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The Career Advice That Every Millennial Needs to Hear

Career Psychology
The Career Advice That Every Millennial Needs to Hear


  • The four factors that shape the millennial mindset
  • How your brain becomes addicted to your phone
  • The most important thing you should consider before taking a job

Katie Couric is an internationally prominent journalist and news anchor who has covered most major news stories for the last 25 years. Adam Grant is a renowned Wharton psychology professor and bestselling author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the WorldSimon Sinek is a bestselling author whose TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” has received over 33 million views, making it one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. The three recently sat down at the Aspen Ideas Festival to address the stereotypes about millennials, discuss what truly motivates them, and outline how they can find what they crave: a meaningful, rewarding job.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To watch the full version, click the video below.

Katie: What do millennials want?

Adam: If you look at fundamental values, millennials say they want the same things out of life as everybody else: a great family, a job that’s meaningful and enjoyable and motivating, a community that [they’re a] part of, to be able to support [their] lifestyle outside of work. Those are pretty much human universals, but millennials are more concerned about self-expression and less concerned about social approval than most other generations.

Simon: I’m not sure the approval part is true. If you didn’t care about social approval, then all of the Instagram feeds would be private, and they’re not. There was just an article in the paper about a young couple, 19 and 20 years old I think. They performed a stunt on YouTube where he put a textbook on his chest, and she put a gun to him, thinking that the book would stop the bullet, and it didn’t. She accidentally killed him on YouTube, and they did the stunt in order to get more followers.

There’s the desire to do things for followers, [and] it becomes more and more extreme. I completely agree with everything you said about desire for family, desire for purpose. All of that’s true, but [it] would be interesting to discuss the manner in which they’re going about achieving those things, because those are the things that I think are sideways.

Katie: Well, let’s talk about that. I remember giving a commencement speech about three years ago, and I said they were going to have an average of 17 jobs by the time they stopped working. Let’s talk about what they’re looking for work-wise.

Simon: They’re looking for purpose. They’re looking for a place [where] they feel like they belong. But it’s a generation that has grown up in a world of instant gratification, and it becomes normalized. If you want to watch a movie, you just stream it whenever you want to watch. You can buy something on Amazon, and it shows up the very next day. You can get a date just by swiping right. Everything’s instantaneous. The belief that you can get what you want when you want it is now applied to other things, like social relationships, loving relationships, and career.

“The belief that you can get what you want when you want it is now applied to other things, like social relationships, loving relationships, and career.”

I’ve met some wonderful millennials, smart, talented, ambitious, idealistic. And I see them in their entry level jobs and they say, “I think I’m going to quit.” I’m like, “Why? Do you have a toxic boss? Is it horrible here?” They’re like, “No, I just don’t think this is for me.” I’m like, “How long have you been here?” They’re like, “Four months.”

They’re treating it like a scavenger hunt, like “I’m going to go from job to job to find the thing I’m looking for,” but that’s not how it works. You find a place that shares your values, where you feel like you can belong, where they will foster you in your career, and you work hard to maintain those feelings.

But conversely, the work cultures [that] too many young people are coming into are very, very broken cultures, where they prioritize making a number at an arbitrary date over the care and growth of their own people. The people who are coming into these jobs never feel like the company really cares about them. They feel expendable, that if the company misses its arbitrary projections at the end of the year they could get laid off. This has become so normalized.

Well-led companies actually don’t have a millennial problem, and the millennials who work there work there for years and years. If they get what they’re looking for, a place where they feel like they can belong, they will stay. They have a sense of patience they need to practice, and companies need to improve the quality of their cultures.

Katie: Can you think of examples of companies that are doing a good job retaining employees? Because I read that this millennial turnover is costing companies a ridiculous amount of money.

Adam: The first thing I would say is that turnover is actually a good thing. The optimal turnover rate for a company is not zero. When you study this across industries, you’ll see that about 5 to 10% turnover in many industries actually leads to better company performance, because you’re rotating in new backgrounds, new ideas, and new skill sets.

Katie: But turnover costs 30 billion dollars every year, so a lot of companies probably don’t think it’s a great idea, right?

Adam: Five and ten years down the line, you see a lot of those costs start to reverse. Of course, you can have too much turnover as well as too little. When I think about companies that are at the forefront of this, I’ve been doing some work with Facebook over the last year, and we looked at their internal pulse survey to figure out what their employees really want.

