What Millenials Want Out of Work: A Baby Boomer Rejoinder

Two weeks ago, I highlighted a post by Alexandra Levit, courtesy of Recruiting Blogswap. In “What Millennials (Generation Y) Want Out of Work,” Levit suggested that the current generation of twenty-somethings “is entrepreneurial and relishes challenging work and high levels of responsibility. They are driven not so much by money, but by a sense of accomplishment. . . . Millennials want to work for organizations that are civic-minded and socially responsible.”

Robert Cenek commented on the post, reminding readers that there are varying opinions on whether generational differences exist, or, if they exist, whether they mean anything. He noted that “No one can deny that there are some differences among different age groups. However, strong evidence is surfacing that suggests that there are as many similarities as there are differences among workers.”

He cited Jennifer Deal, of the Center for Creative Leadership. Some of her key findings include:

  • Older and younger workers have many similar values, including valuing family, integrity, love and self-respect.
  • Fame, affluence, authority, competition and advancement were least likely to rank in the top five, regardless of age.
  • Younger workers today change jobs no more frequently than they did 20 years ago.
  • Older people were just as keen to undergo further training and to use computers as the youngest workers.

Deal also did notice small differences in what each successive generation wanted from an employer. And across the span of five mini-generation groups, those differences were marked:

The silent generation [born before 1945], for example, tended to make comments along the following theme: ‘Give me interesting work to do, recognize my efforts and pay me fairly.’ The late Xers [born 1977-82], on the other hand, indicated a strong desire for advancement, with flexibility around work schedules, mentoring and merit pay for good work rather than extra pay for seniority.

How different are the Boomers and the Millenials on the points mentioned by Levit? It’s worth reflecting a moment on how Boomers were characterized as we were coming into our adult earning years, from the late 60s through the 70s and early 80s.

We were individualistic and idealistic. We created the “youth culture of the 60s that transformed life in the West, . . . introducing a spirit of freedom, of hope, of happiness, of change and of revolution” (Barry Miles, Hippie, at 9). We wanted meaningful work, and wanted to work for socially and environmentally conscious companies, too. We didn’t think we would be driven so much by money, either, because it couldn’t buy us love.

But as our adult work lives developed, we didn’t always have the luxury of choice.

We came into our adult working years between the late 1960s and the mid 1980s. In the late 1960s, unemployment was very low, below 4%. The first boomers could afford a “do your own thing” attitude towards work; many opportunities were available. In 1970, however, unemployment took off, not to return to 4% until 2000.

When I graduated from high school in 1975, unemployment was spiking close to 9%; when I graduated from college in 1980, it was finally down to about 6% (which today we would consider high, not low—it’s about as high as the peak of the last recession). When I graduated from law school in 1982, we were heading into the “Reagan recession” in which it spiked over 10%. When we finished school, we were generally not in a position to do much negotiating for more flexibility and meaningful work, let alone to limit our job searches to civic-minded and socially responsible companies.

Then along came kids and mortgages and bills, and somehow many of us become a lot more like our parents than we ever thought possible.

My take: To the extent Boomers differ significantly from Millenials in attitudes toward money, work, businesses, and supervision, we are the way we are because of our different current life stage and the experiences we had in the labor market and workplace, not because of intrinsic differences in values.

Thankfully, the market looks much more welcoming to today’s grads than it did in my day. So they can afford to keep their idealism– at least until the next recession.

And if they are able to use their greater bargaining power to change the workplace and Corporate America in ways we wanted to, but couldn’t, I’m one Boomer cheering them on!

Thanks to Katie Rice for her help in writing and editing this post.


  1. Hogy Vagy, Georgie.

    There’s money to be made in creating differences and them championing them as the harbingers of a new world, isn’t there.


  2. Now that the economy is in a bit of a stumble, will it be cause for reevaluation of the premise?

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