Three millennials cropped at the shoulder looking at their mobile phones.

The Problem With Millennials

By John Frehse

December 11, 2017

We hear it all the time. Millennials are lazy, entitled, and nothing like the generations who came before them. The real problem, however, is that we have failed to understand who they are, what they want, and how they fit into the fabric of the ever-changing economy. It is worth exploring the fact that the problem with millennials may not be confined to them or even about them. It may be a problem that society created.

Who They Are: The 3 Key Characteristics

The first is cultural. We have devalued the perception of what are traditionally considered blue-collar jobs, even though they are secure, high-paying jobs, often coupled with generous benefits. Despite the numerous opportunities in industries with blue-collar jobs, few millennials aspire to enter this segment of the job market. Millennials believe that they need to have a four-year degree to be successful and get a “good job.” As a result, they are passing up opportunities to enter the blue-collar workforce where they can learn a skilled trade, receive paid on-the-job training, and graduate with zero debt. Instead, they are going to four-year schools, from which many will graduate with student-loan debt of over $100,000. Even with a four-year degree, many millennials struggle to find permanent employment and will be perpetually underemployed in positions that do not require a college education.

The second factor is social. Marriage rates are in a free fall compared with those of previous generations. As a matter of fact, millennials have the lowest marriage rates of any previous generation, with statistics showing more than double the number not choosing marriage compared with members of Generation X. This decline has a significant impact on other components of millennial lives. The demand for higher incomes to support a family is greatly diminished, and many millennials are opting to live at home with their parents. With housing costs and other incidentals picked up by others, millennials can afford not to fight for a promotion or work extra hours. A part-time job may be the only thing they need to cover their living expenses.

The third is financial. Millennials are making less than previous generations. According to the U.S. Census, 18-34-year-olds were making $37,355 on an inflation-adjusted basis in the year 2000. Today, this same age group is making $3,472 less ($33,883). This decrease is coupled with an increase in education from the same period. In 2000, 19.5 percent had a college education or higher. Today, that number is 22.3 percent. There is a clear negative correlation.

5 Things You Should Know

  1. Based on surveys conducted with over 100,000 people, millennials have very different work preferences from non-millennials. Millennials deviate from traditional preferences in many categories: shift length, day-on-day-off patterns, overtime opportunities, and shift start and stop times.
  2. Employee engagement is more critical than ever. What if you could give employees what they want and improve the bottom line? Innovative labor strategies can be a competitive advantage when recruiting key talent, and can also improve operational performance.
  3. More than 48 million retirees will leave the workforce by 2020. Companies are now under great pressure to develop a comprehensive labor strategy to assist them as they actively recruit, engage, and retain employees to fill those emerging job openings over the next five years.
  4. Finding the best and brightest employees is only going to become more difficult. Adopting a “take it or leave it” approach regarding your current labor strategies will hurt your operation. Millennials report on social media constantly, so how your employees are treated will be very public information!
  5. You might not be Google, but your employees still expect you to innovate. Understanding the value you can bring to your employees is paramount. Do not try to set unrealistic expectations about what your company can offer. Instead, think realistically about opportunities. For example, are there better shift schedules possible that can dramatically improve their lives?

We can either try to change millennials and face potential failure, or make a proactive choice to adapt to their diverse preferences. They are dealing with the unfulfilled promise of great jobs after college and this has driven disengagement. This reality, combined with changes in marriage rates and decreased compensation, has created a new labor landscape. For employers to compete in this new world order, innovative labor strategies must be utilized to attract the best talent. Unlike what we have been telling millennials, shift work may be the best option for them. The landscape of shift schedules is slowly being recognized as attractive to this emerging labor market, where days off and a different perspective on work/life balance are critical elements for job consideration.


“The Problem with Millennials” is an update of the August 2, 2017 article “Re-thinking the So-called Millennial Problem” written for The Workforce Institute @ Kronos, a think tank helping organizations drive performance by addressing human capital management issues affecting both hourly and salaried employees. John Frehse serves on The Workforce Institute @ Kronos advisory board for the Americas and is a frequent contributor to the organization’s blog.