I recently finished reading about young Wall Street workers in Kevin Roose’s new book, Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits. Roose is a millennial himself who, while working at the New York Times, started interviewing disgruntled young workers at Goldman Sachs and other firms. Unlike the excesses displayed in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, these workers just out of college in 2008 wanted something different than a six-figure paycheck. Like other millennials, many wanted their work to mean something.
One recruit named “Jeremy” (Roose changed all of the names to protect their identities), thought his work trading derivatives would make the world a better place when he earned savings for large companies and they passed those onto customers. Then, his boss straightened him out.
“We’re not here to save the world,” he said. “We’re here to make money.”
While Wall Street examples are extreme, the frustrations Jeremy experienced on Wall Street are not much different from those of a recent college graduate I worked with a while back. Millennial workers need a purpose for their work if we want them to stay engaged. The attitudes they express about it may vary from extremely entitled to mildly annoyed when this desire is not fulfilled – but it is real.
If you’re over 40, your life from this point until retirement will be a whole lot easier if you stop fighting this reality and make peace with it instead. Millennials simply expect more from work, including the time and attention of their supervisor. But part of what drives that need – what I’ve heard my colleagues refer to derogatively as “babysitting” – is a link between the mundane and the bigger picture. When it comes right down to it – don’t we all really crave that? Don’t we all want to do more than just punch a clock?
I know, personally, millennials have challenged my assumptions about work and some of my “that’s just the way it’s always been” thinking. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Pollyanna and I’ve definitely had moments when I wanted to wring their necks. But some of the questions they ask should be asked! How is our bonus structure determined? Exactly? Down to how it is funded? They want transparency. And. So. Do. I.
But this isn’t just about making sure we all have our questions answered exactly when we want them answered. It’s also about what really makes organizations think in new ways and innovate. If you want a culture that competes, then you want a culture that asks why. You want folks who take initiative and don’t wait for the boss or another authority figure to tell them what to do. You want a workforce that “gets” the company’s mission and acts on it. A paycheck, regardless of the size, doesn’t create that culture for millennials. Honest communication about a vision does. Developing a line of sight between roles and the bigger picture does.
Deep down, we’re all like Jeremy. We all want to make a difference. Deep down, if you lead an organization, you want the Jeremys of this world working on your behalf. They’re the ones who are going to solve the unsolvable and help you succeed.
Michelle Hicks, a senior professional in human resources, is a director in the engagement practice of Buck Consultants, a Xerox company.