The media can’t seem to decide what to make of Generation Y’s role in the workplace: Are today’s 20-somethings entitled overachievers who hate being at the bottom of the totem pole? Or are they the creative entrepreneurs who will reshape the American economy?
Journalist and former Express contributor Hannah Seligson — a member of that generation — knows millennials can’t be summarized so simply. In her new e-book, “Mission: Adulthood: How the 20-Somethings of Today Are Transforming Work, Love and Life” ($5.99, Diversion Books), she profiles seven members of Gen Y. Their stories paint a true picture of millennials in the workforce: what motivates them, what they struggle with and what they hope to achieve. Seligson believes they’re capable of very big things.
Why are 20-somethings often described negatively in the media?
I think this generation, both by necessity and their own desires, has forged new patterns in the workplace.
Because there’s no such thing as job security anymore, we switch jobs a lot, which I think can be viewed as entitled or that we’re whiners. But that really speaks to larger economic trends, and we have evolved that way by necessity.
What would be some more-positive ways to describe Generation Y?
Ambitious. Innovative. Creative. Entrepreneurial. Scrappy.
What skills do 20-somethings bring to the table that help them weather this difficult job market?
The fact that we’re digital natives has helped. We grew up with computers and have that fluency.
I don’t want to say that the economy has been a good thing for this generation. But I do think we might see in a few years that it will have had a positive impact on people, in the sense that they really had to figure stuff out.
They had to be nimble, creative and innovative, all of which are important things in today’s workforce.
What about higher education? Is it more valuable than ever, or overpriced and unnecessary?
Everyone I profiled in the book went to college. And even the people who took out the largest amounts of loans to go to college didn’t regret their decisions to do that. It’s necessary, and everyone knows that.
There’s a whole movement now to say “no” to college, but if you look at all of the statistics on things like lifetime earnings, it all points in flashing neon signs to getting a college degree.
Do people need to be more strategic in choosing majors?
Are liberal arts degrees a thing of the past?
We do need more STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] workers; that’s where the job openings are. If you majored in engineering, you’ll probably have a much easier time than a history major.
That being said, we can’t all be engineers. We live in a knowledge-based economy where skills like critical thinking, writing and reading are very important. Those jobs are just going to be [harder] to get. It might not be easy, but people figure it out.
What unique skills or perspectives can a 20-something employee offer a company?
The blessing of youth is a lot of energy and enthusiasm.
Young people today definitely go to work for companies they care about. Companies are getting an employee who is probably invested in the company and mission, so I would say to harness that enthusiasm.
You say in the book that a job isn’t just a job anymore; it’s an expression of who you are.
We’re a generation that believes in finding your bliss, that work should be fun and meaningful.
Does that ever cause any problems in the workplace?
One thing a lot of people struggle with, myself included, is that it’s very humbling to be in your 20s.
One of the positive aspects of Gen Y is that they have huge ambitions and think that anything is possible. But then they get to a job where, probably like any entry-level employee, they’re not given a ton of responsibility. It can be very difficult and frustrating.
How do they deal with that?
Most people have some kind of recalibrating moment to figure out their priorities.
That’s a reason why there’s a huge rise of entrepreneurship in this generation. We’ve seen that the stable job doesn’t exist anymore, so the perception is that there’s not as much to lose.
There’s also that reckoning where people come face-to-face with the fact that work is work and maybe change their mentalities. But the more idealistic ones either change jobs or figure out how to go out on their own.
Twenty years from now, what kind of an impact will Gen Y have had on the workplace?
People have made this prognosis, and I agree with it, that we will see flatter workplaces, because Gen Y is not super into hierarchy.
We’ll see more work-life balance. We’ll see a lot more socially minded companies. That’s not to say that we won’t have greedy bankers, but I think in general, [the economic collapse] was a big wake-up call for this generation. We want to figure out how to marry the twin goals of making a profit and making a difference. And in some situations, people do sacrifice income to take a job that meets these softer requirements.
If people let us and we’re given the chance, we could have a very profound influence on society.