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Generation Work

A generation humbled?

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

Difficult times

Millennials are often derided as entitled and apathetic – but a tough job market may change that. (Getty)

Has the dismal job market deflated the millennial generation’s unrealistic career expectations?

That's the most frequent question I get when I speak to corporate managers and recruiters about my book on millennials, The Trophy Kids Grow Up. The answer isn't a simple yes or no, but there clearly are signs that the employment struggle has humbled many once-demanding millennials. They seem more sensible in their salary expectations and more patient about their career progress. Perhaps most important, some millennials also have become more adaptable and resilient in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and recession.

Millennials — born in the 1980s and 1990s — began flowing into the workplace in large numbers in the 2000s. They quickly earned a negative reputation for their feelings of entitlement over everything from starting salaries to flexible working conditions. Especially irritating to employers was their tendency to quit jobs when they got bored or when they didn't receive promotions and raises fast enough.

Now, several studies are beginning to reveal a change in attitude. These days, students in most countries are less concerned about starting salaries and are instead taking a longer-term view, according to surveys conducted by Universum, a consulting firm for employer branding. Business students in the United Kingdom and Germany, for example, consider high future earnings and financially strong employers more important than in previous years. Among Chinese business students, an employer’s willingness to pay for future education showed the biggest increase in a list of attractive job characteristics.

"They're feeling afraid because the good moments are gone for now," said Joao Araujo, global marketing director at Universum. "There's almost a giving up on the present; they're all looking to the future."

Similarly, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has found in its surveys that big starting salaries and opportunities for advancement have dropped on the priority lists of US college students. Expected starting salaries remained generally flat in 2012, but there were even declines for some academic majors, such as history, political science, psychology and foreign languages. As for commitment to employers, recruiters will be pleased to learn that nearly 85% of students said they expected to stay with their first company for more than two years, up from about 78% in recent years.

"What students are seeking now are personal development and tuition reimbursement for further education,” said Ed Koc, director of strategic and foundation research for NACE. “They may not be able to advance with their first employer, but they hope to get training that will move their career forward later."

Of course, not all young people are willing to settle for less. Some millennials, particularly from the most elite schools and most affluent families, still feel entitled. “Higher up the socioeconomic ladder finds students with unchanging expectations,” said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. “Some worry about job prospects, but know all will be well, especially if mom or dad can help them.”

Deferring dreams

More often, though, millennials are now forced to defer their dreams, painful as that may be for a generation accustomed to instant gratification.

Matt Beal had hoped to work in avionics when he graduated in 2010 from the Colorado School of Mines with a mathematics degree, but found the job market “very hostile”. Although he applied to dozens of firms, he had trouble even getting recruiters’ attention.

“It was hard to deal with this new reality because during college I was pumped full of expectations about a large compensation package and companies fighting over me,” he recalled. “Then I got this big wakeup call and started feeling that maybe I had gone to the wrong college or that I should have skipped school and become a mechanic or electrician.”

With plans to get married and buy a home, Beal took a management and IT consulting job that taught him new skills, but didn’t match his career aspirations or the training he had received in college. Now, he works as software development director for RightNow Ministries in Texas. That fits more closely with his education, but he still hopes eventually to start his own business, building e-commerce platforms.

“I have developed an entrepreneurial spirit because the economy isn’t providing what I want,” he said. “The experience of having to change my expectations still colours my outlook on things. I view the world and the economy in a harsh light.”

Some universities are trying to help millennials cope with such disappointment by lowering their expectations early on and encouraging them to be more flexible in their career goals. Schools see plenty of bruised egos these days, but also more resilience than they did five years ago.

"A greater number of MBA students are open to exploring, as the job market has become more diversified and more complex for them," said Bernard Garrette, associate dean for the MBA program at HEC Paris.

MBA students also are making adjustments in other regions facing prolonged economic woes. In Spain, for instance, more of them are looking outside the country’s troubled economy and seeking alternatives to top-paying jobs in banking and consulting. "From day one, we are telling students that jobs won't be raining down and they will experience failure," said Javier Munoz, MBA career services director at IESE Business School in Barcelona. "But we also emphasize that they can recover and adapt if they become more flexible about job sectors and locations."

Flavie Barbandiere, who received her MBA degree from IESE this year, took that advice to heart. She bounced back from rejection and landed in a field that wasn’t even on her radar.

An architect before starting business school, she first set her sights on real estate. But the weak real estate market prompted her to think instead about management consulting, which she hoped would open more doors. When consulting didn't pan out, she attended a career event that sparked her curiosity about the energy industry.

"I felt the oil and gas sector was interesting and wanted as many options as possible," Barbandiere said. "It took a lot of tenacity because many people said it would be hard, if not impossible, to get into the business with my background."

But an internship at Technip, a project management, engineering and construction firm for the energy industry, helped her snag a full-time position at BP.

"My generation definitely has to become more adaptable," she said. "But you can't just accept anything. You still need to know your strengths and become passionate about the careers you consider."     

I view the world and the economy in a harsh light. — Matt Beal

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