Top Ten Observations on Millennials and Vocation

  1. Young millennials want to keep their options open. They might avoid decisions as a result or feel relief when someone else makes a decision for them—then they don’t have to carry the responsibility for the risk of discovering later that the decision was the wrong one. This relates closely to the “fear of missing out” often described when talking about this generation. The Paradox of Choice (Schwartz) is a nice resource on this dimension.
  2. Millennials tend to look for purpose over paycheck in selecting their jobs. We think of this preference as connected to a new “holiness hierarchy” in vocational preferences between the “God” jobs with social impacts (inner-city teacher, community-development worker, nonprofit, etc.) vs. “ordinary work” (suburban teacher, accountant, luxury goods production, finance/banking, etc.) See the Gallup report on millennials in the workplace for this and following dimensions.
  3. Young millennials can be impacted in their vocational choices by close, sometimes dependent relationships with parents. Beyond “helicopter parenting”, which is about proximity and parents solving problems for their children, there is often another dynamic applied by parents knowingly or not for their students to follow particular career paths.  Although this pressure is not new (parents have always had aspirations for their children) it has taken new forms following the economic recession.
  4. Millennials want to work for start-ups. Millennials are influenced by a new mix of cultural icons that now includes entrepreneurs.  Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, etc. Fifty-four percent of millennials want to work for a start-up (says the Kauffman Foundation), though they probably won’t imagine themselves staying there for very long.  In fact, millennials think of employment as a short-term relationship in contrast to older generations where the goal was to turn a job into a stable career.
  5. Millennials tend to live without strong attachments. They are hesitant to give loyalty except to their close friends. They do not bond with employers, denominations, political parties or brands in the ways prior generations did. They are uncomfortable in institutions and they wait longer to get married and to take on mortgages.
  6. Millennials can be self-oriented in their vocational expectations. They tend to prioritize personal development over institutional goals and needs. In their work, they want to be coached and developed, not commanded and controlled (the old managerial model).
  7. Millennials want their employers to care about their opinions, visions, goals, etc. Millennials want to have a voice in important decision-making processes. They may have unrealistic expectations of “getting to the table” early in their careers.
  8. Optimism and disillusionment. The gap between Millennials’ optimistic expectations for meaning and the realities of institutional life may cause disillusionment.
  9. Millennials experience vocation as emotionally fraught. They can tend to look to their vocation for personal validation, self-esteem, and even personal identity, and this “raises the stakes” both on the process of choosing vocational paths, and on their experience of work once they enter a job.
  10. Millennials don’t think to consult the church for vocational wisdom. They almost uniformly don’t think their churches have anything to offer them in addressing their vocational struggles and desires.

Benjamin Norquist is the Assistant Director at Opus: The Art of Work, an institute on faith and work at Wheaton College. Benjamin is fascinated by the complex world of higher education and how to build productive partnerships between colleges and marketplace leaders.

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