As we all know, young workers are a contemptible bunch. They’re “lazy,” and lack the admirable work ethic of their elders. They have an overblown sense of entitlement, believing they have some kind of right to walk right into a plum job in their early twenties rather than working their way up. They might even be a generation of narcissists, a consequence of their over-indulgent helicopter parents and a culture that favors giving every kid on the soccer team a trophy just for showing up.
Actually, like many things “we all know,” these nasty stereotypes disintegrate quickly when exposed to the harsh light of research evidence. For the past 20 years I have been studying 18- to 29-year-olds, a stage of life I call “emerging adulthood.” I coined this term to help people recognize that young people grow up later than they did in the past, in terms of entering adult commitments such as stable work, marriage, and parenthood. The rise of emerging adulthood does not mean that young people today are defective, only that it takes longer to prepare for the workplace than it did before and that they (wisely) want to enjoy a brief period of freedom before settling into adult responsibilities. My research, involving many hundreds of in-depth interviews and several national surveys involving thousands of young people, has shown that the negative stereotypes are mostly false and today’s emerging adults are a remarkably idealistic and hard-striving generation.
Our recent 2015 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, asked a national sample of 1,000 21- to 29-year-olds a wide range of questions related to education and the entry to work. We focused on ages 21 to 29 because the goal was to examine the transition to work during the twenties. The results were illuminating, and provide important information for anyone who works with or employs emerging adults. Here are some of the highlights:
Not lazy, but often not fully committed to the job. Most see themselves as diligent workers; 89% agreed that “No matter what job I am doing, I try to do it as well as possible.” However, 40% also admitted that “On a normal work day, I try to get by with doing as little work as possible.” This blasé attitude may be due to the fact that many of them are currently in transition jobs, while they finish school or try to decide what field they really want to pursue; 46% agreed that “My job with my current employer is temporary.”
Willing to work their way up, but not to be exploited. They recognize that it takes time to gain expertise in a job, which often means doing the lower-level work for a while; 78% agreed that “If I were in a boring job, I would be patient and try to move up within the company.” On the other hand, they believe that good faith should go both ways; 54% agreed that “If employers do not pay me well, they do not deserve my best work effort.”
Many are distracted by social media while on the job. Today’s emerging adults have been called a generation of “digital natives” who grew up with social media as second nature, in contrast to their mostly “digital immigrant” employers, who came to social media later and often grudgingly. This generation gap is evident in the 2015 Clark Poll results, in which 54% agreed that “I do not see anything wrong with checking my Facebook page, tweeting, or texting with friends now and then in the course of a normal work day.” One suspects their employers would beg to differ.
In addition to these recent findings, previous research has shown emerging adults to be not the narcissists of legend but strikingly idealistic and generous-hearted about work. In the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, which was also a national survey, 79% of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that “It is more important to enjoy my job than to make a lot of money,” and 86% agreed that “It is important to me to have a career that does some good in the world.” These expectations may be unrealistically high; in the 2015 poll, 76% stated that “I am still looking for my ideal job.” Also, 71% admitted that “I have not made as much progress in my career as I would have hoped by now.” They remain restless and searching as emerging adults; 66% agreed that “My current job is not in the field I hope to be in 10 years from now.”
So what is the bottom line here for their older colleagues who are puzzled by these young workers? I’d recommend giving them a chance to show who they are and what they can do, as individuals. That is, don’t assume they are going to fulfill your worst expectations for their generation. They may not be as diligent as you would like them to be, or as focused on work that is more important to you than it is to them at this transitional time of their lives. They may be more distractible by social media than you would wish, and less committed to staying with your company for the long run. But they are eager to find engaging work that they can enjoy, and to do something important that can make some kind of positive contribution to the world around them. If you can find ways to direct their energy and idealism in productive ways, they may surprise you.
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