The “gig economy” has gained an easy association with millennials. Consultants and articles of all sorts continue to tell us that among other things millennials resist conventional full-time employment and prefer part-time associations and independent contracting. These same articles, lectures, and conversational bits of advice explain how millennials, even when full-time employees, demand a more flexible and idealistic workplace where the environment and corporate commitments will compensate in part for salary and bonus.
Perhaps these demands will emerge in time. But if they were going to do so, signs should have emerged by now. Yet, even though millennials have already gained ascendency in the workforce, the Labor Department reports that nature of the workplace has changed little. At the same time, several rigorous surveys show little difference in priorities between these young people and other generations. Perhaps millennials want the “gigs” and other priorities but cannot get them. If so, they, like every other generation, have settled. The world of work seems poised for less radical change than has been widely forecast.
If millennials were going to force big change, they should by now have the weight to do it. Some 73 million people were born in this country between 1980 and 1996. The bulk of this millennial generation has completed its education and entered the workaday world. At some 56 million, they already dominate the workforce, amounting to some 35 percent of the total working population. The generation of the late 1960s and 1970s, the GenXers as they are called, runs a close second with 53 million in the workforce. By contrast, boomers have already fallen off. They peaked at 66 million at the turn of the century and have fallen to 41 million still at work now, barely over 27 percent of the entire workforce. And the ascent of millennials has happened quickly. At the turn of the century, they accounted for less than 6 percent of the workforce. By 2010, they had risen to some 25 percent of the total, still less than boomers and GenXers. Now they constitute a clear plurality.
According to what might be called the millennial-advice complex, their very distinct work performance will radically alter the workplace. Millennials were surveyed and found to harbor more idealism than others and value inclusion and diversity and environmental considerations more than others. This, we have been told, would change corporate objectives and strategies. Millennials also valued flexible hours more than older generations and the option to work remotely. This would break open hidebound corporate practices. They also valued more face-to-face meetings with their superiors, who they wanted to take an interest in them as people as well as workers. This sounds contradictory unless these meeting happened via face-time computer arrangements, but such contradictions are hardly unusual for people of any generation. Everyone wants it both ways. Most potentially disruptive, they told the survey people that they wanted to change jobs more frequently and avoid settled full-time employment arrangements.
Without doubting the integrity of those compiling these survey results, the whole picture might well yield to an entirely different and more prosaic interpretation. The attitudes associated with millennials are less unique than simply those associated with youth in any generation. Since time immemorial, the young espouse greater idealism than the middle-aged and the old. They have their causes, and not yet having had the opportunity to screw up as their elders unavoidably have, they are more certain of their moral rectitude. Closer to the nurturing atmosphere of family and school, youth has also always stressed the need for a more caring environment in what otherwise looks like a colder, less comfortable world than the one they are leaving. And youth, with so much exciting to do, has also always valued flexible hours more than elders who have long grown accustomed to family and work obligations and the sometimes-welcome routine they impose.
Even ignoring the different attitudes of old and young, a recent (less well publicized) survey by IBM shows little difference in the long-term goals of the different generations. Some 22 percent of millennials, for instance, indicated the importance of working with a diverse group of people. The consultants and articles stressed this as unique, but just about the same percentage of GenXers and boomers say the same, 22 percent and 21 percent respectively. Some 22 percent of millennials insisted on work that helped solve social and environmental challenges. Only slightly less, 20 percent, of GenXers indicated a desire for work that does this and an even larger proportion, 24%, of boomers embraced this attitude. On managing work-life balance, it was GenXers that rated this goal highest, at 22%, followed by boomers at 21%. The millennials showed relatively less interest at 18%. Only when it came to starting a business did millennials distance themselves. Even then, a relatively small group, some 17%, of them aspired to this goal compared with 12% for GenXers and 15% for boomers.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department, despite the dominance of millennials, notes little substantive change in the nature of working arrangements. To be sure, firms today stress inclusion and diversity more than they once did, much as they stressed patriotism decades ago when it was popular. And no doubt companies, either out of genuine commitment or a cynical effort to burnish their image according to current trends, have changed their hiring and promotion policies to advance groups that count under this heading. But the “gig” economy has hardly emerged as many had forecast. Labor Department statistics report that some 10.6 million independent contractors work in the economy today, about 7.0 percent of total employment. In 2005, when millennials were less than half the proportion they are today, this figure was even higher, about 7.5 percent of the workforce. When it comes to other alternative work arrangements — on-call workers, temporary help, and those associated with contract firms – they, combined, amount to some 5.0 million or 3.2 percent of total employment presently, about where they were 12 years ago when millennials were much less important.
Perhaps it will take more time for the supposedly unique preference of millennials to have an effect. After all, few of these still youngish people have reached the positions of power from which they can bring about change. But perhaps then their attitudes toward work arrangements will have changed, not necessarily because they have grown older but because one’s standpoint always changes with where one is situated in the social and economic hierarchy. If, however, a great change were in store for the business world, it at least would have given a hint of itself now that millennials have risen to a plurality in the workforce. Without any sign, it seems pointless to expend resources anticipating a revolution.
This piece was originally published on Forbes.com.