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How to Create a Workplace That Fits Millennial America

March 22, 2013
Related Topics: Talent Management, Performance Management, Generations At Work, Collaboration, Learning Delivery, Outcomes, Innovation, Management, Measurement, Performance Management, Communication, Technology, Millennials

Earlier this year the Roosevelt Institute’s Campus Network, the nation’s largest undergraduate public policy organization, took on a new project: Government By and For Millennial America, a manifesto of the millennial generation's vision of governance, social justice and pragmatic policy change. To complete this project, Campus Network leaders engaged more than 1,000 millennials about the future of democracy. The project aims to offer a thorough response to current policy dilemmas. It seeks to abandon the polemic rhetoric of right and left. While it’s based in political thoughts, I spoke to the Campus Network’s national director, Taylor Jo Isenberg, about the project’s implications for the workplace. What millennials want from government is very similar to what they want from their leaders.

You want to outline a democratic system that empowers all of us to work proactively, creatively and collectively — a robust system that reflected the progressive values of our generation and is effective in moving our country forward. Why is this sort of system so important to millennials?

If we were to point to one thing that has defined the millennial experience, it’s rapid change — from technology to geopolitics to social progress. Government By and For Millennial America, the Roosevelt Institute and Campus Network’s initiative that crowdsourced the values and ideas of young people on how to build a 21st century government, reflects this in the priorities they identified. To adjust for this pace of change, our institutions and systems have to be flexible, effective and accountable. In our outreach, we found that while millennials believe scaled institutions, such as government, are necessary to solve our collective challenges, they're deeply skeptical that those institutions are set up to be effective in doing so. When Congress has a lower approval rating than lice, who can blame them?

Some of the characteristics that we’ve come to associate with our generation in the way they think about building a better system include a distinct desire for ownership and meaningful participation, a respect for collaboration, creativity and adaptability. I think these values are often misconstrued by older generations as entitlement, impatience and over-self-confidence, when in fact they represent an informed and educated generation that’s been enabled to develop a keen sense of their own agency and opportunities — whether political or economical — at an early age. It’s this grounding and experience that creates a desire among our generation to not acquiesce to the status quo in the pursuit of progress.

Positive change can be a powerful force for our communities and society, if we can keep up. Young people have been at the forefront of it throughout history, from major social movements to workplace culture. There is immense potential for government to harness, channel and empower this uniquely millennial bent towards progress to remain innovative and relevant, whether in how it uses data to map low-income neighborhoods to improve the delivery of critical services, or in building fast-acting consensus in countering climate change.

Is this different from past systems?

Even if we were to ignore the cultural shifts, technology by itself would account for much of what’s different in today’s workplace for millennials, in comparison to previous generations. It’s opened the doors to remote engagement and connects individuals at an unprecedented rate — probably one of the drivers of why millennials aren’t interested in waiting for results. On the cultural side, I think our generation’s values are forcing dramatic shifts in the ways that workplaces function, impacting the clothes we wear and the way we relate to our bosses.

For example, one of the most challenging differences on systems preferences is grounded in how we understand authority — technology and access to information has flattened how we equate knowledge with expertise, and paired with the sense of agency young people bring to their jobs, it lends itself to a clash with a more ‘pay your dues’ model more familiar in traditional institutions. A lot of the research emerging on best practices in the workplace applauds many of the new practices millennials are bringing to their offices, from a flexible work schedule to the empowerment of all employees to contribute substantively, regardless of title.

You’ve said the millennial generation refuses to give up on America’s democratic experience of government by and for the people. How does this translate to what this generation wants from work and their professional lives?

It goes back to the emphasis on ownership, agency and voice. If we think about it in a broader context, we’re being overwhelmed by a constant information flow in our media, social lives and homes. In response, I think members of our generation are looking to find their own sense of purpose. As a result, they deeply invested in ensuring that they are engaged and their voice is heard in a way that demonstrates and respects the value add of every member of an organization. In short, they’re looking for purpose.

What do you think millennials want from their leaders?

There is a lot of diversity there based on individual and context; however, I think there is a pervasive desire among millennials for transparency, connection and meaningful engagement. I also wouldn’t underestimate how today’s economy has shaped how we view ourselves in relation to authority. Unemployment is more than 13 percent for our age bracket, and it goes dramatically up when you include the underemployed. There is something to the claim that we expect more responsibility out of our jobs than we’re getting because so many of us are unable to get jobs our education prepared us for. Therefore, I think young people are looking to leaders to actually lead — whether in solving national challenges or in building a strong team in the workplace that leverages their talents and value add.

Some may think millennials are asking for a lot, but what do you think they are willing to give in return?

Millennials are the largest, most educated and most diverse generation in our country’s history. There is immense potential to leverage their unique experience with technological innovation, rapid adaptation and creativity to create institutions that are ready for the 21st century. We’re ready and willing to lend that insight, and to put in the work.

Additionally, I think one of the most promising things for institutions to tap into, that millennials are willing to give, is their loyalty. This generation is mission-driven, with a strong desire to see their values lived out in their jobs. Institutions that recognize that will be able to gain the loyalty — and good work — of today’s talent.

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