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Attention Boomers! Six Tips for Managing Millennials

March 13, 2012

7-minute read

Judging by the recent proliferation of 'tips' on managing young workers, as well as the number of management consultants who now specialize in 'multi-generational workplaces', there's a burgeoning market for advice on how to deal with 'Millennials' and 'Generation Y.' It figures: they are wreaking havoc on workplaces around the world, after all.

As one of these "young punks" described on CBC Radio this morning (March 13, 2012), and as a sociologist who studies generations and work, I thought I could offer a few of my own tips for managing 20-something workers.

1.   Pay them more than subsistence wages.

And when you’re calculating subsistence, be sure to factor in things you didn’t have to budget for when you were starting out – like student debt, for example. If you were born in 1950, you may have walked to school uphill in your bare feet, but you went to university (if you went at all) for free or a nominal fee. If you were born in 1980, your tuition rates were approaching $5,000 a year by the time you were old enough to enroll.[1]

Even if today’s 20-something makes it through university with no debt, their prospects for owning a home are pretty bleak compared to the 20-somethings of the 1970s. The average price of a home today is $339,045. Adjusting for inflation, the average price of a home in the 1970s was $192,390.[2]

Compared against average incomes of 25-34-year-olds, the average home represented just under three years of income in 1976. In 2006, the average home represented nearly 5 years of income. (This is why many of my friends’ parents bought their homes with cash. With cash!)

2.   Take inflation and rising cost of living into account when you compare your starting wage to theirs.

Want to be an innovative, cutting-edge employer? Pay your millennials the real 2012 equivalent of what you made when you were in your 20s! It’ll set you apart from other bosses, considering the average income of a young person has actually dropped between 1980 and the present. That’s right: a 20-year-old could expect to earn around $22,700 in 1981 (2004 dollars), whereas a 20-year-old in 2004 could only count on $15,200 a year. The average earnings of 30-year-olds dropped from $34,600 to $33,200 over the same period.

Before you suggest we’ve all taken a hit together in these ‘tough economic times’, note that the average earnings of Canadians aged 45-54 have increased, from $40,200 to $44,600 between 1981 and 2004, even controlling for inflation.[3]

Moreover, nearly a quarter of Canadian households today spend over 30% of their annual income on shelter – 30% being the tipping point between comfort and risk of poverty. You could surmise that millennials should spend a little less on frivolous things – many of us could stand to spend less – but please admit that it would also be great if they could afford to move out of your basements and put away money for the future, especially considering that you don’t intend to fight with them for the pensions so many of you benefit from.

3.   Commit to them if you want them to commit to you.

You might be surprised to find out that most of your millennials think that “good jobs” are the ones that conform to the steadily declining Standard Employment Relationship (SER) – the stable, life-long job performed for a single employer, on the employer’s premises. They’re not actively seeking out short-term, unprotected jobs, scattered over multiple employers and performed off-site. They don’t naturally gravitate toward increasingly “precarious” and “contingent” work – it finds them.[4]

When you were in your 20s, temporary jobs were mostly confined to certain sectors – domestic help, for example – but temp work is diffused throughout the job market the millennials encounter today. It has also increased: temporary employment accounted for 10% of all jobs in 1973, and by 2006 this proportion had risen to 18%.[5] The percentage of new hires who are employed in temporary contracts has doubled since 1981 (11%-21%).[6] Part-time work is also more ubiquitous, accounting for less than 5% of all jobs in 1989 and 12.5% today.[7]

Indeed, all of the characteristics that, for the most part, make jobs crappier, are more commonly encountered by the youngest workers in the labour force. Statistics Canada data from December 2011 shows that 15-18-year-olds (likely in high school) and 19-22-year-olds (likely out of high school) were twice as likely as everyone else to work part-time, non-permanent jobs (10.5% vs. 5% or less). Both groups were also about twice as likely to work part-time, permanent jobs (17-20% vs. 10% or less). The likelihood of working full-time, non-permanent jobs was also highest among people aged 19-34 (6-8% vs. 5% or less).[8]

So: consider hiring your millennials for full-time, permanent jobs. You just might get a full-time, permanent employee in return.

4.   Maybe offer them benefits so their teeth don’t fall out.

It’s really cute when you point to examples like Google – companies that provide employees with strange perks such as foosball tables and beer fridges – and comment on just how dang entitled this generation is. Your younger employees “expect” free coffee? That’s a laugh. They’re always clicking their iPods and doing the internet? So entitled. They want to leave at the end of their scheduled shift? How spoiled!

