Millennials define their own path to success
Born to a poor immigrant family, Yasin Abbak made it to college only to graduate at the height of the Great Recession. Nonetheless, by age 25 he was the youngest-ever division director at a major investment bank. He was helping support his family in New Jersey and seemed destined for a comfortable life. “But I felt like I was wasting away,” Abbak said.
So he quit and co-founded a startup, Paired Media, that serves restaurants like the one his family ran when he was growing up. “On this earth I get maybe 60 to 80 years, and I’m already halfway to 60,” said Abbak, now 29. “There’s no reason to waste my time following someone else’s passion. I need to feel I’m fulfilling my own potential.”
Millennials’ role in the workplace can seem puzzling to their older colleagues. Even as the job market has recovered, millennials’ wages remain stagnant and they have accumulated record-setting student loan debts. Yet they retain very high expectations for their careers. And they’re perfectly willing to take risks—whether that means asking more of their bosses, changing jobs or even going out on their own—to get what they want.
More than just a paycheck
Stories on millennials in the workforce often note that they value passion, purpose, work-life flexibility, growth opportunities and frequent feedback from bosses. While all this is true, intergenerational studies from the Department of Defense, George Washington University and others found that people in all generations share those values.
So what makes millennials different? According to the experts, they expect these things from their jobs—even junior-level jobs—and they don’t hesitate to ask for them. And traditional organizations have found it hard to adapt.
“Growing up, we were told by our parents we could be or do anything,” said Hannah Ubl, a millennial and “generational expert” with Bridgeworks, a consultancy specializing in generational dynamics. “We were told to advocate for ourselves—to ask why. Our parents wanted us to feel invited in every conversation. So we had pretty democratic home and school lives. Then we discovered that these traits don’t transfer to the workplace.”
Disrupting the classic path
Doting parents provide their millennial kids with more than just self-esteem. They may also offer room and board as a safety net if a job doesn’t turn out as expected. But millennials have also grown up with technology that enables them to “disrupt the classic career path,” Ubl added.
Millennials needing new job skills can check out the panoply of free courses available online. If unhappy with their current job, they can apply to hundreds of jobs from their laptops at work. Some just choose to quit and cobble together an income from sites that will pay to drive passengers and deliver groceries and more on an individual’s schedule—while they pursue their passions.
Technology has made it easier for people to market their skills to a global audience without being attached to a traditional workplace. As a result, many millennials aren’t waiting to make their names on a career track before going freelance.
Million and one ways
Caroline Beaton honed her writing skills selling her work in online marketplaces like Elance. Now 24, she markets herself as a writer and consultant on the psychology of millennials with a polished website that she designed herself. One client is in India. “When I talk to millennials stuck in the nine-to-five, my reaction is to say, ‘Get out,’” Beaton said. “There are a million-and-one ways to make money online.”
Of course, striking out on one’s own isn’t right for every millennial. Companies that want to attract and retain the best young talent should ensure employees at all levels can “connect the dots” between their jobs and the positive impact they have on people, Ubl said. For example, one major health-care firm regularly brings in customers to discuss how using the company’s products changed their lives.
“Every employee can see that they matter,” Ubl said, “because they can all connect with the mission.”
Millennials face an unlimited number of potential routes to achieve what they consider a satisfying job path, but there is no question this age group is largely defining its own career success, rather than just following the pack.