Are millennials ruining the workplace?

Nathan Adlam
The Startup
Published in
6 min readFeb 19, 2020

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One of my favorite article titles from recent years about millennials and work is How Millennials are Ruining the Workplace.

A highly-clickable title, a blanket statement, chock full of kids these days personifications and predictable cliches.

Those pesky millennials…. they’re ruining everything aren’t they?

At this point, articles like this one, written by a boomer, indicate to me that all is well with the world. Everything is as it should be. If I don’t feel the same way about the next generation, I will realize that something is wrong.

Anyways, let’s cut into this juicy steak… how exactly are millennials ruining the workplace?

On the surface, it might look like it’s because we want bean bags, nap rooms, and free lunch. We want to work remotely. We want flexible hours. We want all this stuff that makes us look entitled and we want our workplaces to feel like an amusement park. This doesn’t fly for most boomers. So, the conflict begins.

Are we justified in this? Or are we just being little kids on the first day of Kindergarten… Mom, don’t make me go! Are we trying to get out of working? Are we being little weenies?

Let’s start with the bean bags and ping-pong tables. Like ANY material possession in life, we don’t want the thing for the thing. We want the thing for the feeling it gives us. Do we want bean bags? Or do we want the feeling of working in a place with a progressive Upper Management who will listen to us? If we feel good about the work we’re doing, we’re not going to spend much time at the ping-pong table.

We want to feel important. As millennials, we aren’t that experienced in our jobs, but we expect a shit-ton of ourselves, and mercilessly beat ourselves up because we aren’t where we want to be in our careers. We likely won’t contribute to our job as much as we would like, because our expectations are astronomical, and we want some consolation for this. We want to feel useful. We know we won’t get the positive reinforcement we’re looking for from Boomers, because, well, that’s just how they are.

The next reason we’re given shit is because of our job-hopping. We just can’t sit still, can we? Always on the move, at the mercy of our moth-like attention spans that helplessly push us towards the next brightest light. What ever happened to job loyalty?

The reality is, rates of job-hopping haven’t changed much over the last 30 years, especially since the Great Recession of 2008. In the late 1980s, around 50% of 20–25 year-olds changed jobs every year. For comparison, 35% of millennials hopped jobs after the Great Recession of 2008. Millennials are actually staying at jobs longer, likely thanks to fresh memories of the recession.

In 2012, the median length of time spent at a job for 25–34 year-olds was 3.2 years, as compared to 2.7 years in 2002.

There is a logical reason for job-hopping. In 1978, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1978, which allowed for 401(k) plans to replace costly pension plans.

The risk for income after working age was shifted from the employer to the employee. And with the increase of investment risk came the disincentive to stay loyal to a company. Why should you stay loyal to a company that doesn’t want to take care of you?

One day after surviving a November 1st new-fiscal-year round of layoffs will make anyone realize that there is no loyalty. Walking into an office where most of the HR staff are occupied with handing out pink slips to unsuspecting employees, granting them a departure from the company in the most dignified way, is the easiest way to grasp this concept.

Seeing a single mother of 3 get laid off because of corporate re-structuring will crush any remaining concept of company loyalty. Company loyalty is a romantic concept that was solidified in a time when companies took care of their workers beyond their working life.

Companies may claim to be family. It may feel like it, because you probably spend more time with them than you do with your real family, but the reality is that these parents may kick you out of the house at any time, for nothing that you did wrong, with severance pay, a handshake, and a good luck.

So, as a result of this shift from employer-to-employee, people started hopping. And now, it’s just more visible, thanks to not only Facebook and Twitter, but LinkedIn. People are excited to announce their career changes, and after seeing one or two of these on Facebook, it seems like everyone is getting a new job.

Job-hopping seems to have a negative connotation, but in reality, benefits the economy. Those who hop generally make higher and higher salaries at each stop as they gain experience. I think everyone can agree that money in the hands of consumers is beneficial for everyone. Not only that, but as you hop, you find jobs that you are well-suited for, leading to happier, more productive workers (humans).

The other input is the expectations we have for our jobs. We expect that we should love our jobs. If we don’t, were not in the right job. We’ve been inundated with phrases like find your passion. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. [Insert special snowflake comment about working at any job you can possibly imagine]

Here is a typical millennial job complaint.

Maybe this person needs to just find a new job- one away from a desk. Reporting to someone and waking up early are complaints that may come off as entitlement. The thing is, this person isn’t really asking for much, and they even feel sorry that they feel bad about hating this job. The pay and benefits are good, but what is more important is the work environment.

In my experience, this is what millennials want. It’s not about making piles of money (though that helps, we’re in a lot of debt), but more about the feelings we have when we’re at work. Having prestigious titles and truckloads of cash isn’t what makes us happy. We need some feeling of accomplishment in our lives; we want to make an impact.

Our expectations for our jobs are astronomically high. We often think we should be passionate about our jobs. Asking young people what they are passionate about doesn’t have to be the same question as how do you want to make a living?

I may be passionate about petting cats and eating pizza, which maybe 8 people in the history of the world have been able to pull off as a career.

This question should be phrased differently. What work will allow me to live passionately? Passion is not something you find, it’s something you bring. You may not feel passionate about how you make money. Being the millennials we are, we get hung up thinking there’s some perfect job out there for us, we just haven’t found it yet. In reality, the perfect job is one that challenges us, something we can find some meaning in, or some form of enjoyment. It doesn’t have to check all the boxes; it just does something for us.

Mark Manson puts it nicely in his article Screw Finding your Passion. Even while working his dream job, it still sucks around 30% of the time.

By 2025, millennials are estimated to make up about 75% of the workforce. Now in 2020, they make up about 50% of it.

So where do you see yourself in 5 years? no longer has to be the dreaded interview question that companies that ask prospective 20-somethings; but a question that any dinosaur-ridden company must ask themselves. How the tables have turned.

Maybe we are ruining the workplace; working 40+ hours a week from age 22–65 with 2–3 weeks vacation per year doesn’t sound like the most appealing life us. We’ve seen what it does to people, relationships, and families; it is an energy-draining, zombifying, and grump-inducing lifestyle. It’s also killing us. The US has the highest midlife mortality rate among 17 high-income countries [7], despite spending around twice as much than comparable countries per capita on healthcare.

Between 1999 and 2017, deaths from drug overdoses for 25–64 year olds went up 386.5%. Deaths related to hypertensive diseases went up by 79%. Deaths related to obesity went up 114%. Suicides rose by 38%.

Forgive us for trying to avoid becoming one of these statistics. Millennials are not ruining the workplace; the US workplace is ruining all of us.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book: Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights, available later in 2020.

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Nathan Adlam
The Startup

English teacher, engineer, expat… writing about things I am passionate about. Author of Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights.