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Millennials Have Something to Say: Why You Should Listen

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

By Claire Griffing
May 20, 2016

As this new generation “next” has entered the workforce, they’ve begun to develop a reputation for being lazy and entitled. But millennials deserve a bit more credit. While the ageism that results from generalizing about an entire generation can be dangerous or downright wrong, it is important to recognize that young people bring a new perspective that can encourage positive organizational change. As boomers retire and millennials enter the workforce (albeit at a record-slow pace due to their disadvantage during the recession), public administrators will be forced to shift organizational culture to accommodate different needs and interests. Government agencies should embrace these changes, as millennials can bring added value and new skills to the public sector.

Gen-Y workplace desires, such as collaboration and meaningful work assignments, are not vastly different from those of previous generations. Millennials are just louder. In essence, they are pushing for better, more sustainable management practices that will ultimately benefit everyone. In their article, “Building Sustainable Capacity in the Public Sector: What Can Be Done?,” Merilee Grindle and Mary Hilderbrand determined that, “individual performance is more affected by opportunities for meaningful work, shared professional norms, teamwork and promotion based on performance.” Perhaps what millennials are asking for isn’t all that radical?

Millennials, with their propensity for technology and creative problem-solving, have the capacity to improve the organizations for which they work. In fact, they are already making changes that will benefit current and future employees. Coca-Cola recently created a new parental leave policy driven by millennials’ desire for workplace flexibility. These policies increase morale and productivity and ultimately increase organizational sustainability.

In his book, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, Peter Block argues that organizational sustainability requires a move to a style of management that embraces partnership. Block’s stewardship model fits well with millennial ideals. In it, leaders provide guidance and perspective, but workers get to make their own decisions. Many millennials do not see the value in traditional organizational hierarchies and are pushing for flatter organizations. Block suggests eliminating supervisors and emphasizing teamwork, explaining that, “We do a disservice to others when we make decisions for them.” Teams are entrusted with critical decision making and are included in traditional human resources management tasks. They can design their own policies for training, pay, performance management, hiring and termination, all with their organizational culture and work product in mind. Employees act as partners, “being creators of the organization to which we belong.”

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Millennials crave these collaborative, team-oriented environments. While managing collaboration can be challenging, it is also effective. In the article, “There’s a Reason Millennials Want a Culture of Collaboration at Work,” David Borelli explains, “Building this type of culture not only makes business ‘cents’ through increased productivity and creativity, but it also creates a more engaged workforce, increasing morale and helping attract and retain top talent.”

In “Meet the Millennials,” Leigh Buchanan explains, “One of the characteristics of millennials, besides the fact that they are masters of digital communication, is that they are primed to do well by doing good. Almost 70 percent say that giving back and being civically engaged are their highest priorities.” Millennials look for meaningful work and choose organizations that align with their personal values. Block argues that compartmentalizing our lives into “work” and “personal” means we are not bringing our entire selves to the workplace, which can decrease morale and productivity. Millennials’ desire to find parallels between personal and work goals can ultimately benefit organizations, especially those that focus on public service.

Most of all, millennials care about transparency. This is great news for public administrators, whose responsibility is to provide open government. The public sector’s current system of transparency in compensation, job classification, and decisionmaking is already set up to attract this new generation of workers. Given their values, millennials can help ensure governmental operations continue to be fully open and honest.

Millennials desire specific, immediate and frequent feedback on performance. They would therefore benefit from a new model of evaluation, one that establishes an ongoing conversation about performance in lieu of the traditional annual review. Capitalizing on millennials’ affinity for technology, public administrators could look to software solutions such as eAppraisals, which allow employees and their supervisors, subordinates and teammates to provide feedback in real time. Positive feedback is displayed publicly, while negative feedback is private. This 360-degree performance review model offers multiple perspectives and therefore more meaningful feedback. In this system, appraisals become motivators for those that respond to praise, and managers can use the data to better develop employees.

Young people bring a new perspective that can help create a needed culture shift. Block explains, “We choose service over self-interest when we build the capacity of the next generation to govern themselves.” Millennials can push us to a more sustainable model of public administration. In fact, in Generation We, Eric Greenberg claims, “Their huge numbers and progressive attitudes are already changing America. And the world.” This is something to celebrate.


Author: Claire Griffing is a millennial civil servant with eight years of public sector experience. She currently works as the Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Albany, California, and is pursuing an MPA degree in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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