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What Your Younger Employees Are Really Thinking

They have political views but aren’t interested in talking politics at the office. Some like working from home and others prefer the office, but most agree that they communicate better with colleagues when at the office. They want bosses who give constructive criticism, but some think their bosses are scared of them. “They don’t want to hurt feelings,” a 30-year-old who works in auto sales said. Added a 33-year-old office manager, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings by telling me you’d like me to go in this direction or that direction.”

Most of all, they have power, perhaps more than any previous generation their age — and they know it.

In the latest Times Opinion focus group, 12 millennial Americans — ages 26 to 33 — discussed how the pandemic had upended and shaped their young careers, not all of it bad. Several said they quickly realized what they valued most in life when they found themselves working from home. In some cases, instead of looking after their own families or health or finding professional satisfaction, they worked long hours with unsupportive managers or faced the expectation of returning to the office prematurely. If earlier generations focused on paying their dues and putting up with tough treatment at work, some of the 12 focus group participants reveled in trying their luck in what a 29-year-old auditor called “the open market” of better-paying and more-fulfilling jobs.

“Prior to the pandemic, I think employers thought that employees were expendable and worked for their benefit. And now with the Great Resignation, I feel like it’s kind of turned the tables,” said a 26-year-old credit analyst. “Employees have a lot of power. And so I think employers need to be able to show employees that they do care and value them.”

This is the ninth group in our series America in Focus, which seeks to hear and understand the views of cross-sections of Americans whose voices are often not heard in opinion journalism. We conducted the discussion with Margie Omero, who does similar work for political candidates, parties and special interest groups. (Times Opinion paid her for the work.) This transcript has been edited for length and clarity; an audio recording and video clips of the session are also included. Participants provided their biographical details.

Margie Omero: What word or short phrase would you use to describe your concerns about the country right now?

Ryan (29, white, auditor, New Jersey): Division.

Brittney (33, Black, customer service representative, Tennessee): It’s all a mess.

Cameron (32, white, customer success manager, California): Hopeless.

Adam (29, white, independent insurance agent, Indiana): A lot of uncertainty.

Bettina (33, Latino, property management, Arizona): Concerned for the next generation.

Margie Omero: Now fill in the blank: I feel blank about how things are going for me personally.

Patrick (32, white, business development analyst, Virginia): Anxious.

Bettina: Still fortunate.

Niccolina (30, white, paralegal, Ohio): Somewhat lucky.

Alexa (26, white, credit analyst, Texas): In the middle — not good or bad.

Brittney: Nervous.

Margie Omero: People seem to feel — not everybody — more positive about themselves than they feel about the country overall. Tell me a little bit about that, anybody.

Alexa: I feel fortunate because I know a lot of people have it worse than I do. I tend to get caught up in what’s going on in my life. I’ve been able to keep a job during Covid and be relatively healthy.

Brittney: That’s why I feel nervous, because I’ve made it through the pandemic fairly easily compared to a lot of people I know. But my situation is always teetering. It’s one bad bill, one health issue, and everything could just be gone.

Tina (33, white, office manager, Georgia): My family and I have gotten through the pandemic better than some people. But now the way the economy is going, with everything spiking and student loans potentially coming back, I’m nervous.

Margie Omero: Let’s shift gears a little. How about this fill-in-the-blank exercise: I feel blank about my job these days.

Bettina: Burned out.

Cameron: Bored.

Niccolina: Overworked.

Patrick: Slightly optimistic.

Dontavious (30, Black, auto sales lead, Georgia): Secure.

Alexa: Nervous.

Adam: Empowered.

Brittney: Frustrated.

Emily (white, 33, business analyst, Wisconsin): Happy.

Ryan: Comfortable.

Vikas (28, Asian, computer technician, New Jersey): Concerned.

Margie Omero: A mix of positive and negative. Adam, you picked “empowered.” Tell me about that.

Adam: Since the pandemic, we’ve brought about new ways of communicating with people. The work I’m in, I’m really relationship-driven. So it’s given us a lot of new ways to work with folks and to help folks out. The pandemic wasn’t a good thing, but it definitely brought about new ways of working with people.

Ryan: I said “comfortable.” I started off fully remote, but since we’ve gone back to the office, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the people that I’m working with and the people that I’m leading. And I’m also comfortable being in the office three days a week instead of five, which is, prepandemic, what we were doing.

Margie Omero: What about the folks who said that they felt burned out and frustrated? Bettina?

Bettina: We’re approaching returning to the office more or less full time. And within this transition, because we went through a hiring freeze, we have some shortages in some positions I oversee. So I have to directly cover or find coverage for those gaps.

Cameron: My word was “bored.” I’m just tired of sitting at home. I’m very bored with the Zoomcalls. I’m very over the current situation. I’m comfortable. I’m very fine and good at my job. But I’m just tired of sitting here and doing it, honestly.

