I walked in feeling anxious. It was a familiar feeling. It’s the one I get before starting anything new, only this time, I knew that the area I ventured to would be one I’d come back to daily. I picked out my outfit the night before–a purple dress and a simple gold necklace, with ballet flats that were too small for my feet. They hurt as I walked up the stairs and searched for the room where I’d be spending my days. I was greeted at the door by one handshake and then another once I passed through the hallway. I sat down and promptly realized that my first great challenge would be happening much sooner than expected: filling out a W-4 and a W-2.
The very first full-time job one begins is destined to disappoint in some way. It isn’t the job’s fault and it isn’t the employee’s fault, but no matter what, one’s expectations of working and one’s perceptions of working life predispose a person to some level of career disappointment. For some, this realization may happen early in adolescence, and for others, it may be happening right now, during the months and years following college. Regardless of when this transition into reality happens, it will, and it seems to be having a more acute effect on today’s new workers than on those of generations past. In order to demonstrate this, I turned to a small sample of friends with first or second full-time jobs ranging from fine artist to corporate employee. In their answers, I found trends that reveal what this age group actually expects out of the working world, and where the delivery on those expectations falls short.
Time management, however hackneyed the term may be, is something that the youngest members of the working class were thrust into immediately.
The first thing I noticed from the group’s responses was a common denominator among those satisfied with their jobs; each of these people have the opportunity to manage others or to fully manage themselves. One interviewee manages multiple departments at a small business, others are in charge of their own freelance work, and some are simply managing their own path at their companies. Each feels a sense of pride in the fact that they have autonomy over something, no matter what it is. This is not to say that workers of generations past did not also desire the responsibility of managing others, but perhaps they carried an understanding that management was a step attained much later in one’s career.
I wondered when the paradigm shift occurred and thought back to times in my life where I felt autonomy over myself, my choices, and my actions. The answer went back further than I expected, to middle and high school. Of course, not many children have full autonomy over themselves at all times, but at school–which serves as the parallel for work during our adolescence and early adulthood–many of us were expected to participate in as many activities as possible in order to make it to the next level. In middle school, one had to prove him or herself in classes in order to make it into honors and AP classes during his or her freshman year of high school. In high school, the competition between individuals to achieve the best grade, highest score, and most extracurriculars was palpable. The expectations set by each preceding year of college applicants make it harder and harder for high school students to stand out to the colleges they desperately want to attend. This formula is not new, but it has now produced a generation of adults eager to prove themselves and confident in their abilities to do so.
By the time this group makes it to the working class, they have already demonstrated to the harshest of gatekeepers that they are capable of much more than average. They have learned the tactics necessary to get ahead, which include skills that employees of a time past would only acquire once entering the workforce. Once the employees of yore mastered those characteristics, they would likely be promoted to a managerial position, per the formula for advancement companies have used for years. But for the newest members of the working class, this outdated model seems unacceptable, causing a higher level of dissatisfaction among younger employees not awarded managerial responsibility, no matter how minor.
The general sentiment is that if your company does not have a good culture, it isn’t worth having the job.
Time management, however hackneyed the term may be, is something that the youngest members of the working class were thrust into immediately. Furthermore, the type of activities this group managed most closely resemble those they do now for work: projects, reading, studying to gain understanding, group projects, presentations, competition, and internal motivation. We master many of the skills we need in the workplace before we even get there. Because of this, the old patterns of training and slow-paced office life are not satisfying for this generation. The arsenal of skills taught throughout today’s schooling is redundant to the old system, so when this group reaches their first job, they are asked where their patience lies. My answer to that is simple: it never existed, it couldn’t. Not in the way the workforce wants. Patience in that way would have meant defeat, which would mean that the job telling the employee to be more patient probably would have a different millennial sitting at the desk, one who didn’t employ patience.
This group has always been asked to take full responsibility for themselves, until now. They don’t want to take the training wheels off, they want to begin their journey on a two-wheeler. If they fall, they fall, but they will get back up. The expectations this group has always had for themselves are suddenly stripped away, and again, they are told to wait three or five years until they are able to take responsibility over themselves again.
Additionally, an entire set of expectations, separate from those existing for the actual work one does, exists for behavior and interactions with others in the workforce. Another clear hope reflected by my interviewees, if they had expectations at all, was that they would experience a fun, warm company culture. The general sentiment is that if your company does not have a good culture, it isn’t worth having the job. One interviewee desires a strong company culture so much that he would rather “staple sheets of paper for 8 hours a day with authentic, compassionate, optimistic people than [work] in an environment that is impersonal and bland.” He continues by saying, “I think we all get a little too caught up in the what we’re doing and don’t spend enough time thinking about the who we’re doing it with and how we feel doing it.”
