Commentary: Twenty-somethings enter the workforce


We are at that time of year when we salute our newly minted college graduates and breathe a sigh of relief for having crossed the finish line. This is, after all, the culmination of hard work and big dreams.

Yet after the dust has settled — after the commencement speakers have packed up and the bubbly toasts have been drunk — what can we expect of our newbie grads? If they enter the workforce, how will they acculturate to the workforce, and can hiring organizations set the table for a more successful transition?

I recently completed a project working with a group of 20-somethings to hear how they view their world. They shared their aspirations, challenges and lessons learned along the way. I also surveyed their attitudes on several key topics. My goal was to replace stereotypes with a deeper view and, hopefully, engage in a richer conversation between generations. I wondered if there was some “secret sauce” that could help them transition post graduation, especially those that land in traditional organizations. Based on our conversations and their completion of a survey, two ideas emerged as possible focal points.

First, a small recap on some of the generational differences that can make the transition awkward. Baby boomers like myself have long held that through hard work and paying our dues, we can ascend the career ladder, and maybe even earn the proverbial gold watch. True, some get kicked off the ladder, and watches are passe anyway (unless it is an Apple watch).

Our kids see the career ladder as broken, replaced by a gig economy. Gig stints are shorter, with far less value placed on a worker’s loyalty or duration on the job. Millennials are more focused on building their own brand so that they can be independent, in demand and gig-hop easily. If the gigs align with an individual’s social values and altruistic goals, the roots deepen and the gig can be longer.

This context highlights two areas where organizations can improve the length and quality of our graduates’ work experience.

Idea One: Develop a Model of Peer Learning

Twenty-somethings value learning from their peers at least as much if not more than they do from their managers. My survey shows that they value life experience the highest as a source of primary learning (9.2 on a scale of one to 10), followed by peers and the internet, which tie with a 7.9 rating. When I probed “peers versus managers” as a source of learning, I heard that peers take more time and truly understand them while managers are often self-serving or focused on fighting organizational battles.

This is not to say that managers can’t positively affect and shape their team. However, there appears a paradigm shift regarding relative value of peer versus manager as it relates to learning. In today’s environment, managers have lost some of their learning clout.

This raises many questions. In peer learning, how do we know that the right learning is occurring? Is there a natural and non-intrusive way for oversight? Is peer learning another version of the belief that our best answers come from within teams, versus a top-down command structure?

Idea Two: Embrace a Fluid Culture of ‘Anchored With Room to Roam’

Millennials have by and large traveled more, seen more and aspire to “fix” more, especially when it comes the social fabric of society. Much has been written about their distrust of authority, but to me the interesting angle is how to harness their energy and creativity to a good end.

I learned from the conversations with 20-somethings and my survey that people and mission matter most in the work setting (8.8 rating on a scale of one to 10) and that fun and compensation matter least (6.3 and 6.5, respectively). I heard a steady chorus of, “Give us the goals, and let us figure out how to best achieve them.” They want to be anchored with context and purpose but given room to roam.

This is far different than my professional coming of age, where I learned to build a “10-step business plan.” Each step was defined, and thoroughness rather than creativity was valued. While I honed some solid business planning skills, no personal stamp was applied. This would not work today.

My take-away from engaging 20-somethings in their wants and wishes? We can continue to do as we have done — teach the way we’ve been taught, using the tried and true methods that got us to the dance. Or we can change things up and recognize the opportunity to improve. Tomorrow’s winning organizations will adapt their culture to a generation that is built very differently. Peer learning, and anchoring with room to roam are two good places to start.



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