Millennial Misunderstanding – Why They Love Community Service, But Not Government

A recent article in the Atlantic commented, “Young people are eager to serve and to change the world. They just have no faith that public service or elected office are the way to get it done.”

That’s a pretty staggering statement, and a not-so-good prediction for the future of the government workforce. We wanted to get to the bottom of the disconnect.

Tim McManus is the Vice President for Leadership and Education at the Partnership for Public Service.

He told me on the DorobekINSIDER program that he was a bit shocked by the Atlantic article.

“The part of the article that I found the most surprising was that millennials don’t see government or politics as the way to improve the country. That is a little bit counter to what we’ve been hearing and seeing right now. But every day things are changing. There are more and more stories of pay freezes, furloughs and fed bashing, so clearly all those are things that contribute to the issue of whether millennials want to work in government,” said McManus.

Millennials are goal orientated

“In general millennials have no patience for inefficiency, stodgy institutions or the status-quo. They look at things from a different lens. That’s what government needs. But if agencies aren’t willing to make those kinds of tweaks you will see millennials enter the government and leave almost immediately,” said McManus.

Engage fast and often

“The key is engagement with millennials. As a manager you may not be able to change the culture of an agency to suit a millennial but you can find ways to bring them in and give them meaningful work. Managers have to give millennials early opportunities to contribute,” said McManus.

Collaborate over individual work

Millennials prefer to work in groups. “That mindset is a huge asset for agencies. They refuse to work in silos. Millennials think enterprise-wide. But it is incumbent upon agency leadership to accept the new perspective. If we are looking for enterprise-wide solutions in the current fiscal climate government will be heading up a steep hill,” said McManus.

Misson is the driver

Millennials are less concerned about salary and more concerned about affecting change. “Government has always had to play the mission card to attract talent. But now we need to make the value proposition about how millennials work can actually change things,” said McManus.

Communication revolution

Smartphones and tablets are like second limbs to most millennials, so for government they key to good communication is to tap into those tools. “On the flip side, millennials have to enter government willing to make some changes. They might not be handed the latest device, so they need to adapt. The real growth area is when government is able to bring these groups together to collaborate,” said McManus.

Tempt millennials with continuous learning

“Sequestration has caused many agency to scale back training. And while that is not idea there are still plenty of ways to train your employees. You should give millennials stretch opportunities and develop them on the job,” said McManus.

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Peter Sperry

Millenials my also realize, correctly, that while government is a critical part of the community; it is not the entire community nor the most important sector within the community. Government/public service is only one of many ways to contribute. Private sector organizations, including the profit making sector, alos provide many opportunities for individuals to help improve the community. Ideally, government should provide a strong stable framework on which the private sector can build a robust community.

Carol Kruse

Well said, Peter. I just hope Millennials enter government as much as the private sector, we need them in government! As noted in an earlier GovLoop blog, there are also benefits of crossing back and forth among the private, non-profit, and government sectors — they each have something to contribute to the other (Tri-Sector Leadership Skills

The Atlantic article appears to conflict with Craig Thomler’s blog (Public Participation in a Crowded Age. I hope more Millennials than not recognize their ability to contribute and make government more relevant and purposeful.

James Deimer

Emily – I’ve been exchanging e-mails with my Supervisor over the topic – considering the fact that our work group/team is losing 2 “Rock Star” quality Millennials to pursue other technical areas in Federal Government. I just wonder if public service employment or the bureaucratic climate creates an illusion that has them chasing the golden goose? Or maybe it’s what Kristina Marzullo posted – How Self-Serving Leadership is Keeping Millennials away from Washington?

I’m a GenXer, so I’m in between the Baby Boomer & Millennial – yet since my transition from the Private Sector over 4 years ago – I’ve seen folks come & go from the section, and watching my co-workers develop, learn, and move onto new endeavors is very special. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of people try to “trash” the millennial “Y” generation, I hear them talk about the millennial generation lacking loyalty, and I think it’s all a bunch of bologna! We work hard to keep people happy and the people here (like my Supervisor) work hard to keep us growing. It’s a trade off, and we all have (in our own individual ways) shared a passion to grow the section.

They say “Work is a microcosm of society and life. The more we give of ourselves, the greater the return in all areas.”

Marie Koko

And start aggressively hiring from the states outside the original 13 colonies! You hear all the time about “Midwestern values” and I can tell you having lived all over the country, that they exist. I’ve had agency friends confide that they are sick of the overwhelming sense of entitlement they get from most of the east coast students their agencies hire, but yet those same agencies don’t make extra efforts to recruit from the states in between VA and CA. If you always hire what you know, you won’t get diversity (or thought and experience – not just ethnicity) and nothing will change.

Holly L. Folkers

Emily, you are so spot on with this post! I have often thought about this question and, although I would be considered a GenX-er, I completely identify with the items you describe above. The way you have laid out the collective needs/wants/values of the emerging workforce, should drive how we approach these young professionals by providing the necessary tools and encouraging a culture shift. That is how we are going to see change in the government sector (and how it is perceived). You mentioned the ability to be adaptable willing to make change, and that is part of the challenge that should draw talented younger professionals to the public sector. Thank you for the post!

Scott Span

Good points! As a GenY and an practitioner working in generational diversity ( http://goo.gl/fUQSz ), I agree with almost of these. You may also be interested in Top 5 Things Newbie Gen Y Govies Need to Know, as presented with Govloop at NGG10: http://goo.gl/XhrKPO

Dale M. Posthumus

One important factor, IMHO, to aid government in attracting Millennials as well as highly qualified members of other generations is to make movement in and out of government easier, much less cumbersome, and quicker. I spent nearly eight, very interesting and fulfilling years in government, left for the private sector, did some non-profit work, ran my own company, and then worked for Federal contractors. I would think my experience could be valuable to govt in a number of areas. However, over the course of that time, I tried to return to the Federal Govt. I felt like no one cared, let alone the length of time it took to get any response back from an agency. Turn-over is not necessarily bad. It can bring fresh ideas, new energy, different team dynamics. Opportunity for growth, both professionally and position, must be more transparent and likely (competition is still good). It gets back a bit to Scott Span’s discussion about diversity. Bring in new people with new, creative ideas and approaches. They may be Millennials, Baby-Boomers, men, women, or whatever group they fall into (each group has plenty of such thinkers/doers). Govt may be surprised at what they get when they make it easier for people to move in and out of govt.