Why Millennials Need to Be “Unrealistic” About Work+Life Fit (But, “Realistic” About Money)

Originally posted on FastCompany.

I recently attended two conferences where researchers presented studies on the Millennial generation’s beliefs and expectations related to how work will fit into their lives throughout their careers.

The conclusion of the research was not surprising: 20-somethings expect a great deal of flexibility. They expect flexibility in how, when and where they work while employed, but also they want to flexibly manage their careers.

However, I cringed during the presentations when the two 50+ year old researchers both commented that men and women in this generation may be a bit “unrealistic.” I was taken aback because these goals may seem fanciful in the context of an Industrial Age economy, but they’re more understandable when you consider what Millennials have witnessed during their formative years.

Millennials watched the concept of work and career change fundamentally. Technology and globalization decimated the boundaries between your job and your life and rendered the promise of the full-time job with benefits obsolete; therefore…

20-somethings need to be “unrealistic” about their work+life fit

In a recent article for The Christian Science Monitor, Lindsay Pollack commented on the findings of the “Shaping a New Future” study of 1,000 Millennial women that she conducted with Levi’s Strauss & Co, “They are living life on their own terms, and we can learn a lot from how they are navigating our 21st Century world.”

What does that world look like in terms of work and careers?  It’s unpredictable and self-directed. Two recent surveys (Workforce Trends Study and Manpower) found the use of temporary talent by companies instead of full-time employees “is a post-recession phenomenon that is here to stay.”  Not surprisingly, the 2009 Emerging Workforce study reported that 94% of respondents felt that an employee should seek their own career opportunities, and only 24% were satisfied with the growth and earning potential in their current jobs.

Millennial expectations align with this dynamic, free agent existence. As I’ve written before, we would all benefit by sitting up, taking notice and learning.  Examples of new more flexible ways of managing your work+life fit have gotten attention recently and include:

There’s only one caveat…there must also be a new, updated, “realistic” approach to money.

Money—making it, spending it and saving it–is different in the world of a flexible work+life fit.  In other words, it’s not your grandfather’s or even your father’s financial reality.

The steady, ever-increasing paycheck deposited into your bank account every other week has given way to a more inconsistent, unpredictable, multi-stream, project-based cash flow.  This requires an updated, “realistic” approach to finances outlined in the new book, Generation Earn, by US News & World Report columnist Kimberly Palmer.

Unlike more traditional “how to” personal finance books, Palmer attacks the financial implications of this new Millennial work+life fit reality head on by covering topics such as:

  • How to create and manage multiple streams of income either as your primary means of support or as a supplement to your main job. (Includes excellent advice from Michelle Goodman, author of Anti 9-to-5 Guide).
  • How to manage the “new” frugality and buy green.
  • How to create a flexibility plan to present to your boss when you need to adjust your work+life fit.
  • How to calculate the “true” cost of staying home once you have a child (page 148—important because you need to “factor in the value of future earnings and promotions” in order to get an accurate picture)
  • How to negotiate living with your parents again, and
  • How to face the (tough) reality that you will have to fund your own retirement.  It’s important because, as Palmer points out, the existence of Social Security for this cohort is tenuous.

Yes, according to Industrial Age thinking, the expectations of Millennials for job and career flexibility may seem “unrealistic.”  But in the context of today’s circumstances, they make sense.

When, where and how 20-somethings work and manage their lives is going to look very different from the experience of most Boomers and many Gen-Xers.  This requires not only a new, more flexible work+life fit model, but also, as Generation Earn points out, a completely new relationship with money.

Do you think Millennials are “unrealistic” about their work+life fit expectations or do you believe they are adapting what work and careers will look like going forward?  How do you believe the way we manage our personal finances needs to change?

I invite you to sign up for our new Making Flexibility Real “How To” eNewsletter and follow me on Twitter @caliyost.

