How Millennials and Their Workplaces Have Changed in 10 Years

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Seven Evolving Leadership Qualities for the Twenty-First Century

In 2004, Alexandra Levit, who at the time was a PR manager at what was then Computer Associates, released what would become a go-to business book for young professionals: “They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World.” This month, Levit, now a business and workplace consultant, released the third edition of the book, and offers some good news to accompany the release: Colleges, and what in 2004 were entitlement-minded millennials, are finally starting to get it.

I recently spoke with Levit, and I asked her about the most significant changes that have occurred since 2009, when she released the second edition, that warranted coverage in this new edition. She said the biggest change has stemmed from the recession:

During the recession, we saw a business world that essentially collapsed around us. Companies that we thought would be around forever were all of a sudden imploding, and when the second edition came out in 2009, it had really just started—we didn’t really know what the implications of this were going to be. And we didn’t know how long it was going to last, and how it would significantly impact people going forward. And I think because the recession went on as long as it did—in fact, we’re still kind of coming out of it, even though it’s technically over—we still see its impact on the job market. I feel like it’s a kinder, gentler business world, as a result of having gone completely to the edge in terms of ethical behavior, and the dog-eat-dog world of the 1980s that we all talk about as being legendary. And that really kind of came to a head around the time of the recession. So we’ve seen pretty much a solid pivot in the other direction. What that means is people have to change their way of doing things. Diplomacy is more important than ever, and there are new problem-solving and conflict-resolution strategies that we talk about in the book. You have to be able to get your point across in a way that’s easily understood. That’s become more important.

Levit also cited changes in technology:

We’re increasingly more virtual, and more global. This means your world has been significantly expanded—you’re not just working in a single company anymore. You’re working with colleagues all over the world, in different time zones, and that requires a little bit of juggling. The work/life lines are being blurred more than ever—it’s about figuring out how to get done what you need to get done, and still have your life. People are more in charge of that today than they were five years ago.

I asked Levit what changes have occurred that she would have least expected five years ago. She said it’s the pervasive impact of social media on business:

I’ve been in social media since the early 2000s, because that was my job at the time. It’s that social media has been so persistent. I kind of viewed each site as being more of a trend that would be all the rage for a while, and then kind of die off. That we’re seeing this pervasive communication through social media in every type of industry you can imagine is somewhat surprising to me. I didn’t quite see it going as far as it has.

So have colleges gotten any better in the last five years at “teaching corporate”? Levit said they have:

I’ve actually seen the needle move considerably since the first edition of the book came out in 2004. I wrote the book because I was completely clueless when I graduated from Northwestern, and did everything wrong—it took me three years to get my first promotion, because I hadn’t been taught anything. But in the last 10 years, I’ve actually seen a very interesting phenomenon: I’ve seen more and more universities and other academic institutions—there must be dozens—using ‘They Don’t Teach Corporate in College’ as a text. To me, that is a very clear sign that they are now seeing a business course in which they teach real-world business survival skills. I see a lot more courses in entrepreneurship—in general, just a preparedness for the work force that absolutely was not there 10 years ago, and really wasn’t as strong five years ago. I think there’s a great sense of urgency around the issue now that wasn’t there five years ago. People are realizing, these college grads are sitting around unemployed and underemployed for years at a time. The education they just paid $100,000 for isn’t getting them to the next level. So what’s that education really worth?

Levit has spoken about the importance of not burning any bridges when an employee leaves an employer. I asked her to identify the biggest mistake that 20-somethings tend to make when they leave an employer, and she said this speaks to the general character of the millennial generation:

One of the characteristics they possess is they shoot from the hip. They’re very straightforward and off the cuff—they’re very informal communicators. That can be a good thing, but in the case of a resignation, that can be a bad thing. The mistake I see them making more than people who have been around a while is that that they run their mouths, before they give notice of their resignation, and afterward. I recently heard about a young woman who posted a photo of her offer letter on Instagram, before she told her employer she was leaving. That’s not a good idea. Just keep your mouth shut until you give your boss your notice of resignation. They also rub it in people’s faces, telling anybody who will listen at their current job about how the opportunity is going to be so much better than where they currently are. The bottom line is, you never know when you’re going to work with those people again, and you don’t want to burn those bridges.

I noted that we’ve long heard from employers about millennials having a sense of entitlement, so I asked Levit whether she’s starting to see that abate at all, and whether 20-somethings are starting to get it. She said she is indeed seeing a shift:

That was true of the leading, older millennials, who were born from approximately 1979 to 1986—we really saw that entitlement issue as a huge problem. Those who came out of college during or after the recession had a significant reality check, and came to the job with much more of a sense of humility, feeling like they have a lot to learn, and that they want to have respect for people in authority. They’re still pretty brazen—I think that’s a generational characteristic across the board.

Finally, I asked Levit to predict what will have changed in five years that would warrant coverage in a fourth edition of her book in 2019. Her response:

The biggest change between now and five years from now is going to be the rise of the contract work force. The number of people in freelance-type positions, where they have more than one employer, is going to go way up between now and then. So the issues that arise are how you handle your schedule, how you manage your own brand, how you market yourself.

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