Generational divides frustrate older workforce, but discourage millennials even more

Many sources in this story requested partial anonymity in order to speak more candidly about their agencies and experiences, or because they did not have permission to speak on the record to the press.

Tony, a middle-aged federal IT specialist, has worked closely with a young colleague for the past five years. He has nothing but praise for his colleague, who climbed the promotional ladder and worked her way up from intern to administrative assistant to project manager.

But despite her advancements, Tony, who requested his last name not be used,  said his colleague’s ideas are often overlooked by their agency’s top management.

“We’ve tried this before in different meetings,” he told Federal News Radio as part of a special report, What Millennials Really Want from Federal Service. “She’ll make a suggestion or make a statement, and she’ll basically be ignored or told, ‘Oh OK, we’ll take that into consideration.’ I can make the same suggestion and it’s, ‘Oh really? You think that?’ If I say it, it has to have value.”

A Federal News Radio survey found 63 percent of federal employees under the age of 35 said they are perceived differently in the workplace because of their age. Roughly 22 percent said they’re not sure.

Much of the survey results described a sense of tension between an older generation of federal employees — many who have decades of institutional knowledge after 20-30-year careers in government — and the younger generation, many of whom have a few years of experience but say they have the skills and desire to move up quickly.

“The younger folks in my office are not interested in doing actual work,” one survey respondent in his early 60s wrote. “They enjoy chatting and playing with their phones for most of the day.”

But many young federal employees under 35 took issue with those observations.

“I continually get talked down to because of my age, regardless of my experience,” another survey respondent in his early 20s wrote. “People assume that because I fit in the category created of ‘millennial,’ that I’m lazy, immature and unintelligent, when in fact I’ve worked very hard to prove the opposite of all of these factors. My relative newness to the government may show I’m a little ‘green,’ but I have valuable and insightful things to add to my agency because of my supposed outsider status.”

For Tony, his experience working with his young colleague has led him to realize the dysfunction within his own agency.

“There are limitations as to how much she can do and what kinds of things she can do, again despite all her accolades, because of her GS grade,” Tony said. “As a result, there are others within her division that are higher grade or have more seniority who have less competence, less capability to do their job, but they get cast with more.”

Tony said his colleague often sits around with nothing to do because supervisors at his agency give her tasks based on the work of other project managers, who often take two weeks to finish a job. She, on the other hand, can finish a project in a couple days. The finished product is more thoroughly considered and researched, Tony said.

His colleague will ask for more work, but it never comes, he added.

PJ Rivera, 30, a former policy analyst and human capital program manager at the Health and Human Services Department, acknowledged his mindset when he first entered the federal workforce out of college may not have been the most appealing, particularly to his new colleagues like Debbie, who spent decades as a secretary within his office. She entered HHS as a GS-2 and retired as a GS-13, Rivera said.

“I remember walking in and I, as a millennial, was just like, ‘Where’s my desk, where’s my phone, this is my first job, what programs do I get to manage and lead?'” Rivera said. “There’s just a sense [that] I had worked really hard, I had gotten a lot of student loan debt, I’d gone through this kind of really rough experience and I expect certain things, whereas Debbie’s like, ‘All right, be quiet, go in the corner, you need to read all the correspondence [and] start summarizing them.'”

But Rivera said he quickly learned what he was missing, and he made an effort to scoop up every bit of information he could from his supervisors and older colleagues. He said the knowledge he gathered from his coworkers set him apart when he moved to Deloitte.

Now a senior manager there, Rivera said he sees a similar mindset among the millennials he supervises that he once had, and it’s prompted him to rethink his management style.

“It’s forced me to even think about how do I onboard my team members now, how am I engaging them? What does it look like, having obviously very recently identified with a lot of their profiles,” Rivera said. “It’s even getting me to step back and figure out this hybrid I need to achieve, between balancing Gen Xs, millennials but also connecting my experience and learning from it in a meaningful way, which has been a struggle.”

But that kind of balance is still missing at some agencies.

After little recognition and no bump in GS grade, Tony said his colleague is fed up. She plans to wait until July before seriously considering a new job at another agency or outside government altogether.

“I used to advise her, be patient, things will come,” Tony said. “But … I realized that’s really not the solution. You can’t be patient in this situation. I’ve told her on multiple occasions, be more forceful, be more direct. When you communicate to your superiors, [say] ‘Look, I don’t have enough to do, you’re not giving me enough, you’re not valuing me’.”

Government needs to collaborate differently

For Rivera, the influx of new talent to federal agencies opens the doors to a new human capital mindset, one that focuses less on institutional knowledge and more on a “talent ecosystem.”

“We have to rethink about the way [we], as government, collaborate,” he said. “We can’t hold people in their seats and we can’t expect people remaining there present forever to be the keepers of the knowledge and the keepers of institutional memory. But it begs the question of how do we collaborate and organize differently?”

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Alex Schlueter, a natural resource specialist and Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Forest Service, is the youngest in an office of four people. He said he enjoys when he has a chance to work with older colleague  because it gives him an opportunity to learn some of that institutional knowledge that he lacks. And Schlueter said he wants to one day become a manager at the agency.

“He was an older generation than me, about the age of my father,” Schlueter said of a mentor. “It was fun sitting next to him and learning about the history of wilderness in our agency because that’s what we’re working on. Basically, I learned a lot from him about that, and he learned a lot from me about everyday computer things.”

Tony sees a need to collaborate and innovate differently as well. But he doesn’t foresee a future where his agency’s leaders cater to the way the younger generation craves and seeks information.

“Innovation, sure, we talk to that point all the time,” he said. “But when you really have somebody who can innovate, who can think out of the box, I think it really scares [agency leaders]. They can’t handle [it]. They don’t think that the older management and the more established management or the employee can handle the way the millennial thinks.”

Kevin, 27, has had a few  internships at different agencies and now works for a federal contractor. He said he and some of his friends are often defeated by how difficult they find it to break through the status quo and make change once they get to government.

“My generation wants to help, and we get frustrated when it turns out to be a lot harder than we thought or seemingly needless frustrations are in the way,” said Kevin, who requested his last name not be used. “I don’t know if that’s the case for every young generation in history, but it seems especially sharp now.”

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