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What Makes the Next Generation of Public Servants So Different?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bianca Easterly
June 14, 2016

Spring is a particularly festive season for public administrators. Since 1985, the Public Employees Roundtable (PER), its member organizations, and congressional support have honored federal, state, county and local current and retired government employees during the first week of May as part of Public Service Recognition Week. Public servants are internationally recognized on June 23, which is known is United Nations Public Service Day.

While both events acknowledge past and current public servants, the weeks in between are marked by the entrance of thousands of public administration, public affairs and public policy graduates who represent the next generation of public servants. Not unlike those who have served before them, today’s newly minted public servants understand that the daily challenges they face will rarely come with an easy solution or a demonstration of appreciation. Yet they remain committed to making a difference.

As an MPA student in the early 2000s, I was part of a class of graduates charged with the responsibility of addressing problems such as the human capital crisis and reducing red tape in government. Clearly, the obstacles that the next generation faces have not changed significantly nor have the core motivations to pursue a career in public service. So in what ways are today’s graduates different from their predecessors?

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The next generation of public servants understands that society cannot be easily divided into three sectors: public, private and nonprofit. Yet they can use this knowledge to their advantage. Because public service roles exist in for-profit, nonprofit and public sector organizations at all levels of government, people in these roles are more focused on their personal growth than on an organization or sector compared to previous generations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials, also known as Gen Y (born between 1980 and 2001), outnumber Gen X (born between 1965 and 1979) and baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). This makes them the most influential population in the workforce.

As Jeff Fromm, a Forbes contributor and consultant on the millennial generation, explains, “Millennials embrace a strong entrepreneurial mindset and they are often on the lookout for opportunities that can continue to move them up the ladder, even if that means up and out their current position.” Whereas employees of previous generations spend an average of five to seven years in their position (Gen Xers and baby boomers, respectively), Fromm finds that the average is about two years for millennials, which signifies their emphasis on personal development as opposed to loyalty to an organization or a sector.

Millennials have the advantage of devoting their professional lives to solving our nation’s toughest problems while paying their off their student loans. According to the Institute for College Access & Success, close to 70 percent of seniors who graduated in 2014 from public and nonprofit colleges had student loans that averaged approximately $30,000 per borrower. This debt is even greater for graduate and professional degree borrowers, for whom the National Center for Education Statistics estimates this debt averages $57,600.

The implication for many students is that they have to make career decisions based on their indebtedness instead of their interests. There are student loan forgiveness programs available for a host of public service professionals, including those in the armed services, public defenders, law enforcement officers, nurses, doctors and teachers in low-income areas working fulltime in qualifying public sector or nonprofit jobs as well as those volunteering for organizations like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. In addition to public service employment, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program, for example, requires 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan before the remainder of the debt is forgiven. This means that after 10 years of service, public servants are free and clear of their student debt, which gives them the financial freedom to make professional decisions that they may otherwise not have made.

Finally, and most importantly, despite the ongoing negative rhetoric about the government and the people who deliver government services, the next generation holds public service work in high regard. A 2013 study conducted by Universum, a global employer branding and research company, asked college undergraduate and MBA students to identify up to five “ideal employers.” Respondents across majors ranked federal agencies such as the FBI, National Institutes of Health, NASA, Department of State and Peace Corps in the top 10 along with Microsoft, The Walt Disney Co. and Google.

As the first generation who grew up having to complete service hours as part of their high school and college education, millennials are often described as more civic-minded as they recognize that “government can be a powerful force for good” as Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber explained in their 2008 book, Generation We. Their positive attitude about public service will help to ensure that we can expect to honor more public servants during May and June and that universities can expect an increase in the number of graduates in public administration, public affairs and public policy, which is really something to celebrate.

Author: Bianca Easterly, Ph.D., MPA is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Lamar University. Dr. Easterly teaches undergraduate political science courses and graduate seminars in the MPA program. She can be reached at [email protected].

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