9 thoughts on “Why Millennials Need to Be “Unrealistic” About Work+Life Fit (But, “Realistic” About Money)

  1. Hi Cali, Thank you for all of this information.
    As I am technically part of the millennial generation at 27 years old, I can say that not all of us fall under all of these generalizations. But that is what makes them generalizations, isn’t it?
    Yes, we want flexibility in our careers. Who doesn’t? But I also know plenty who don’t expect flexibility or don’t do anything about it. Those who want it start their own businesses or find companies that promote flexibility.
    But I believe the work/life fit comes from the individual and that people should not be looking at companies that promote it. Most of the time, those companies encourage you to stay at work even longer as they offer enormous amounts of benefits and perks that don’t require you to even leave their campuses.
    We are forced to see our careers differently now because nothing is definite. We have seen companies and industries implode before our eyes and do not want to be part of it. Friends and family members have been laid off. How can we be blamed for not trusting in the places that are supposed to be employing us?
    As for the money, I worry about that as well. As a whole, people don’t prepare for retirement and now it is more important than ever.
    Excellent resources, I look forward to reading more about this.

    1. Hi Diana,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the post! Part of the reason I cringe whenever “generational” issues are discussed is that, indeed, the generalities often don’t easily apply. More and more of us regardless of age want and need career flexibility. You are right, the only way flexibility is going to work on the job or throughout a career is if it is initiated by the individual in a thoughtful way that makes sense for the AND the business. It must be a win-win and to make that happen we need to make sure everyone has the “how to” skills to actively manage the changes in their work+life fit, day-to-day and at major life transitions. I think all of the generations working together to create this new flexible work+life fit reality is the best answer, but that partnership won’t happen if the guiding belief of older workers is that its “unrealistic.”


  2. Interesting post and food for thought – thanks. I am on the fringe between Gen Y and millennial, so I think I have traits of both. I think that the expectation for flexibility should be tied to doing work and results, and I’d be curious what millennials generally feel they owe anything to their employer.

    For instance, I expect occassional flexibility, but in return, I am in the office most days working full days (and more) and if I need flexibility, I have no problem doing work and checking email during non-work hours to make up for it. Slowly it seems that the “working from home” concept is becoming less synonymous with “not working.” That is a tough adjustment for many older managers, but if the work is quality and getting done, why does it matter where you’re working from?

    1. Hi Jenny,

      It’s funny–I am on the fringe of the Baby Boomer/Gen-X so I know what it feels like to see traits of both in yourself. That’s one reason why I do tend to view “generational” findings with a degree of healthy skepticism. Without a doubt the only way any kind of work+life flexibility is going to succeed is if it meets the needs of the person AND the business. My experience with younger employees in my work is that they are very willing to put in the extra time when needed, but they simply don’t understand unnecessary face time, “If I’m not busy, why can’t a take a longer lunch and go to the gym?” This is where older managers can get thrown off, and where we all need to sit down together and fashion the new flexible work+life fit reality together. I think younger employees can help us understanding that it really doesn’t matter where you are working as long as the work is getting done WELL (that’s key) and older workers can explain why sometimes doing work WELL does require time together and a particular schedule. Again, win-win. Thank you for commenting!



  3. Wonderful post Cali! Being a bi-generation person as well, and having survived those wonderful ’80’s years of “downsizings” followed by ’90’s “right sizings” I empathize with the comments of your readers. Nine years ago seeking the life I envisioned I finally moved on to create my own business – the longest I’ve worked in any one place. It is something I would never change and am very grateful for being able to do what I want to share each day with individuals and companies. That redefined visioning and moving forward to make it real is owed to you for your workshop I participated in back in August, 2002.

    To your points today, given my profession in human resource strategies and management, I am struck by one area that has not been addressed to date that really hinges on the root issues behind concerns related to “who cares where I work or how long as long as the job gets done”.

    First to consider is that employers face a very stern fundamentally entrenched method of compensation defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This requires two distinct classifications of employees (non-exempt, hourly; and exempt, salaried). For the latter, it’s easy to say “sure, get the work done from wherever that works for you and in the time you need to.” It’s a same pay for the week no matter the hours physically worked.

    Where it gets touchy is around the non-exempt level jobs. So, a little history for readers to understand … the law came about after the industrial revolution to fundamentally protect workers that previously were not accurately compensated for their time worked. (There’s always a law enacted to protect those who have been oppressed in one way or another.) For the most part, the FLSA has worked well over the decades since it’s inception. Yet it also makes it stickier to create the right “fit” for hourly employees.

