It was the dream. During my time working for a nonprofit organization that regularly collaborated with federal government employees, the benefits of working for government weren’t just a regular topic of conversation — they were a foregone conclusion. Everyone agreed that securing and keeping a government job, and all the trappings that came with it, was hitting the career jackpot.
As a 20-something back then, I was on the cusp of generational change. That same age group is now helping to dull some of the luster of government’s reputation as an excellent employer. In a recent survey conducted by Next100 and GenForward, just 18% of adults between the ages of 18 and 36 reported any interest in working for local government.
So why aren’t younger generations buying into the dream anymore?
They Don’t Feel Represented by Government
Young people don’t see their own demographics reflected in elected officials or government workers. The racial and ethnic makeup of Generation Z is significantly more diverse than previous generations. In 1969, 82% of seven- to 22-year-olds were non-Hispanic white. That number has since dropped dramatically — to 61% in 2003 and just 52% in 2019. According to Washington D.C.-based think tank, the Pew Research Center: “One in four Gen Zers are Hispanic, 14% are Black, 6% are Asian, and 5% are some other race or two or more races.”
Many Millennials and Gen Zers see government as a collection of older white males who enjoy a level of financial privilege that younger generations view as unrelatable — or even unattainable. This perceived lack of empathy makes it difficult for many younger people to trust that their elected officials can have a basic understanding of their daily lives, let alone have their best interests at heart.
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Younger Generations Don’t Trust Government
Another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center suggested that only 25% of young people trust government at all. Of course, trust is a complex concept but a glance at recent history can reveal some reasons.
For starters, most Millennials have formative memories of watching the Twin Towers collapse on September 11, 2001, and grew up far too young to truly understand the Iraq War. This same generation entered the workforce during or shortly after the financial crisis of 2008 and was forced to endure the foreboding truth that the American Dream they had been promised all their lives was no longer attainable.
Millennials and Gen Zers alike watched the aggression, divisiveness, and vitriol of the 2016 Presidential election play out on their smartphones. And the dawn of a new decade has brought millions of deaths at the hands of police officers, gun-toting civilians, and the global pandemic. Virtually every young person has an opinion on how government has handled these and other recent issues — and few are positive.
Government Can’t Compete With Other Employers
While there are strong emotional sentiments behind government’s inability to attract younger workers, the issue can also be boiled down to dollars and cents.
Big-tech companies such as Apple and Google have developed a reputation for recruiting young talent, drawn by the promise of excellent benefits, trendy perks, flexible schedules, the status of working for a major brand, and — perhaps most importantly — competitive pay. Government agencies struggle to compete with these premium offerings, and some are notorious for slow salary growth and limited earning potential.
Government work also lacks big tech’s reputation for excitement and innovation, partially because many agencies’ closed-lip media policies make it nearly impossible to share their truly fascinating projects. For those seeking the prestige of high-profile work without the pressure of being an elected official, government may not be an attractive option.
Government Has an Image Problem
Media depictions of government work rarely paint a flattering picture. Government employee characters in political dramas are overworked and exhausted, while municipal and bureaucratic roles are portrayed as menial and dull. One can’t help but wonder whether the inherent silliness of the popular mockumentary “Parks & Rec” has made it difficult for some to take government work seriously.
Government’s lackluster recruitment capabilities were also exacerbated by the pandemic and the Great Resignation. Many companies responded to the labor shortage by offering higher wages and attractive perks, such as flexible schedules and work-from-home policies. But government agencies don’t seem to be taking a similarly proactive approach.
The public sector is already low on workers but according to the MissionSquare Research Institute, over half of all state and local government workers are thinking about leaving their jobs.
Key Takeaways for the Private Sector
While some of government’s recruitment challenges are unique, there are a few strategies that both business and government leaders may consider adopting to avoid similar struggles down the road.
- Diversity matters. Many young people simply won’t work for companies that don’t prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion — and they can sniff out performative tactics immediately. These young workers are seeking employers who are executing meaningful strategies to achieve greater representation.
- Flexibility is expected. Trend reports show that flexible and generous leave time, comprehensive health care (including mental-health support), and flexible work schedules are extremely important to employees of all ages.
- Proactive recruiting. According to the Next100/GenForward survey, less than 40% of young people even know how to get a government job. Passive recruitment strategies risk missing out on excellent candidates.
- Transparency builds trust. According to the global expenses app ExpenseOnDemand: “Two-thirds (64%) of Millennials believe complete transparency is the most desirable trait from employers.”
Every year, Millennials and Gen Zers take over a greater percentage of the workforce. As the employment landscape continues to evolve, there is ample opportunity to explore new strategies to attract and retain young talent. Just by listening and responding to these younger generations, employers — public or private — can reimagine a new dream that capitalizes on their unique gifts and strengths, as well as their desire for meaningful work and a more equitable world.