Margie Omero: Have your views toward your career and the kind of work that you do changed during the pandemic?

Alexa: Yeah. I made a career change and a relocation in August. During Covid, I realized that my former employer pushed me to burn out pretty quickly. I felt like my work was becoming my life. It was having a negative effect on my physical and my mental health, especially. I wanted to kind of step back and reprioritize what was important to me and my life, and just get to a place where I’m not dreading going to work every day — just wanting to actually live my life, and not wake up every day just to go to work.

Margie Omero: And how do you feel since you’ve made that change?

Alexa: So I know I used the word “nervous.” I only feel nervous because things have been going great. I’m thinking, everything’s too good to be true at my current job. There has to be a point where something bad happens, because I had it so bad at my last position.

Margie Omero: Other folks who have had a similar change in how they view their work or their career?

Dontavious: Working from home was very new to me. It wasn’t hard to get used to. Typically, I have to work on a computer all day, every day anyway. If I wasn’t at my desk in my room right now, I’d be at the desk in my office. A job is a job.

Niccolina: I did have a change of view, but it’s kind of the opposite of what everyone is saying. At my company in 2020, I was like, we can absolutely do this job working from home. There’s no reason for us to be in the office. Then I applied for this job back in February of 2021. And I was like, there’s absolutely no way I can do this job from home. I actually wanted to go into the office because it gave me a sense of normalcy. It gave me that separation of work and home. So everything kind of shifted in the midst of the pandemic, if I can even say that, because it’s still ongoing.

Margie Omero: Has anybody else had that experience of wanting to be back in the office?

Ryan: There’s a certain level of personal connection that you’re going to make and maintain a lot better if you are consistently going to the office, where you have that human touch, rather than just sitting on a computer all day and then going on with the rest of your day once you’ve done what you need to do. There’s no time for small talk on a Zoom call, unless it’s right before a meeting and we’re waiting for people to get into the room. For me, it’s something that I value. And it might not be revenue generating, but it’s definitely morale boosting in some way.

Margie Omero: Cameron, that sounds familiar to you?

Cameron: Absolutely. When I relocated last year, I was actively hoping to be able to get a job where I could go in person at least sometimes to meet my co-workers. And I was really unhappy in my previous role because of the remote nature of it. And that is explicitly the reason why I’m in the job that I’m in now, because they had the opportunity to work in office.

Margie Omero: I want to get a show of hands. How many people think that they feel more productive when they’re in the office?

[Six raise their hands.]

How many people feel more productive at home?

[Five participants raise their hands.]

Margie Omero: How many people feel that they have better communication with their colleagues when they’re in the office?

[Nine participants raise their hands.]

OK. And how many people feel they have better communication with their colleagues — or it’s the same, no different — when they’re remote?

[Three participants raise their hands.]

Adrian J. Rivera: How many of you have heard of the Great Resignation? What comes to mind when you hear that phrase, the Great Resignation?

Ryan: I think it’s people realizing that the open market is where they can get the most value. I moved jobs during the pandemic, and it certainly was the case for me. People get a lot more money than they were making before.

Alexa: Since there was a lot of downtime during the pandemic, people had time to reflect on their values and where they wanted to be with their career. I’m really proud to be part of something that’s actually been coined a term now. The pandemic has been a wake-up call for me as far as, how much time do I want to devote to my career? What do I really want to be doing? Am I really getting paid for what I’m worth?

Adrian J. Rivera: Does anybody have negative feelings about this idea of the Great Resignation?

Bettina: Within our organization, when they assessed their values, a lot of individuals decided it was best to retire. We had so much history within the organization, we didn’t see a lot of turnaround, and so we didn’t realize that we didn’t have a lot of systems in place. They left with all of their knowledge. And they left the rest of us trying to figure out how to do a job without having the process and procedures in place. So for us, it’s basically a wealth of knowledge that we’re losing as an organization.

Cameron: I hear what Bettina said. I had pain from the loss of all of this historic knowledge and legacy employees. But honestly, take it with you, leave, make more money and screw the company that didn’t pay you enough and didn’t treat you well enough while they were looting all the profits. I think it’s wonderful. I celebrate it. I truly cannot stress enough it’s the greatest thing that I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Dontavious: For me, before it got to the point where people were actually being furloughed, there were people who were quitting because they were afraid of getting sick. From my understanding of the Great Resignation, one factor is just fear and concern about how companies are handling the coronavirus: What is the company going to do to try and keep us safe? How are they going to make sure that the facilities are cleaned, and things like that?

Margie Omero: How many people here have felt like they were thinking about their returning-to-work plan through the lens of, is it safe for me to go back to work right now? How many people said that that was a concern for them?

[Six participants raise their hands.]

