Career Lessons from Millennial Workers

Much has been written–and many hands have been wrung–over the influx of millennials into the American workforce. A common (and totally unfair) narrative about this group is that they are overprivileged narcissists who expect too much from their employers. The not-too-subtle inference is that Generation Y is simply out of touch with reality.

Rather than dismiss millennials for their supposed generational shortcomings, we can learn a lot from younger workers. The truth is, millennials might be the generation best prepared for the realities of modern employment. And their approach to work, however unconventional, may lead them to more satisfying careers than those of their parents.

Below are three career lessons you can learn from millennials. Embracing a “Gen Y mindset” can help you find greater meaning in your work life and keep you competitive in a changing economy.

1. Know what you want from work

Millennials have a reputation for being demanding about what they want from employers: better work/life balance, flatter organizational hierarchies, greater social impact, and more individual autonomy.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with having big personal expectations. In fact, a strong sense of what is important steers millennials to the job opportunities that are most likely to make them happy.

Having a clear understanding of what you want from work is one of the most important aspects of successful career management. It makes the difference between slaving away every day for a paycheck and having a meaningful, rewarding career. If we were all as clear and vocal with our expectations as millennial workers, we would undoubtedly find greater satisfaction in our work lives.

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Of course, many employers can’t (or won’t) meet the big demands of millennial workers. This certainly limits long-term employment opportunities. But Generation Y has adapted to this reality, which leads us to the next lesson…

2. Don’t be afraid of change

What happens when millennials don’t get what they want from an employer? They move on and find a new job. Or sometimes they just quit without having another job lined up.

This isn’t because millennials are flighty; it’s because they value themselves as workers and aren’t afraid of change.

Many people are paralyzed by fear of change. Even if they hate their job, they feel obliged to slog through because the unknown is more terrifying. Fear traps you in bad work situations. More importantly, it deflates your personal sense of self-worth and your long-term value to the employer.

Generation Y doesn’t fear change; indeed “flux” seems to be part of their worldview. (The upside of the instant gratification culture is that you’re always seeking out new things when you’re not satisfied!)

Embracing uncertainty gives millennials the freedom and leverage to make big demands about their work lives. Employers must respond appropriately or face the real risk of young, talented workers moving on to something better. Millennials aren’t a captive audience.

I don’t think fearlessness of unemployment is intrinsic to millennial workers. Rather, I believe this is a sanity-saving response to modern economic realities. This segues to the final lesson we can learn from Generation Y…

3. Embrace the “DIY career”

The era of job security is over. Economic realignment and increased competition make the “graduation-to-retirement” jobs of our grandparents’ generation nearly unimaginable. Today, the average worker’s tenure at each job is just 4.6 years.

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I think millennials may be more in tune with this reality than any other group–they’ve experienced it their entire working lives.

Your career is now something that develops across multiple employers–and often multiple job sectors. It may also include a patchwork of simultaneous part-time work. This is especially true in tight job markets like the one in Portland.

Millennials seem particularly well adjusted for this new reality. Not only do they move between jobs regularly, they also lead the way in the “do it yourself” career. Go to any coffee house in Portland and it will be full of young people working diligently on their laptops. These people often have no steady 9-5 job; instead, they are contract freelancers, taking meaningful work where they can find it. They may have another part time job–perhaps as a barista at the same coffee shop–to supplement their income.

Taken as a whole, they are building piecemeal careers for themselves; careers not based on job titles, but on interests, skills and desired lifestyle.

Obviously the patchwork approach is not everyone’s ideal career path. But it is a viable option, especially when quality, stable employment is hard to find. More importantly, I think we can learn from how many millennials have made their career something bigger (and perhaps more holistic) than their current job.