But consider what they don’t get to have so often: high-quality benefit plans, including dental coverage, prescription drug coverage, and maybe even an employer’s pension plan. Perhaps you could reinstate these ‘workplace perks’ and save your millennials the excruciating choice between getting a tooth fixed for $1,000 or getting it yanked out for $60. (I’m writing from experience here.) And don’t worry: collectivizing the costs of stuff like this isn’t socialist. It’s just plain smart. It reduces the price for everybody. Besides, the whole ‘individual responsibility’ thing is so ‘80s.

5.   Alternatively, brace yourself for a pushback.

So far, you’ve been lucky that Millennials have been relatively disorganized. They’ve sought individualistic solutions to their shared plight, so they haven’t had the sort of collective impact that gets noticed. They’ve bought into a normalizing discourse that reminds them that the working world is harsh, they’re not irreplaceable as workers, and they’ll get ahead if they just work hard.

But that “truth” has begun to erode. For a time, the promise of rewards might have been enough to placate young workers. But when they start to see the promise for what it really is, in our time and place – a myth, for many people – they are going to resist its prescriptions. They are going to put in only what it takes to get a paycheque and nothing more.

They might even (shudder!) start to get organized. If history tells us anything about what happens when groups are blatantly excluded from the wealth and opportunity in a given society, we might even anticipate some serious social unrest. It might be simple foot-dragging – “the hidden transcript” of rebellion at work – or it might be outright revolt.

In any case, while a lot of people are telling employees to suck it up, that the good times are gone, that they need to bring their expectations in line with what the market can bear, younger workers are going to start wondering why the good times are gone, why the market appears constrained, when some people are so mind-blowingly wealthy. They’re going to wonder why we can’t have an economy that benefits the people whose labour keeps it going.[9]

So if you keep pressing in on young employees, they will—finding no alternative—press back. They might do it in the ways we recognize, and they might get creative. You just might find that you’ve “poked a sleeping bear.”

6.   Help them push back.

Canadians born around the Baby Boom – maybe this includes you – sincerely wanted their children to grow up and prosper, get educated and see the world. As a demographic, they accumulated a great deal of wealth and, individually, many passed it on to their children in the form of material things, tuition, brand-name clothes, expensive schools, used cars, comfortable family homes, family vacations, and the like.

But the Boomers, as a cohort, did all of this as individuals while collectively scorching the earth behind them. By "scorched earth" I mean the privatization of education and other once-publicly-funded services, the political prioritization of tax cuts or freezes, the shifting of public resources toward military expenditures (much of them unneeded – standing armies, technologies we do not or cannot use, the global arms race), the withering of union support, and the destruction of environmental safeguards like the ozone layer and rainforests.

Certainly, you/the Boomers weren’t responsible for this. You just happened to majoritatively vote in governments that made it happen. More than that, you’ve had the great fortune and misfortune of having your lives sliced in half by globalization and free trade. These massive transformations in business, finance, production, consumption and communications have benefited certain people immensely, and many people moderately, but they have also trampled some aspects of local cultures, elevated the concerns of business high above the concerns of everyday people, and given ‘the market’, whatever that is, a stranglehold on our communities. The “global” has become a juggernaut no one can seem to control.

That’s not your fault.

But you are in charge of what you do now, and how you interpret and talk about the struggles of the young people whose whole lives will unfold in a global world. Maybe instead of “managing” the Millennials, we could all think about how we can fight for economic justice so that we can flourish together.

Karen Foster is a Toronto-based (by way of Nova Scotia) sociologist and writer. She researches and writes about generations, working and earning and social change, as well as marginalized young people and social assistance in Ontario. This post originally appeared on Karen’s blog at

[1] Canadian Federation of Students, 2011.
[2] See the excellent report “Does Canada Work for All Generations?” from UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership:
[3] 2004 dollars; Statistics Canada data, tabulated in Côté, J., & Bynner, J. M. (2008). Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(3), p. 259
[4] See Leah Vosko’s Managing the Margins (2010)
[5] 1973-2006; OECD Data from Vosko 2010.
[6] 1981-2004; Statistics Canada and Morissette and Johnson, 2005
[7] 1989-2006; 2010 OECD Data from Vosko, 2010; HRSDC data
[8] Author’s calculations, 2012.
[9] See Andrew Jackson’s (2008) Work and Labour in Canada, published by Canadian Scholars Inc. Press for a discussion of the decline of unionism in Canada.

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