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Global Millennials in Administration

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

By Michael Silliman
April 18, 2017


The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) has more than 3,000 student members. Most are in MPA programs, some are in DPA or Ph.D. programs, and all are in the pipeline for careers in public service. What is also true is that out of the five membership categories ASPA offers, students have the lowest retention rate. Thousands of newly minted MPA’s are graduating from NASPAA accredited programs every year all over the world. NASPAA’s 2014-15 Accreditation Data Report said 45 percent of recent graduates work in government. That is down from 51 percent in the 2011 Annual Accreditation Data Report. With a new round of hiring freezes, discretionary budget cuts and an aging workforce overdue for retirement (to say nothing of a growing antigovernment and populist perspective), it is imperative that we keep the next generation of government employees on track to fulfilling public service careers. For ASPA’s future specifically and for the field of public administration generally, we need to figure out the disconnect between public service motives and civil service careers. We should lead a rebranding of public administration and conduct a massive public campaign for civil service.

The Global Service Motive

motivationThe first thing we should understand is why and how millennials seek careers in service of the public. There is a growing subfield in public administration research on the topic of public service motivation, but data from asking young employees or students why they are in this field is limited. It lacks historical and generational context. The public service motive is missing what I call the world changer factor. That is: a global generation with desires to change the world for the better. The civil service is missing passion.

The millennial generation was born in the 1980s and ’90s, so its original worldview comes from the demise of the Soviet Union, the subsequent regional struggles and the following globalization. This also is the first “suburb generation”—children of the white flight phenomenon. This leads to a natural desire and need for kids to leave their home towns for universities and experiences elsewhere.

Globalism allowed millennials to become the most traveled generation ever. They grew up traveling not only for vacation but also for education, mission and meaning. During the cold war, major investments were made in foreign affairs education. Study abroad programs boomed and each year more and more peace corps volunteers returned. American Christian missionaries embraced short term trips, allowing more and more youth groups to spend spring break in Mexico. Travelers, whether they were backpackers or NGO volunteers, increasingly believed they could be world changers.

On returning to the United States, this global, meaning seeking generation has entered graduate programs and the job market. This unique generation is searching for a way to make an impact, and the answer should be in government.

Rebranding Public Administration

It seems public administration would be a field perfectly positioned to give millennials the meaning in their work they desire. After all, creating change is something that happens locally and the public administration community will be the first to defend the role of government in innovation. The values this generation holds align with those of ideal civil servants. Millennials are not tied to place, they want to travel and they want to make a difference.

However, government positions are not the first that come to mind for my idealistic peers. Other sectors have been better at understanding the motives of millennials and recruiting based on those values. The tech industry and startups use terms like “world changer.” For-profit businesses are leading right now in “work life balance” and “innovative workspaces.” This is not what comes to mind with the new usajobs.gov interface. Most MPA’s today do not plan to work in government but in nonprofits. University career centers and professors do not prepare these graduate students for city fellowship programs or federal government recent graduate pathways. Instead, MPAs learn to write one page resumes and search for jobs on idealist.com. Just the difficulty of explaining what public administration is makes my point. We need to rebrand.

Internal and academic debates are not enough either. I enjoy discussing the graying of the sectors as much as the next administration wonk, but pride in our work is important for recruitment and retention of the next generation of high quality public servants. The connection between wanting to make a difference and working in government is not one my peers are making. We should make that connection for them.

Author: Michael Silliman holds a Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason University and is currently membership manager at the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). His career interests are in civil society, community development and third party governance. You can reach Michael at [email protected] or on twitter @michaelsilliman

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