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What my millennial students taught me about work life balance and why we should all listen

Time at home with kids is important to millennials. We can learn from them. (iStock)

I’m a college professor who helps young adults enter the work world. I’ve learned over time that many of my students have a better grasp on what it takes to lead a successful life – including both career and family – than mid-career adults (myself very much included).

Keeping an open mind to their views and outlooks helped me write my new book The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home.  Largely geared to mid-career professional men facing the inevitable work-family juggle of their prime parenting years, I offer advice and encouragement so working dads can better identify their priorities, advocate for themselves at work, and lead a more balanced life at home.

Here, I take a break from bashing the next generation to highlight four things we all can learn from Millennials.

  1. They Are Not in Gender Jail. More than any generation, millennials expect equality between the sexes both at work and at home. This makes sense, as many millennials were raised in dual-income households in which mom and dad both worked outside the home and at least mostly shared in childcare and housework. Women are a slight majority on college campuses. In fact, more than 80 percent of millennials expressed a desire for fully shared parenting, and stated that one’s gender shouldn’t determine who would be the primary provider in their future marriage. More than any generation, they believe that men should be involved parents and that women’s careers are just as important as men’s. Further, there is growing evidence that Millennial men have more positive attitudes towards female co-workers and supervisors.Many of our problems related to gender equity, equal pay, workplace bias, and work-family balance would be greatly reduced if we adopted more of their egalitarian mindset.

[What becoming at stay-at-home dad taught me about gender roles]

  1. They Think Ahead and Consider More Options. Many of the Gen X working parents I interviewed for my book chose a career path many years ago, before they were married with children. They largely prioritized income and advancement potential. But few fully considered how their careers would fit their lives a decade or so later. As a result, I see so many working parents stuck on a career track that isn’t working for them, unable or unwilling to confront this fact and consider necessary changes.By contrast, many of my millennial students have thought about these issues, even before they have families of their own. According to a recent study conducted by Ernst & Young, members of all age cohorts valued parental leave and workplace flexibility, but millennials were more likely than Boomers and Gen Xers to state that they would join a company, work longer hours, be more engaged employees, and recommend their company to others – and be less likely to quit their company – if it offered these policies.  Even though they aren’t parents yet, they are more likely to think about their careers in light of the rest of their lives and priorities.

    Also, as millennials are less likely to stay at one employer or even on one career path, they are more open to making career changes as their lives change. We could all learn from their willingness to be forward-thinking, flexible, creative and risk-taking when it comes to changing the course of our careers.

  1. They Ask For (Demand) What They Want. A friend of mine is a recruiter for a national company that hires tons of millennials right out of college. He says that some of his colleagues bristle when the newly hired 20-somethings negotiate hard for pay and benefits, demand developmental assignments, and push back on excessive travel or work demands. My friend doesn’t. He always tells me that they are brave. They are willing to ask for the things most employees want. And if they can’t get what they want with their employer, they’ll find another that will.Too many of us feel trapped in our work situations, and this is sometimes the case, especially when families rely on us financially. However, it is also true that many working parents don’t advocate for themselves in the workplace and miss opportunities to create informal arrangements with our work teams or negotiate for increased flexibility. Some of us even internalize corporate “work first” culture and help trap ourselves.  We could benefit by combining millennials’ bravery with the wisdom we’ve learned to pick our spots and smartly advocate for ourselves.
  1. They Are Loyal Only If It Is Returned. My recruiter friend also says that, “Millennials are not loyal to loyalty. They are only loyal to those who are loyal to them.” Millennials have seen their parents downsized through no fault of their own do not expect a company to stand by them. What many see as a mercenary attitude that leads to job-hopping, my friend sees at the opportunity to retain the best talent. Only by creating work environments where a young employee can co-create their role, be challenged, develop and have time for life, can companies hold on to the best young talent.Those of us who have options on where we can work would be wise to be on the lookout for employers that best fit our long-term needs. We all should be prepared and willing to seek greener pastures if the need arises.
  2. They are exerting pressure on corporate America. Especially in industries in which firms compete tooth and nail for the best talent fresh out of college or grad school – such as tech, engineering, accounting, and finance – companies have stepped up to meet millennials’ demands. As a result, we are finally seeing progress on issues like paid time off, parental leave and workplace flexibility. These policies help all of us, not just millennials, navigate our way to a more balanced life.

So, don’t look down your nose the next time you see young adults take selfies. Perhaps you should thank those millennials instead.

Scott Behson is a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home. Scott also founded and runs the blog Fathers, Work and Family. He lives in Nyack, NY with his wife, Amy, and son, Nick. Follow him on Twitter @ScottBehson.

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