It turned out that there were three things millennials wanted out of work, after their basic needs were covered. The first one was a career: “I want to be challenged, to grow, to experience mastery, to rise in my influence.” The second was community: “I want to belong, to have friends, to feel valued around here.” The third was the cause: “I want to have a sense of purpose. I want to feel like our mission matters, and [that] I make a meaningful contribution to that mission.”

Young business team working together

Then we start comparing other age groups, and we see that these are the things that everyone at Facebook wants. It’s true if you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. We even found a few people in their 60s who work at a tech company who wanted the same things.

Katie: You’re kidding.

Adam: What was so interesting about it was [that] the importance of cause went up with every age group. Everybody said it was important. The stereotype that millennials are extra interested in meaning and purpose actually turns out to be false, at least at Facebook.

Katie: Let’s talk about the stereotypes of millennials: they’re entitled, they want it now. They want work-life balance at the age of 22, when they should really be putting the pedal to the metal and focusing on work. They’re not committed to their job, they want to be mobile and flexible.

A lot of these are not particularly flattering descriptions. Do you think that they’re getting an unfair rap in some ways, Simon, or do you think those descriptions are accurate?

Simon: If you ask older people, they think it’s perfectly legit. [But] the research does show that throughout history, the old have always complained about the young. That’s always been the case, but the words that are being used now are different. The word ‘entitled’ is not a word that has been used in the past.

Katie: In the past, it would be ‘spoiled,’ right?

Simon: Spoiled, dissatisfied, disrespectful, lazy. Entitled is a new one. Before we judge an entire generation, I think we have to understand where they came from. There needs to be the exercise of empathy. Every generation is affected by whatever the events of the day were when they came of age, and that’ll affect their worldview. For example, if your grandparents lived through the Great Depression and World War II, the odds are that they might be miserly and frugal. They’re not broken. There’s nothing wrong with them. It’s because they grew up with rations, and it informed their worldview.

“They’re experts at projecting confidence, but how they feel and what they show you aren’t the same.”

Now for this generation, you can break it down into four things: technology, impatience, parenting, and environment. [So], technology: [this is the] first generation to grow up with all this technology, and [they’re] on it too much. There’s a chemical in our body called dopamine, and dopamine is released when we find something we’re looking for, or accomplish something we set out to accomplish. It’s why we feel good when we win the game, when we find our keys, or check something off our to-do list.

Dopamine is the same chemical that’s released when we drink, smoke, gamble, or use our cell phones. It’s why we enjoy those things, right? Dopamine is the heart of most addictions. Drinking alcohol is fine, [but] drinking too much is dangerous. Social media and cell phones are exactly the same. That bing, buzz, flash, or beep releases a hit of dopamine, which is why it feels good to get a text or get a like.

There’s some amazing data on alcoholics. I’ll get the numbers slightly wrong, [but] when kids drink before they’re 15, 40% of them will become alcoholics. If they wait until something like 19, 8% will become alcoholics. It plummets. We have age restrictions on alcohol, nicotine, and gambling. We don’t let children engage with those things before 18 or 21, yet we have no age restrictions on giving them access to an equally dangerous and dopamine-releasing device called the cell phone.

We’re seeing this reflected in suicide rates. The single biggest increase of suicide in the United States today is girls 10 to 15 years old. It has tripled in the past 15 years—tripled. We also know that girls spend 40% more time on social media than boys. Not causal, but we should at least take account of these things. We have to consider that too many young people have grown up with this unfettered access [and] probably have an addiction to these devices, which means they struggle to deal with stress when they’re older and may even struggle to form deep, meaningful relationships. [Those] are words they use when I talk to them, that they struggle to form deep, meaningful relationships, which as social animals is really, really important.

The second thing I said was impatience, and I talked about it before, the sense of instant gratification which they’re applying to things that don’t have instant gratification.

Katie: Career satisfaction.

Simon: Love and career satisfaction. The third thing was parenting. There was a shift in parenting strategies, and the way that millennials were raised was very different than the way previous generations were raised. For example, they were constantly told that they can be anything and do anything they want, just because they want it.