“The who.” That is what the majority say there are not willing to give up. Some even say they would settle for simply interaction itself to be satisfied, meaning that connection isn’t necessary, but human contact is. Given that this generation is the same one that remains connected with the universe at all hours and has increased the average number of “friends” each person maintains, it is unsurprising that they wish to continue the trend in the workplace. The current expectation is to have one’s friends nearby at all times, so in the minds of new workers, the office should not be any different. Furthermore, the friends of the members of this generation are the same people who spur competition. Perhaps friends now provide more than just love; they provide drive. An organization without a positive company culture signs away progress every year it takes on new employees from this generation because in doing so, it stifles the creativity and motivation millennials are accustomed to receiving daily from those around them.
Why does the hiring generation hinder the very people who bring fresh perspectives when they are the ones, in many cases, who raised this generation to think the way they do?
The group of interviewees only agreed on one expectation unanimously. Everyone expected to learn at their first jobs, and to learn a lot. The need to be in a constant state of learning once again reflects this generation’s desire to improve upon themselves continuously and ultimately to prove their capabilities in new areas of study. At first, the trend surprised me, but upon reflection of my own expectations for my first full-time job, I realized that I subscribed to the same idea. Regardless of the field or the position in the company, each interviewee expected to learn. In the words of one interviewee: “I expected to be doing everything that I studied and practiced in school. I expected to learn and train before doing any real assignments at first. I expected to be great at my job and pick it up quickly.”
This left me wondering whether new workers 50 years ago would have given me the same answers. Or if I’d hear the same if I interviewed a group of people heading to a new job after 20 years’ experience in a different industry. It seems, for the most part, that the inherent desire to learn that many new workers have is being wasted. Businesses do not pause for new team members to come on board, nor should they, but in joining a new group for the first time, one’s learning is suddenly at risk of becoming biased. What a new employee learns does not resemble the knowledge he or she acquired in school; the student moves beyond accounting or figure painting or journalism and is put into action. As a result, new employees transition from learning hard and soft universal skills to company-specific ones, and at the end of a year, the summation of all of that learning comes down to one thing: savvy–but only savvy for keeping up and excelling at one’s particular company, not necessarily in one’s career. One interviewee describes his learning experience as “about office culture and processes and how to utilize your time when [I’m] low on work… I am learning, but I’m not learning how I wanted to, and I’m failing in that sense, but it isn’t how I expected to fail either.” Every company is unique, and the values and practices carried out by its employees are going to rub off most on the new hires because they don’t know anything different. Those values then turn into tendencies, which turn into habits, which turn into beliefs, and twenty years down the line when that employee is starting a new job, they will no longer have that same desire to learn that they once did.
Is this dissatisfaction a side effect of still being in “student-mode” from college or is it a sign of our larger generational predisposition to be constantly in a state of curiosity. Regardless of the answer, this group, the millennials, is fully aware that they still have plenty to learn. They ask for it, they expect it, and they wither without it. But instead, they are told to be patient, to absorb as much as possible in the meantime before being given more responsibility. As a result, the jobs available to this group immediately after college fall short of expectations, and millennials are left to question the very nature of the work they expect to be learning from.
Despite the unmet expectations of entry-level jobs, most people are still sticking with them. While most of the people I interviewed had considered quitting their jobs, only a few actually did In certain cases, interviewees’ jobs fell so far off of the expectations set, that they really were just not a right fit. In those cases, people moved on to new things, which is commendable.
For those who spend their time wondering whether or not they are wasting their time at their job, the idea of quitting seems almost like a driving force to make the job more suited to their expectations. My favorite answer to whether or not interviewees considered quitting was: “All the time. Honestly, if I didn’t consider quitting, I’d also question if I care enough about [my job].” Considering quitting a job does not necessarily imply a lack of understanding of what the workforce is asking of young professionals. Most understand that dues must be paid, but many still are not given the opportunity to pay them in the way they expected. Meaning that the real work only happens later on, which wastes a entire talent pool and forces them into stagnation. A keen workforce would be challenging this group to set a different standard than the one of their predecessors, but this reality is still a long way off. This generation has always been asked to excel, and so the group expects challenges in which to prove themselves. Why does the hiring generation hinder the very people who bring fresh perspectives when they are the ones, in many cases, who raised this generation to think the way they do?
My inquiry into quitting demonstrated something essential to my understanding of my own generation: we don’t want to quit and we are not lazy. We consider quitting frequently because the workforce was not created to support our minds in the ways in which we are accustomed, so we feel as though our interests and skills do not fit in. In reality, our patience and our expectations of time are running on a different clock than those who came before us. It is the “Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes” mindset versus the “keep looking at your watch until 10 minutes has passed” mindset. It feels wrong for us to remain stagnant, and we also do not expect learning to feel like a stagnant process. But sometimes, learning is an observation or listening–not participating. It is the “wax-on, wax-off” kind of absorption that we question daily while sitting at our desks. We are learning, just not in the way we ever expected to — or maybe this is what we foresaw, but we hoped that the workforce would have evolved by the time we arrived there. Every one of us has to decide whether or not the current state of things can fulfill our modified expectations, whether or not it satisfies our hunger to prove ourselves. Once we decide that, once we decide to stay where we are, to bloom where we’re planted, another set of expectations begins, and we must be careful to balance what we expect with what we know we are capable of.