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How are millennials responding to a tough job market? Lowering their expectations

A new survey finds less interest in management, more in skilled trades

Young woman concentrated on her work


It looks like members of Generation Y have started to believe the “hopeless millennials” stereotype, according to a report from the Conference Board of Canada examining the workplace preferences and expectations of Generations X and Y. Attracting and Retaining the 2020 Workforce suggests that the greener cohort has a lower desired job ceiling than their slightly-older colleagues:

Conference Board of Canada chart showing the highest job level that millennials and Generation X members would like to attain

READ: Unemployed young people a great economic threat »

One potential explanation for the difference in aspiration is that Generation X-ers are closer to the peak of their careers than millennials, and therefore can see their desired end-position more clearly. But a second finding from the report suggest the generational discrepancy is a result of lower ambitions, not simple chronology.

Although the members of Generation X polled feel they are closer to their desired job level than millennials, the former are also more likely to believe they will be unable to attain their career goal:

Conference Board of Canada chart showing how long millennials and Generation X think it will take to reach highest career level

The combination of the two findings suggests that millennails are setting themselves lower, seemingly more realistic career goals. That fits with findings that Generation Y are more likely to work part-time and at minimum wage than older generations, making sticking at a company and rising up the ranks more difficult.

When they do manage to establish themselves, millennials expect to be rewarded. But it’s not necessarily the entitlement for which this generation has become notorious. Members of Generations X and Y believe promotions should be tied to an employee’s skills and job performance at an almost-equal rate. The lesson is that your young employees expect a meritocratic system, where competence trumps seniority or experience:

Conference Board of Canada chart showing how frequently Generation X and millennials think employees should be promoted

 READ: Meet the fresh new faces of age discrimination in the workplace »

Canadians have grown used to hearing about the so-called “skills gap,” the divide between employer needs and worker abilities that supposedly prevents firms from hiring young people. There’s some evidence to suggest that the problem lies with companies unwilling to train new hires—a desire for a “purple squirrel” employee who has all the necessary skills the day they walk through the front door.

But the report contains some surprising good news for those bemoaning the skillset of the next generation of workers. Look back at that first graph: about a quarter of millennials listed the professional or skilled trades as their goal. The report does not correlate that with respondents’ skills, so there’s no way to know if those aspiring tradespeople would be qualified for the positions they covet. But it does suggest that there’s plenty of interest in those jobs.

Going into the trades shouldn’t be considered a consolation job, but it looks like the growing interest among young people in the skilled professions is exactly that—a lowering of their sights. Ambition and innovation go together. A generation of workers with arguably more realistic but nevertheless diminished aspirations can’t be good for Canada.