Optimism has a downside.
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Millennial career expectations continue to seem out of step with employment norms. Of the million millennial respondents in Gallup’s 2016 work engagement survey, 70% are disengaged at work. Another survey of a thousand 21- to 29-year-olds found that only 35% look forward to work each day.

Disengagement doesn’t just bore us; it hurts us. “People who aren’t engaged spend much more time experiencing emotions like worry, stress, and pain,” writes editor Gretchen Gavett for the Harvard Business Review. Engaged employees—“those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” according to Gallup—are more productive, more satisfied with their work and less likely to quit than disengaged employees.

We all want meaningful, exciting work. The biggest barrier may be our own expectations.

When expectation meets reality

Generation Y’s expectations are higher than any other generation’s ever were. According to developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, most millennials expect to find their ideal job right out of college. Unfortunately, there’s reality.

Millennials are on track to be poorer than our parents—for the first time since the Great Depression. One study from the Urban Institute found that 30-somethings’ net worth is 21% less than it was for thirty-somethings in 1983. Income aside, 70% of millennials said they haven’t made as much progress in their careers as they hoped. Psychologist and millennial researcher Jean Twenge describes millennials as consequently disappointed and frustrated in “a more circumscribed reality.”

When low wages, little appreciation and lots of effort replace our visions of fun, world-changing work, we subconsciously cope with cognitive dissonance.

Aesop’s Fables and cognitive dissonance

In Aesop’s Fables, a fox eyes some delicious, ripe grapes along a vine high in a tree. After much exertion, he realizes he can’t reach them and decides they’re sour anyway. We despise what we can’t get. Or, as the actual translation reads, we “lessen what [we] can’t come at.”

"Cognitive dissonance is a psychological reaction to two or more conflicting beliefs or realities."

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological reaction to two or more conflicting beliefs or realities. Millennials know we can set the world on fire and love our work. But post-college careers make this feel impossible. So, like the fox’s sour grapes, we say that companies aren’t tapping our talent (this is how Gallup explains their disengagement findings based on millennial responses) or any number of explanations. We decide the problem is our job. When the real world doesn’t live up to our ideal, we cope with, “Well, I didn’t want to be here anyway.”

So we stay, begrudgingly, or we job hop. But we know this isn’t working because millennials are job hopping ferociously and still aren’t engaged at work. Simon Sinek, of Start With Why, recently explained a typical exchange:

We sit down and they say, ‘I think I’m gonna quit.’

I’m like, ‘Why?’

They say, ‘I’m not having enough of an impact.’

‘You’ve been there eight months!’

 

Takeaway

The remedy to our disenchantment isn’t usually another job. Surely the 30% of engaged millennials aren’t engaged solely because their jobs are inherently meaningful. Work engagement isn’t a benefit or perk. It’s not like telecommuting or training, which employers can grant instantaneously. Engagement is an inside job.

Says Sinek, “What this young generation needs to learn is patience. Love … job fulfillment … joy … love of life … skillset—all of these things take time.”

When our jobs become fine wines, we’ll be waiting.

 

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Posted 11.10.2016 - 03:11 pm EST