Margie Omero: Brittney, why don’t you tell us a bit more?

Brittney: I ended up pregnant very early in the pandemic. So I spent the majority of my pregnancy at work in a place where a lot of the people, they didn’t want to wear masks, they didn’t want to follow protocols. We did end up putting dividers in between our desks. And a lot of the older people retired, so it kind of cut down the amount of people we had in the office. But it just really scared me for a while. I was able to convince them to let me work from home toward the back end of our pregnancy, but once it came time for me to come back after my maternity leave in March of ’21, there was no, OK, well, you can work from home to try to keep you and the baby — I have a newborn child in my house. I have a 7-year-old, 6-year-old at the time. And there was no understanding and no concern for the fact that I really was trying to look out for myself and my children. It was just, “No, you need to be here.” If I felt like I had a safety net, I guarantee you, I would have left my job, because it felt so inconsiderate. They didn’t really care about me as a person. They just needed my body there, so that way the work could get done.

What Your Younger Employees Are Really Thinking

Margie Omero: What does the phrase “work-life balance” mean for folks?

Cameron: I mean, when I hear it, I just think of corporate jargon nonsense. It doesn’t really mean all that much.

Tina: I think that work-life balance is something that I’ve been striving to attain. Once I had my second child, it became, for me, even more off balance. And I was trying to get back and to make it even remotely balanced. But I feel like I’m not there yet.

Margie Omero: And how do you know it’s not balanced?

Tina: It’s this sense of guilt that I feel sometimes if I’m not doing something with my little baby, or even my older daughter. I think if there’s any time that I just want to kind of relax, or if I’m working from home and I’m like, hey, I’m in a meeting, I can’t, then I just feel that sense of guilt sometimes.

Adrian J. Rivera: You said you’re striving to attain work-life balance, Tina. Do you think it’s possible to achieve that balance?

Tina: I do think that it’s possible. I feel that I’ve listened to others, even in conferences or motivational speaking sometimes, where they’re like, it is attainable, you can do this, and giving different tips and things, so I do think that it is attainable.

Adrian J. Rivera: Show of hands, how many of you say, I think work-life balance is attainable?

[All participants raise their hands.]

Margie Omero: How many people say that their work environment is casual?

[Eight people raise their hands.]

Cameron: Oh, my workplace is super casual, like mind-blowing casual. It’s actually been a bit of a really rough adjustment for me in my new role. I worked for a company that serviced Fortune 50 companies and worked with really big name companies. And we were very formal, or much more formal. And now, I work for a much smaller organization where project managers will join customer calls wearing tank tops. I once had a project manager join from vacation in a bikini top. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I was just in absolute disbelief.

Tina: Zoom calls were very new to me, but I would never speak to a client in a bikini top — ever.

Margie Omero: What kind of relationships do you want with your work colleagues? Do you want to be friends with them? Do you want to talk about your lives outside the office?

Alexa: I was definitely a lot more open at my last job. And I learned the hard way that that was kind of my downfall at some points. So I’ve definitely been a little more reserved at my current job, and just maintained a more professional image, still being friendly, still sharing about my life, but kind of picking and choosing what exactly I want to share with my co-workers.

Adrian J. Rivera: Alexa, it sounds like you’re talking about boundaries. And so I’m curious, boundaries that people have set for themselves in terms of how personal you can be with your colleagues?

Brittney: I do not do social media with people that I work with. You don’t need to see what my mom ate for breakfast. And then I go into the office, and you’re like, your mom’s omelet looked delicious. No.

Emily: No social media attachments. I do think it’s OK to talk about what you’re going to do on the weekend or more generically. But if there’s something personal going on, or a problem that my family is having or something, health reasons or health concerns, I don’t talk about any of that.

Adrian J. Rivera: How do people feel about physical contact in the office? Shaking hands, hugs, a pat on the back?

Dontavious: There’s a pandemic out here. It’s kind of hands off. That’s fine with me, too, because it’s not necessary to touch people.

Ryan: I’ve definitely noticed a pretty significant drop-off, even with people that I’m closer with, with shaking hands. Like my boss and I are very close. We meet in person frequently. We play golf together. No virus-related concerns, but we don’t shake each other’s hand. And I think that’s because I started during Covid, during the pandemic. With my old boss, I’d shake his hand all the time, but that was prepandemic. I am kind of indifferent to it. I’m not going to force a handshake on somebody that doesn’t want one. But there’s definitely some kind of gray area awkwardness that I still feel.

Adam: For a while, I was famous for the Disney wave, you know? Or that humility — like meeting somebody for the first time, that little head bow or that head nod or making yourself smaller in somebody new’s presence or something like that. I’ve noticed a lot more of those nonverbal gestures.

