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The Call of the Wild: Public Service for Today’s Young Adults

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Alicia Schatteman

young adultsA generational shift is underway. The millennial generation is changing the game rules for work and play and these changes matter to the future of the public service. Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2001, number about 92 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They are second in size to the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) numbering 78.3 million and dwarf Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1979) at only 62 million.

In their book released last year called Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement, authors Kari Dunn Saratovsky and Derrick Feldmann suggest a guide to better engage the millennial generation in public service generally, and in nonprofit organizations specifically. This generation is digitally connected and is extremely creative in their designs and their thinking. They are focused on trying to find new solutions to old problems. They like drawing others into the cause through informal networks and groups. Millennials expect information to be easy and fast, relying on technology and transparency.  They don’t just seek information they expect to find it. You can already see how this generation will require different tactics from public service organizations.

The Harvard Crimson also questioned why millennials (ages 13 to 34) are seemingly less engaged than other generations. With the voter turnout for President Obama in 2008, everyone was excited and thrilled that the younger generation was so active in politics. That excitement did not last. In the article, authors Dan Clickman and Trey Grayson wrote, “Of those eligible to vote in 2012, only 45 percent of citizens aged 18 to 29 voted, the “millennial” generation.” Voter turnout decreased by 6 percent between the 2008 and 2012 federal elections. Voting is just one indication of participation in society, but it is an important one because political agendas are formed by strength at the polls.

The millennial generation may do more than vote however. They participate through social activism and volunteering. The Millennial Impact Report offers more insight into how millennials participate. This generation has grown up with service hour requirements in high school and now college. They are civic-minded and want to help others, but are also more impatient with the process and bureaucratic requirements. They work well in teams and the word “multi-tasking” has taken on a whole meaning with this generation. A 2013 poll by Harvard University indicated that about a third of millennials volunteered for community service in the previous year. In fact, a new study by the Department of Labor found that the overall volunteer rate for all ages declined slightly from the previous year. The study also found that volunteer rates went down with educational level, which is troubling. A third of older millennials (ages 26 to 33) have a four-year college degree or more—making them the best-educated cohort of young adults in American history. Education has been positively correlated to volunteerism so only time will tell if millennials will do the same.

According to the Millennial Report, millennials are engaged with organizations that speak to them and they form long-term relationships with those organizations, give financial and share those passions willingly with their friends and families. However, they do need organizations that are flexible to work around their demands, their time and offer a variety of options to participate. They don’t want “busy work” but real opportunities to leverage their own connections and skills with the needs of worthy organizations. They research organizations first by going to their website (65 percent), followed by social media (55 percent), e-newsletters (47 percent), print (18 percent) and face-to-face (17 percent). Governments and nonprofit organizations need to focus their efforts to attract millennials where millennials already are. This generation uses several forms of technology at once. According to the Millennial Report, three-quarters of them own a smartphone and they use social media extensively. Printed reports and community hearings may not be the best ways to reach this generation or engage with them with your organization. As a very optimistic generation, you need to show and tell them how their time, effort and resources can make a difference.

This month the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on attracting the new generation into the federal government, released an Issue Brief on this subject. They analyzed the results of the 2013 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Student Survey, which asked students about their employment plans, including their immediate plans after graduation, their ideal career, salary expectations and what they consider the most important attributes for their first job. NACE surveyed 37,874 students from 646 colleges and universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Partnership found that about one quarter (24.9 percent) of all college students ranked government (federal, state and local) as one of their top three career choices among 19 industries. Just over 20 percent of respondents indicated that the nonprofit or teaching fields represented their ideal career and all levels of government combined represented just 10.5 percent. When specifically asked what they planned to do immediately after graduation, just 5.4 percent planned to work for any level of government. This was the lowest level for the fifth consecutive year.

Millennials have grown up with government scandals and generally have a higher level of mistrust than previous generations. In a 2013 poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, 18 to 29 year olds were asked, “how often do you trust” each of the major institutions in society ranging from the U.S. military (highest level of trust at 54 percent), local government (34 percent), state government (30 percent), and the federal government (22 percent). Generally, respondents had low trust with government and trust has continued to fall since 2010.

Although job opportunities since the recession have certainly declined for new college graduates, it is troubling that students are less interested in working in government overall. Do they even hear the public service call? Of those who seek a position in government, many are turned away because of lack of opportunities. Governing Magazine recently reported that millennials are shifting their interests to other ways to serve the public. With more public services being provided by private sector and nonprofit sector organizations, graduates are expanding their interests and governments may be losing top candidates.

Communicating the Call to Serve

  • In the PACE survey, they found that only 8 percent of college students used the www.USAJOBS.gov website to search and apply for jobs with the federal government. They were more likely to use LinkedIn (17.3 percent), Career Builder (15.5 percent) or Monster (14.5 percent). Go to where you know they already are.
  • Create opportunities for millennials to connect with your organization in teams or groups.
  • Adopt a social media strategy that targets millennials and leverages their social media presence to support your organizational goals.
  • Highlight ways millennials can influence your organization and the impact you have made. Positive calls to action are more beneficial than negative statistics.
  • Harness their interest in serving people to make the connection that the public service ethic is important in today’s government bureaucracies. Focus on transparency and ethics to build trust.
  • Recognize that it is a competitive environment for these highly educated millennials. All sectors compete for their energy, skills, ideas so adjust your human resource strategies accordingly. They may not be thinking about a 40 year career with your organization so focus on how they will be challenged and the opportunities for growth, not stability.


Author: Alicia Schatteman is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs, Department of Public Administration and the Center for NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University.  She received her Ph.D. from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University, Newark.  She can be can be reached at www.nonprofitscholar or www.facebook.com/nonprofitscholar.

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