flexible options more, but there’s a lot of policy that needs to come with it from an HR perspective. So it’s an interesting time and I think the work-life balance issue couples with things like family leave for both parents and all of the conversation around that nationally, in large part due to the Millennials and Gen Xers saying we need a life and we’re more productive if we have a life. So it’s going to be to for the betterment of all.
James: This is what our survey, 2015 Workplace Expectations Versus Reality Students and Recent Hires Weigh In, talked about. It’s one of the facets of what students were looking for, and I want to talk to you about some of the differences our researcher found when she looked at work-life balance and some other things that students were looking for versus what employees were looking for. This is what people found important when they were surveyed. This section is on a 10-point scale. There was a one point difference, 8.02/10 and 7.03/10, that students wanted work-life balance more than employees wanted. And some of that could be just the misunderstanding. We are currently doing a follow-up study on this. Work-life balance, if I asked you what it meant, your definition might be different from what I think work-life balance means. For some students, they think, “Does that mean I can come in at nine and work until three?” Or, “Does it mean that I want to come in at 2 p.m. and work until 11 p.m.?” “Can I leave early to go to a kid’s basketball game?” “Does that mean I have some flexibility in what I wear?” What is work-life balance? So trying to understand that a little bit more. Because I think it’s different for different people. But there was a difference in what students wanted and what employees wanted in terms of what they considered work-life balance.
BB: What are the skills and positive benefits of having so many Millennials in the workplace? What can they offer the experienced employees?
Terry: Just a fresh, new perspective. And obviously we are a little more comfortable with certain forms of technology having grown up with them. I think overall positivity and leadership is something that Millennials bring to the table as well. Overall just a fresh positive vibe.
Trake: I think they can definitely offer a lot more about technology because they are much more experienced and know what’s out there. They know lot of useful tech stuff that older generations aren’t used to, and they can also teach older generations. It can be really difficult. It’s like trying to learn a new language.
Jennifer: The access to information. Millennials are very well versed at finding information very, very effectively through technology, and faster than even Gen X. So engaging Millennials in the problem-solution process will be important to create an effective and efficient workforce. I think the other thing that Millennials bring to the organization, which is part of the work and life conversation, is really the focus on community. And I think a lot of organizations have recognized to recruit and retain Millennials they need to have a much more active involvement in community development, community volunteers, and etc. And I’m seeing a lot more organizations do that and I think that is incredible. And so the civic preference that Millennials have will go a long way to developing our communities and developing workforce community relationships. And I really credit the Millennials for that. A lot of organizations are allowing people time off with pay. You don’t have to take a vacation day to volunteer; some organizations have X number of hours a year or days a year to volunteer. They’re really encouraged either individually or through collective projects to work to the betterment of the community. And that community mindset, which is a collective mindset, is very powerful for the organization and just needs to be recognized by more experienced workers.
James: Oh gosh, I think lots of things. There are new ways of thinking about things. There would be new technologies that experienced workers could learn about from working with new hires. Maybe even energy levels. Being inspired. After working at the same place for a long time I think that new perspective could energize an employee that’s been there for a little while. I think that there are times when Millennials, if they really are service-minded or global citizens in the sense of giving back to the community, helping a company to steer in that direction or pilot it. To spearhead events like that could be good for those who are not in the mindset like that. So really I think you could look at what are the strengths of the generation and think all of those could be good things. And every generation brings strengths to the workplace. We just have to learn how to adapt to those and accept those as strengths, not as annoyances and weaknesses or detractors from what we’re trying to do.
BB: What can Millennials learn from the experienced employees?
Terry: The experienced employees will always have an answer to your question or a way to work around your problem. Utilize these more experienced employees especially early on in your career. It is important to find a mentor and be able to go back to that person for advice again and again.
Trake: Probably not as much about technology, but they know a lot about people and networking. They’ve been doing it for a long time and you pick up on that over time. There’s a science to interacting with people and building relationships. And also seeing how they balance work and home life.
Jennifer: One of the things, and this really goes to either side, Millennials or more experienced workers, I try to tell students when I was still in the classroom is that sometimes it’s about finding your co-workers’ preferences and meeting those preferences. So if someone prefers to have a face-to-face conversation, if it’s not too much trouble, then have that conversation. Often times, Millennials are believed to overuse technology, especially when it comes to managing personal relationships. So, I think it’s important that they recognize how other people view personal relationships and to work to match that. I think harmony in the workplace is really about everybody recognizing other people’s preferences and doing their best to match those preferences. And Millennials could stand to not judge their co-workers and meet them where they are.
James: I think that by going to work there is a lot of wisdom you can learn from people. You learned a lot in school and had those theoretical, and sometimes very practical, experiences, but just longevity at work can give people different perspectives on that. So can understanding how to work within office politics. This means knowing how to work with people, being emotionally intelligent. Those are things that you sometimes learn more by being at work and learning how to work with people as opposed to not having that experience yet. As an example, if you’re working on a team project and somebody’s not pulling their weight. As a student, what do you do? Do you go tell the professor? Do you confront that other student? Well, what do you do at work when things are happening that way? Maybe it’s the same, maybe it’s different, but somebody with more experience in the workplace might be able to help you navigate through that process. They’ve done the work, they know what’s going on there.
So, learning from them can be really good. Build those networks and those connections. Don’t write those people off. I think that sometimes people earn their place at the table, for good or bad, that’s the way that it works. But sometimes we maybe discount the idea of how many times do I let a situation happen before I stop letting a situation happen? You know, trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. There’s something you can probably learn about that too. Trusting your instincts and learning how to trust your gut. That comes with experience. So I don’t think that the current generations that are in the workplace are any better or any worse, they’re just different. And I think that for college students who are working to move out there, that there’s an exciting world out there to be a part of, and you have to think of it that way. Sure you’re giving up the job and the comforts that you’ve had for so many years as a student, but you have to think about the benefits from that. The compensation that you get, the experience that you get, the ability to use the things that you’ve been preparing for for so many years, to put those to practice. It’s an exciting and a scary time altogether.
*quotes edited for clarity and accuracy