Bearded graphic designer checking schedule on laptop

Katie: Everybody’s a winner.

Simon: Everybody’s a winner, and this whole sense of rewarding people that come in last, and giving medals to everybody. But it actually has an adverse effect.

Katie: Helicopter parenting.

Simon: Exactly. Like when we used to get in trouble, it was like, “What’d you do now?” [Now] it’s become, “What’s wrong with your teacher?”

That’s all fine and good when you’re at school, but the problem is when they graduate and enter the workforce, they find out that they can’t have or do anything just because they want it. I’ve heard stories of parents filling out job applications. I’ve heard stories of parents complaining to the bosses that, “My kid didn’t get a promotion.” The helicopter parenting isn’t going away, even when they’re in the career fields. [For] these young people who are entering the workforce, it’s shaking their entire view of themselves. They’re not as confident as they thought they were. They’re not capable as they thought they were.

This is a generation that is very, very good at projecting happiness and confidence. Just look at anybody’s social media feed. They’re experts at projecting confidence, but how they feel and what they show you aren’t the same. When we engage with them, they all sound amazing and smart, and like they know the answers and we’re the idiots. But the reality is, [they have] huge amounts of insecurity. They haven’t practiced the social skills of asking for help, or accepting it when it’s offered. There’s a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.

Then you combine that with the environment, which is what we talked about before. We have very, very broken corporate cultures in America. The concept of using mass layoffs to balance the books on an annualized basis did not exist in the United States prior to the 1980s. It was a concept that became popular in the 80s and 90s during boom years of relative peace.

Those standard ways of doing business in these very different times are the environments into which young people are entering. The corporate cultures are not prioritizing the growth, the needs, the confidence of their people. This is exaggerating the effects of how this young generation grew up, which is why they’re going from job to job to job, looking for someone to take care of them. And no one’s doing that.

Katie: [Let’s] talk about some pragmatic advice in terms of millennials finding a good job fit. Why aren’t we collectively doing a better job in helping guide young people into professions where they’re going to thrive and be passionate about what they’re doing?

“The corporate cultures are not prioritizing the growth, the needs, the confidence of their people.”

Adam: Part of the problem is we have too many options. I think Americans would be much better off if they were raised in a system that looked a little bit more like Germany, where you choose one of three broad tracks: technical, interpersonal, [or] creative. Then [you] don’t have to consider thousands and thousands of choices.

Simon: [It’s] the paradox of choice. I think taking a job [where] you really love the people you’re going to work with should be prioritized. We’ve lopsided how we even help our young people make choices. We literally ask them, “Well, which one’s offering you more money? What are the benefits?” not, “Did you love the people you interviewed with? Because you’re going to be working with them every single day.”

Adam: There’s [also] this expectation that you not only know what your first job is going to be, but second, third, fourth, and fifth, and you should have a 20-year plan. I have a lot of students who come in and they say, “Look, here’s my plan. Which job should I consider for [age] 27? Then at 32, what organization should I be moving to?”

I brought Sheryl Sandberg to campus a couple months ago, and we had our students in the room. She said, “When I graduated from college, Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers. If I had had a plan, I would have missed out on the best career choice I ever could have made. You should never have one of those career plans.” Then that causes tremendous anxiety, because if you lived a life where every single thing was planned out for you, and all of a sudden you have no idea what’s two years down the road, that’s a little bit terrifying.

Katie: What is the best approach do you think?

Adam: I think the best approach is to say, “Look, here are some skills that I really want to learn and practice. I’m going to take my first job based on that. Then once I’ve gotten a handle on those skills, I want to figure out what else I want to learn how to do, and I’ll choose job two.”

Simon: In my career I got a lot of things wrong, but I got one thing right. When I was interviewing as an entry-level person, the interviewer would always ask me, “What are you looking for?” My answer was always, “I’m looking for a mentor.”

It’s like looking for love. You go on a date. You don’t evaluate how much money they make and the house they live in. You say, “Do I like this person? Do I want to spend time with this person?” We need to teach people to look for those things when they interview. I would pay so much attention to the person who was going to be my boss, because I knew enough to know that I knew nothing. I knew that I needed somebody to watch over me and care [about] me. To prioritize finding a mentor, it doesn’t really matter what career field you go into.


To read the second half of this edited conversation, click here.

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