I’m very lucky to be a middle-aged, middle class guy who grew up with a dues paying mindset. In May of 1983, I turned in my last college assignment on a Friday, skipped graduation, and got on a plane to Texas to start training for my first “real job” with EDS. (Nobody pays you to attend graduation and I needed to pay the rent, so I jumped at the chance to start early.)
I stayed with EDS for 7 years; working 80 or more hours a week, “paying my dues” in a variety of jobs, doing anything they asked. In return, I got fantastic training, frequent promotions, and even a few stock options, just like many others around me. My bosses were the same. They all started with EDS early in their careers. They all averaged 15-20 years with the company. And their bosses had done the same thing. The big bosses were really old (about my current age) and they were on a glide path to a comfortable retirement, having helped to build a fine company. Their stock options were worth serious money.
Life was good for all of us. I loved working for EDS, even though I never made it home for dinner. (When my son was born, I set a goal of getting home on time for dinner twice a month. I never once achieved the goal.) When I quit, my dad was stunned, “Why would you leave? You could retire from that company.” And my dad was right; I could have retired from EDS…if I had started in 1963. In the post-war decades, pay your dues with your employer was good advice. But by the end of the 1980’s, it was obvious the employment arrangement had changed. None of the people who started with me in 1983 were going to retire from EDS.
Fast-forward to the present. To many middle-aged managers like me, the “millennial worker” stereotype remains a big deal. Stop me if you’ve heard this before:
- “It’s so frustrating to manage these lazy, entitled, impatient millennials.”
- “They just don’t seem to value the work – they aren’t paying their dues like when I first started working.”
- “Why should I invest in them if they’re just going to leave the organization a year from now anyway?”
At the heart of the “Millennial problem” is a broken value equation. Employers no longer have the right to expect people to pay dues. And while that might seem unfair to you if you paid your dues, it’s even less fair to the millennials.
I started work in a time when employers invested more in their employees. When you were working hard in the trenches, you were doing it because you were promised and expected a long career with the organization, one that would pay you well and be rife with opportunities for promotion. Paying dues not only implies something in return – like continuous employment, opportunities for promotion, professional development, meaningful raises. It also means you are being asked to do work that might not increase your marketability or value in the job market, but making that sacrifice will be worth your time in the long-run.
Employers still make those promises. But employees don’t believe them. As pointed out in the WSJ article Millennials Aren’t Impatient. They’re Prudent, “While [millennials] don’t necessarily think the intention is to be deceptive, they believe that organizations perceive employees as being expendable, and are likely to get rid of them at any time. They don’t believe the organization will keep them around long enough to make it to the promised levels of pay.”
A quick look around the business landscape offers few counter-examples. With the old-school relationship between employer and employee broken, millennials aren’t lazy or entitled. They are making rational economic choices. They see a labor environment where they only earn their fair market value by changing jobs. So they work hard to learn new skills and then jump to another organization once those opportunities dry up. Their “attitude” is a by-product of economic forces put into place 30-40 years ago, and they’re still young enough to have seen the writing on the wall and adapt.
There’s a wonderful quote from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
Millennials grew up in a world where, on the whole, employers stopped investing in and valuing their employees. For them, that’s “normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.” They saw dues-paying parents laid off, jobs outsourced, etc. They saw how paying your dues could set you back instead of helping you get ahead. They saw the shift in employer priority – away from their employees and to their profit margins, shareholders, and or executive compensation packages.
Remember how I was flown to Texas for my first job? Here’s the modern day equivalent – on the tail end of the recession, a major tech company recruited my son for a new initiative in Ohio. He too was flown to Texas for training, where they gave him some fancy tech and talked about how important this project was. He and his small team worked hard to get this new initiative off the ground. His supervisors said the team was doing great work – some of which wasn’t directly marketable, but could be once they paid their dues. And then his team was laid off within 2 months because the employer decided acquiring another established company for the same task was a better investment. From an economic standpoint, a perfectly reasonable move. But for those laid-off employees? A perfectly devastating example of the broken employer-employee relationship.
So I don’t complain about Millennials and I don’t ask my employees to “pay their dues.” Overtime is rare in my company. I help people develop their skills, I teach my kids to be marketable, to know how to do things that lots of employers would look for, and to be employer independent. I recommend that people pick employers whose core values align with their core skillset, because research shows they’ll be happier and less likely to burn out. And do you know what millennials do when they find the rare employer who still maintains a fair employer-employee compact? They stick around. They tell their friends how awesome their employer is. And they work incredibly hard.