Unemployment figures...File photo dated 15/07/09 of a jobcentre, as unemployment fell by 121,000 to 2.12 million between March and May, official figures showed today. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday July 16, 2014. See PA story INDUSTRY Unemployment. Photo credit should read: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
© PA

There is a particular sort of press release that always strikes me as strange. People send them to me all the time and they follow a pattern. First they explain that a survey of young people (or HR managers or CEOs) has revealed that millennials expect different things from employers than previous generations — rapid promotions, constant positive feedback, flatter corporate structures, a better work-life balance and a sense of purpose beyond profit. The press releases wrap up with a few quotes from experts urging companies to adapt to this new generation.

I am left thinking: who on earth are these entitled young people who expect the world of work to reshape itself around them? Most millennials — those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s — entered the labour force in the aftermath of a brutal downturn. It is almost a decade since the financial crisis, and global youth unemployment remains about 13 per cent. Far from demanding that employers adjust to their needs, many young people have bent over backwards to persuade anyone to give them a foothold in the labour market.

In the US, the proportion of college graduates working in non-graduate jobs rose to 44 per cent after the recession. In the eurozone, about 40 per cent of workers aged 15 to 29 are in temporary jobs that typically provide little training or progression. Some millennials have left their home countries to find work. Last week I met 30-year-old Maritza Castillo Calle who came to Britain from Spain where unemployment is still more than 20 per cent. She starts her job as a cleaner at 5am before she goes to her second job in a coffee shop. She lives in south London where she and a friend rent one room with two beds in it.

Britain is a better place to be young than Spain but millennials have still fallen behind the rest of society. While the income of the median UK household finally regained its pre-recession level last year, the income of the average 22-to-30 year old is still about 8 per cent lower than in 2008.

I realise that some readers will be rolling their eyes at this point. They will point out rightly that other generations suffered much worse fates; that in absolute terms the millennials are the richest generation yet; that improvements in education, healthcare and technology have improved their lives in immeasurable ways.

All this is true. And in the interests of full disclosure, I am a millennial, albeit one of the lucky older ones who sneaked into the workforce before the boom turned to bust. Yet everyone should be rooting for the unlucky ones who had a tough start, since it will fall to them to pay for the pensions and healthcare of the generations ahead of them. This will be a heavy responsibility: the world has only three “super-aged” societies today (countries where more than one in five of the population is 65 or older) but by 2020 it will have 13. The more long-term the damage to young people’s careers, the less they will earn over their lifetimes and the less tax they will be able to pay.

The best thing would be for labour markets to tighten enough that millennials can bid up their wages or prosper as entrepreneurs. This is starting to happen in some areas. There is a dearth of junior investment bankers with five to seven years’ experience, for example — a legacy of the post-crisis hiring freeze. That is prompting the likes of Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs to offer better bonuses and conditions to young staff.

However, Minouche Shafik, a deputy governor at the Bank of England, gave a speech last month that made me wonder about some millennials’ ability to bounce back, even in a world where workers are scarce. She was trying to figure out why wage growth is still so weak in Britain even though joblessness has fallen to pre-recession levels. This is a puzzle in the US and Japan too. Perhaps, she said, the crisis was so severe that it had a lasting effect on employees’ psyches and made them reluctant to push for pay rises or switch jobs in pursuit of higher salaries.

If this is true for the average worker, you can see why it might be particularly true for a young person who has never known a time when the economy seemed truly secure. The FT recently published a vivid dispatch from Japan, where two decades of economic uncertainty seem to have instilled fearfulness and risk-aversion in the country’s youth.

The real worry about millennials is not that they are entitled, but that they are not entitled enough.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com
Twitter: @sarahoconnor_

Get alerts on Management when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article