The Truth About Millennials

September 1, 2015

(Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2.)

Media coverage of American generational shifts is usually sensationalized, and today’s seemingly nonstop coverage of the Millennial generation is no different. Substitute Baby Boomers or Gen X for Millennials in any of the coverage you’re currently seeing, and an article today wouldn’t look drastically different from an article 20 or 40 years ago.

The amount of coverage is justified though. A recent analysis of census data found the most common age in America in 2014 was 22 years old. Considering Baby Boomers have dominated American life and the workforce for several decades, it’s no wonder the generational contrasts snuck up on people. Recent reports in Colorado found Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers by nearly a two-to-one margin in Denver.

Because of the growth in the numbers of Millennials entering the workforce, the media, human resources professionals, and other co-working generations are trying to identify and define the characteristics defining Millennial workers as well as what motivates and inspires them.

This is a complicated task—especially when it comes to public service. The 2014 edition of the annual Harvard Institute of Politics survey of young Americans’ attitudes towards politics and public service found Americans aged 18-29 (technically, the millennial generation is usually thought to include people slightly older than this age group) found while 70% of young people find value in community service, only 29% of them find working in the public sector appealing. The desire to make a difference is there, but turning it into a career is another question.

So who are the Millennials who decide to enter the public sector? One area where Millennials are making a difference is in education. Sarah Taylor, an elementary school psychologist in the St. Vrain Valley School District, calls her average day hard to describe, because psychologists are often tasked with many different duties in school.

“Usually it involves seeing students in small social groups or one-on-one; administering and evaluating  academic, cognitive, and social/emotional assessments; facilitating problem-solving meetings and/or IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings; consulting with teachers and parents to help improve student behavior in the classroom and at home; helping kids "de-escalate" after behavior episodes; and identifying struggling students, and developing interventions to help target individual student need,” Taylor said.

If that sounds like a lot for one day, it is.

“I’ve learned to accept that my schedule has to be flexible and adapt to the needs of the day,” she says.

Nicole Lenzner, a special education teacher in Denver Public Schools (DPS), teaches only a few blocks away from the home she shares with her husband, son, and two dogs. Walking to work doesn’t make her day any easier, however.

“Most people don't know that I do home visits for my students and their families on my own time,” she says. “My students have many socioeconomic and socioemotional obstacles, and sometimes it feels like I have to choose between teaching content and just being a supportive adult in their lives.”

As if it needed saying, these kinds of jobs can be hard work. Whether someone is relatively new to their job or they’ve got decades of service under their belt, it can be challenging, both emotionally and physically. The rewards, though, are many.

“The best part of my job is helping kids,” says Taylor. “It’s incredibly rewarding and makes the hard work worth it when a child’s learning takes off in response to interventions designed based on his or her strengths and needs.”

Lenzner has a similar view of the rewards of her job. “I like that I get to watch children gain confidence and become independent thinkers.”

Millennials are working behind the scenes, too, helping to support the staff working directly with kids in the schools.

Brittany Burton, a Regional Communications Specialist for DPS, works on communications strategy, marketing, and branding for individual schools.

“I also work on the school choice and enrollment process district-wide,” she says. “I enjoy helping to educate parents about choosing unique programs for their kids and expanding diversity in all of our schools.”

School districts aren’t the only place millennials are making a difference for Coloradans. They’re also doing it at the state level. One of them is Jack Wylie,  Government Affairs Liaison for the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration, which oversees most of the Human Resources functions for the state.

When the General Assembly is in session from early January until early May, Jack pays close attention to the members of the state House and Senate, both on the floor and in their various committees.

“During the interim, I spend most of my time in the office preparing for the next session. It takes a lot of work to develop budget and legislative proposals.”

Millennials in state government are also working to implement Colorado’s still-evolving experiment with legal marijuana. Skyler McKinley is Deputy Director of Marijuana Coordination for the Governor’s Office.

“We’re the first people who are doing this,” he says, “and we’re largely building an airplane as we’re flying it.”

McKinley, who was a journalist and researcher before working for the state, works as a liaison between various state agencies which don’t typically work with one another outside of the issue of marijuana, but “they’re mandated by the constitution, state statute, and the voters’ expectations to work together.”

“No two days are exactly alike,” he says. “What I like about it is, like in journalism, we’re taking these complex ideas, we’re chewing on them and figuring out how to categorize and make sense of information, and at the same time every day I have a new challenge I have to figure out—basically from scratch.”

(Check back tomorrow for a look at how Millennials in public employment prepare to leave their professional lives—even though they’ve only begun their careers.)