Millennials in the workplace

In many ways, Carlene Van Tongeren is typical for her age.

The 27-year-old SFU psychology grad is optimistic, ambitious, and highly involved—all qualities associated with the so-called millennial or echo boomer generation (those born between 1982 and 1995, offspring of the baby boomers). She finished university with honours, volunteered as a peer health educator, and competed in middle-distance running. But despite these achievements, she explained during a phone interview, adjusting from school to work was tough.

“After all the hype about graduation”¦in some ways, I think it’s a bit anticlimactic,” she said. “You pour a lot into four or five years of schooling, and then there’s quite a sharp, definite change.”

Now working at the Burnaby Counselling Group and the South Vancouver Youth Centre, Van Tongeren is not alone in her frustration. According to Building Bridges Across Generations in the Workplace, a 2001 report from the Canadian Council on Social Development, the transition from school to full-time work is longer and more difficult than in the past. The report notes that among postsecondary graduates, “Slightly more than two-thirds of the class of 1995 had a full-time job by 1997,” and “For most youth, the transition between school and work is perceived to be difficult and frustrating.” With the added pressure of student loans, the pressure is intense.

“Unless you pick a field like engineering or business that leads directly into a practical job, then I think a lot of people need to take their time,” said Van Tongeren. “It’s hard.”

These opinions are familiar to David Foot, a University of Toronto economics professor and the author of the bestseller Boom, Bust & Echo. Reached by phone at his Toronto office, Foot noted that although it’s a relatively good time to enter the workplace, a first job is never easy to find, no matter your generation, your age, or the shape of the economy. However, he said individuals like Van Tongeren born in 1980 have an advantage over their younger sisters and brothers: at the front end of their age cohort, they face less competition for spaces.

“Being in your mid-20s at the front end of the echo is a good place to be,” said Foot. “Those in their 20s have smaller class sizes and a little less competition in the job market than people who are 16 will have.”

In order to help students of all ages secure their first job, Dal Sohal, manager of peer programs at SFU, recently conducted research examining whether or not 80-odd millennial-aged SFU alumni benefited in their job search from skills and job readiness gained as volunteer peer educators. Sohal found that these students generally share several positive personality traits: optimism, confidence, respect for elders, and civic-mindedness. They also demonstrate technological skill. She pointed to the book Millennials Rising, in which authors Neil Howe and William Strauss argue that today’s generation bucks the stereotype of youth as alienated, and instead are upbeat, engaged individuals. However, if not held in check, these qualities can cause workplace conflict.

“Millennials are very optimistic in the future, and are ambitious people,” Sohal said. “Baby boomers know it takes years to climb the corporate ladder and pay scale, but younger employees don’t see it that way; they think it won’t take them years to climb.”

Sohal, who has given presentations on cross-generational issues for staff at the Canada Border Services Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and B.C. Parks, said different values can lead to a culture clash in workplaces. Despite their differences, millennials and boomers tend to have a lot in common: both groups grew up in a strong economy and enjoyed lots of job opportunities. In contrast, although highly resourceful and entrepreneurial, Gen-Xers endured harder job searches and tougher economic times. In 1996’s Boom, Bust & Echo, Foot writes that boomers (and millennials) don’t share many of the cultural attitudes or experiences of Gen-Xers, “whose career hasn’t yet got off the ground and who have trouble scraping up rent money every month”.

In the interview, Foot said that regardless of the generation, age-based tensions have always existed in the workplace. People in their 20s, often free of family and educational commitments, are generally geographically mobile, while older employees, unable to move, must work harder for promotions. Foot said these older employees tend to forget what they were like as 20-year-olds.

For workplace managers, these potential tensions are a growing consideration. In a phone interview, Sari Hellsten, Pacific regional director of the Canada Border Services Agency’s trade-compliance division, said that in the past few years, she’s focused on recruiting millennials and Gen-Xers, compared to mid-career boomers in the past. Hellsten, who brought in Sohal last November to give a workshop on intergenerational culture, is conscious of value differences between these groups. For example, to meet the requests of younger employees, she offers flexible schedules, ongoing training, and regular feedback. She also encourages employees to join mentorship programs. These initiatives not only help new employees get settled and learn from their elders but also help older ones benefit from tech-savvy juniors.

“Diversity has always been a priority, since we have individuals from many backgrounds, cultures, and with different skills,” Hellsten said. “I think [age] is just another piece of that.”