    The second consideration is the very valid concern around EEO issues that crop up when you do something for one or a group and not for all that might create disparate treatment and impact – intended or not. Wonderful are the workers that are trustworthy, do what they promise to do and perform well in these types of flexible situations. Then, there is that group that will do everything possible to manage around a system to avert the obligations they entered into when accepting a job offer.

    Taking these two points into consideration, there is a need to recognize and manage in our employment laws and relationships how our world has changed. The values we hold dear in terms of time with family and taking better care for ourselves are taking precedence over devotion to an employer. More and more people are also interested in finding meaning from their life’s work. A “job” just doesn’t cut it.

    There also exists a percentage of the population that cites needing “a job, any job”. Through my extensive work with many organizations assisting women in job search, a question of “fit” does not enter their dialogue when in job search. Moreover it’s a question of rent, food, and other basic living needs to be met.

    So bundling all of these desired outcomes, perhaps it is time for us to dig deeper into revising our foundations to fit today’s society. This means: employment laws that allow for flexible methods of compensation; instilling each generation with a strong ethical approach to their work that includes accountability and reliability; and providing insight as well as exploration opportunities for individuals to discover how to best use their talents and strengths.

    It is a given that each of us has our lessons to be learned for our soul’s growth in our lifetime. I can’t help to consider the possibility that by going through the discovery process earlier on, we would all have the opportunity to use our talents and gifts for a majority of our lifetime. Rather than stumbling and faltering through many frustrating experiences, we could be experiencing more joy and intrinsic satisfaction. Revising our outdated structures in education and employment so they support this type of living experience is something worth the time and effort. As John Lennon sang “Imagine”.

    Thank you Cali for helping all of us to imagine and make it real!

    1. Hi Sherrill,

      Wow! Spot on. Like so many other aspect of work and life that do not align with today’s reality, our labor laws do need updating and need to be carefully understood. And, yes, for many of us a job…any job…is what we want. But what I loved the most about what you said was the hope that someday we no longer wait to discover our true talent and vocation. We start the self discovery process when we are very young and thrive from that ultimate place of strength. As you do!


  4. Cali, this is an excellent piece and very accurate on the importance of work flexibility for the younger generation.

    But I’d like to challenge a fundamental premise in how we see work and life in our culture, and the impact that this false dichotomy has on our ability to deal with relentless change in what is now a highly competitive global economy.

    We have for generations embraced as modernists a fragmented view of our humanity and divided or compartmentalized our existence into not merely distinct but often separate “styles of being”.

    From 9-to-5 we choose the style of a wage slave (or of someone “in control of our career”, depending on how we feel about our employer). On weekends we style ourselves as champions of entertainment, leisure or volunteering, etc. But another perspective is to see that there is no such thing as work apart from life or life apart from work.

    Without work there is no life. We’re meant to work all our lives to fulfill a purpose. But I’d like to make an essential distinction that work and slaving for a wage are not equivalent. And here is where I think we find many young people today coming to terms with the failure of their predecessors to grapple with the difference between these two.

    So, the sooner we eliminate the division that we insist in maintaining between work per se — this being that which we employ all our waking time doing for the benefit of our neighbors and loved ones — as against doing what we would prefer not to do, are compelled to do or dread to do to “make ends meet”, the sooner we’re likely to see the expectation of flexibility more commonly accepted as the practice of simply living.

    This is going to become a critical demand on our culture, because we can no longer think and act like machinists in what is today an organically networked world that never sleeps. We’ll need to become more like farmers and plant in season and reap in season, working with the economic weather systems that come and go, or starve.

    1. Well said…I agree, the first step is to acknowledge the the historical split between “work” and the other parts of “life” is over thanks to technology, globalization, as well as demographic changes that make it a luxury to have one person in a household focus solely on work and another solely on “life.” One interesting caveat I’ve found, however, is that there is a subset of people who really want to keep the two spheres as separate as possible. They don’t ever want to work from home, and very much try to minimize the interference of work into the periods of time that they’ve designated to be “personal.” These are the folks for whom the term work-life “integration” doesn’t work. So, I’m very careful to acknowledge that this preference exists even in the context of a reality in which work and life are now just one big ball of time and energy to be consciously and deliberately managed.

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