There’s plenty of handwringing when it comes to the fate of younger workers, but precious little in the way of actual advice on the way to build a career in a tough economic environment. For PayScale’s latest data package, Gen Y on the Job, we sat down with Anne Krook, author of “Now What Do I Say?”: Practical Workplace Advice for Younger Women, to get actionable insight into how Millennials can make the most of their strengths.
(Photo Credit: Anne Krook/LinkedIn)
“One of the things that I think people look down on Millennials for is that they look back at Gen X and Gen Y and say, gosh, you know, they figured it out,” says Krook. “But here’s what I’d say about Millennials: they are coming out into an economic environment that’s difficult — and that has been difficult for 30 years.”
It’s not just that Gen Y graduated in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Krook says, but that middle class incomes have not been rising for the past 20 years. Although productivity has risen, the purchasing power of salaries has declined. In fact, according to The PayScale Index, real wages — or the measurement of what workers’ earnings will buy, once inflation is taken into account, are down 8.7 percent, compared to 2006 numbers.
Bottom line: Millennials are trying to make their way in an environment that’s extremely risk-averse. Their parents’ resources are tapped out by the economy, employers are slower to hire than they were prior to the recession, and companies are less likely to offer the kinds of training that young workers might need, in order to success in a brand-new career.
“It’s not only that the economy has been bad, although it’s certainly been dreadful,” says Krook. “There’s been an accumulation of a loss of economic capacity.”
So what can Millennial workers do, to improve their situation?
1. Understand the Need to Deal With the ‘Real’ Workplace
“One of the things that I see a lot of, is that Millennials have an absolute expectation that they get information from technology,” says Krook. “…they are used to high-density, high-speed data streams, and they absolutely expect that. What they are less good at is getting information from people and I think that earlier generations were more likely earlier on to have to learn from people at the workplace, to be coached, to be individually spoken to.”
Millennials are tops at telling when someone’s online profile indicates that they’re not trustworthy, she says, but often not as good at doing the same in real life. It’s important for Gen Y workers to develop people skills face-to-face, so that they can determine when a colleague is someone they can rely on.
2. Ask: “How Will I See This Skill in Practice?”
“The thing that I think Millennials are often criticized for is that they don’t necessarily associate those opportunities to grow with time spent in a cohort,” says Krook. “So you’ll often see Millennials criticized for wanting a promotion immediately, and so on and so forth.
“So what I would say to Millennials is that once you get the opportunity to grow and to learn a new skill, what you have to be really explicit about with your employer is, ‘How will I see that skill in practice?’ and how long does it take to develop what I call treadware, how long before a skill gets broken in.”
In other words, it’s not just a matter of getting good at something; it’s a matter of how long it takes to be able to use the new skill.
3. Young Women in the Workplace: Know That the World Is Better, But Not Perfect
“Young women often think that their situation will be better because the overall situation is better,” says Krook. “And the overall situation absolutely is better, but you still have to go out and do the work yourself for your own job and your own career.”
One problem, especially for women with a university education, is that “there’s an implicit expectation that they will already exist in their best form and they really don’t,” says Krook. “Human beings have not magically improved, so the need to engage in workplaces and help make things better I think is sometimes a little bit of a surprise.”
Thus far, Gen Y has the lowest gender wage gap of any generation of workers, but only time will tell if that’s a consistent improvement, or whether that gap will grow as the bulk of the generation moves into the childbearing years and deals with the same work-life balance issues that plague older workers. In the meantime, it’s in all workers’ best interests to keep investing in themselves, developing new skills, and learning to advocate for their careers in a way that will result in pay raises and promotions, not disdain from managers who think “these kids” expect it all.
In short: do your research, before you meet with the boss — and keep learning and growing. Companies don’t necessarily put their money where their mouth is, in terms of training. It’s up to you — male or female, Millennial or Gen Xer or Boomer — to look after your own career.
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