Brittney: I was never big on touching before the pandemic. One of the few good things to come about from this was the six feet of distance, honestly. I’m not against the handshake. But I work in a smaller place where we have a lot of vendor representatives that come through. And this is probably their fourth stop of the day. And I just don’t trust everybody to take those precautions, so I would rather not. We can find ways, like you said, the bow, the wave.

Adrian J. Rivera: Great. How important to you is it that your company or that your workplace shares the same political values as you?

Dontavious: So I don’t care if my company has the same views as I do. The biggest thing — and it doesn’t matter what side of the fence it’s on — the biggest thing is just respect. Don’t be mean. Don’t be disrespectful to any person from any background. The biggest thing for me is just treating everybody with respect, regardless of whatever it is that they believe in, so.

Cameron: I don’t think that my employer needs to share my exact political views, and I don’t use my personal political views as kind of a barometer of what employers I will and won’t work for.

Margie Omero: To what extent are you researching what your company or a potential company is doing on politics?

Brittney: I’m not looking into it, especially because I tend to end up working for very large companies. And the deeper you dive into it, the worse it’s going to be. So I would prefer to not know. If I find out and it’s something that is directly in opposition to me and what I feel is right and wrong strongly, I probably couldn’t. But I’m not going to go searching for it.

Margie Omero: OK. Vikas, then we’ll go back to Adrian.

Vikas: I like to look at the mission statement of the company. I like to go on their website and look through things of that nature. I also think that politics shouldn’t be talked about in the workplace, because it can kind of alienate people.

Margie Omero: Have you felt that politics has an impact on how you’ve been treated at work?

Brittney: Honestly, I live in a Southern state, I’m in a red state, and I am the only person of color out of about 45 people in my office. There was a point in time throughout this pandemic where conversations have come up regarding this president or this protest. And every time, I have to excuse myself, because the comments that I hear coming from my co-workers definitely makes me look at quite a few of them differently. And it’s just — I don’t consider it to be completely uncomfortable, because I know this is, living where I live, this is a possibility that I’m going to face just about anywhere I go. But at the same time, it also makes me know there’s just certain people — I didn’t need to know that about you. I didn’t need to know that was how you operated in your personal life. And it really does make you question the people that you spend so much of your time with.

Margie Omero: What would you say are the top qualities of a good boss, a good manager?

Alexa: I would say a manager who listens, who instills a lot of trust in me so that I can do my job well, that gives me the tools necessary to succeed in my role, that’s flexible if I’m having an issue, either in the workplace or out of the workplace, that I can know that I’m not going to be micromanaged, or that I can just have flexibility with hours if needed. And someone who definitely supports my career path, regardless of whether they think I’m going to be working directly under them in the next five to 10 years. Someone who looks out for my best interest and sees potential in me and kind of steers me on the path that I want to go, instead of just managing me for their sake and for the position that I’m currently in.

Niccolina: I obtained this job a little over a year ago. And this is someone who took me in knowing that I had very little knowledge in the field that I am in. And he took the time to walk me through everything. He built up my confidence. He would explain everything. Here’s what I think you’re doing great. Here’s a thing that could have some work on. But nothing’s an issue. He’s never gotten mad. He’s never fully blamed me. And he’s always just appreciated. And he kind of boosts my ego. He lifts me up. And he just totally has all my respect. It’s been great working with him.

Adrian J. Rivera: Raise your hand if you agree: I am comfortable speaking my mind in the office, including openly disagreeing with management.

[Seven participants raise their hands.]

Adrian J. Rivera: What would you say to your managers if you could give them some feedback on how they were doing?

Dontavious: Don’t be afraid to criticize. The business that I’m in, we have to provide — professionally, of course — criticism for a performance to be better. And I know some managers that are afraid to do that.

Adrian J. Rivera: Why do you think they’re afraid?

Dontavious: Because they don’t want to hurt feelings. You can still provide the feedback that’s necessary without hurting feelings. It’s developmental, and that’s what we’re here for.

Tina: I’m getting a, “good job, you’re doing great,” from management. But I’m not getting anything else. I know that I’m not perfect. But I’m not getting any criticism or, “We’d like you to be doing this better or that better.” And we need that as well. You’re not going to hurt my feelings by telling me you’d like me to go in this direction or that direction.

Alexa: I’m definitely valued by my direct manager. But I feel like upper management just uses people at the bottom of the food chain as people who are going to get work done and bring the company profitability. Prior to the pandemic, I think employers thought that employees were expendable and worked for their benefit. And now with the Great Resignation, I feel like it’s kind of turned the tables. Employees have a lot of power. And so I think employers need to be able to show employees that they do care and value them, and that they’re treated well, they’re paid well, and they’re given an overall good environment to grow in.

Adrian J. Rivera is an editorial assistant in Times Opinion. Patrick Healy is the deputy Opinion editor.

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