Millenials Are Leaving, and Employers Are Noticing

Last week brought work-life balance articles from two disparate industries: investment banking and video game development. In the first, the Wall Street Journal tackles the problems faced by Goldman Sachs and other banks as millenials leave the industry in droves. In the second, a game developer responds to this article, bemoaning the rising “wage slave” attitude and the expectation of employees that they not work double-time for months on end. (I’d really suggest reading this in-line response instead of the original article.)

I’ve seen an awful lot of articles about the problems of millenials in the workplace. There was this incredibly insulting article, among others. Articles and op-eds usually center around one of two problems: first, that millenials aren’t willing to put in the requisite work to prove themselves; or second, that we want to be congratulated and patted on the head for everything we do.

They don’t get it. In fact, Rami Ismail and Dean Takahashi are the first two I have seen understand this “problem.” So, business writers, if you’re listening (doubtful – I’m just hoping you might), here’s the deal: we’re not too lazy to accept a delayed gratification model. We’re making the determination that the present payoffs aren’t worth the cost. That’s it, that’s all. And it’s not lazy or foolish – it’s a value judgment.

Before I dive into that, I do want to highlight another issue that’s been overlooked: millenials, by and large, have never experienced the work culture of extended lunches out, free happy hours, merit raises, and extravagant bonuses. (Oh, we have “merit raises” – it’s just that the ones you earn through great work are slightly less than inflation.) Unlike other generations of finance workers, today’s office workers don’t get that pampering, and more to the point, we can’t even remember it. Post-recession work isn’t a blip on the radar for us, it’s all we’ve ever known.

So. Back to the value judgment. Let me show you the sort of things millenials are experiencing and finding “not worth it.”

  • A top-rated end of year evaluation that was downgraded to average because the millenial in question insisted on not working unpaid overtime
  • A new father who was told to pull more overtime because “you see your baby enough, get over it”
  • An employee expected to stay in the office until 10PM regularly despite the fact that there was never any work to do past 5PM or so
  • Employees put on mandatory 5-10+ hours of overtime per week due to chronic understaffing because “we need to cut costs,” while the raise in executive bonus for that department that year more than erased any savings the department might (after the overtime costs) have gotten
  • Looking up the ranks and seeing that the highest-paid employees in their departments, the ones experiencing the payoff for which these millenials are expected to strive, are in the office before anyone else and leaving later than anyone else, so scheduled that on work trips they have conference calls scheduled between when they get through airport security and when their plane boards
  • Playing the constant game that starts with, “employee X quit, can you handle their workload until we find a replacement,” and ends with, “actually, we won’t be hiring a replacement at all”

(Now, first, a side note: while it was very easy for me to accept the concept of burnout in my day job and rail against the expectations of long hours, I do want to admit up front that I fell into exactly the same management trap when I first started freelancing, and kept pushing myself through 60-65 hour weeks. I get it. It’s weird being a manager. That said, while it’s perfectly possible to get swept up in a project and spend more time than usual for a bit, it’s also unhealthy to try working that much as a regular thing. If you don’t believe me, ask Arianna Huffington.)

Now, to return to our main question: why would millenials not want the payoff in terms of career advancement and potential millions of dollars?

Let’s look at the list above. First, that it’s a rigged game that doesn’t actually reward just achievement, but also arbitrarily-derived ways of “showing dedication.” Second, that these people want to spend time with their families; given the general bemoaning about how the American family is in decline, you would think older generations would be happier about this one. The third, I think, speaks for itself. The fourth shows an underlying problem of lower-level workers playing a rigged game wherein they are expected to work extra hard (remember, without a commensurate raise) to compensate for the cost-cutting measures of an executive whose bonus will eclipse all money saved. The fifth shows that even when you “make it,” you still won’t get time with your family. The sixth shows that, again, you will be expected to work multiple jobs – only exacerbating the problem of, “you can’t take PTO, there’s no one to pick up the slack.”

It’s very easy to say that millenials are lazy and foolish – especially when you consider that this is a charge made by every generation towards the next. (I wonder what millenials will cite as the problems with their children…) It’s especially easy to be angry when you watch young people simply walk away from sacrifices that others have chosen to make (though not all of these problems have existed for generations, the expectation of long hours has in many cases). It’s easy to blame millenials for work conditions that other generations sometimes don’t see, or, if they do see them, perceive as a deviation from the norm rather than the norm itself.

It’s easier to blame millenials for being lazy than it is to accept that they are rejecting the status quo. It’s easier to blame us than it is to accept that unless there’s a change, industries won’t have enough people rising through the ranks to keep their businesses going the way they are. It’s easier to shoot the messenger than it is to accept the message.

We aren’t telling companies that they have to change. We aren’t forcing anything on them. All we’re saying is that we value time with our friends, with our family, for our hobbies. We’re saying that we’re willing to sacrifice higher paychecks (or the promise that we’ll be in the running for higher paychecks) in order to live the life we want. Perhaps it’s scary that money doesn’t seem to be a good carrot on a stick anymore; certainly, people who set boundaries often face backlash. But I, for one, am glad to see more and more people rejecting monetary payoffs in lieu of pursuing lives well-lived.

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