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When the Best and Brightest Say No to Government

What happens if talented millennials don’t want to work in the bureaucracy?

Much has been written about the views of the millennial generation toward public service:  They don’t seem to mind big government in theory, but they’re not particularly enthralled by the idea of careers in federal agencies.

To the extent millennials are disenchanted with the way government operates, they’re a lot like other Americans: repulsed by the dysfunctional political system at the national level. Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox explore this phenomenon in their new book Running From Office: Why Young Americans are Turned Off to Politics.  

In an interview with Lawless published this week, Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein asked her whether this attitude extended into millennials’ view of government employment:

EK: Something your data doesn’t really go into is whether these attitudes toward elected political positions bleed over into attitudes toward working for government agencies. That’s a place where I really do worry about the best candidates simply steering clear of government work — because we really do need good people in state transportation agencies and administering Medicare. And that’s true even if, and maybe especially if, Congress is collapsing into gridlock and dysfunction.

JL: What emerged in the survey and the interviews was that these kids thought Washington was dysfunctional — and I’m not sure they made any kind of distinction between the administration and Congress and people working in the agencies. It was just that the city puts out a bad vibe, and if you want to change the world, this is not how you go about it.

There’s another problem, too: Suppose you’re a millennial who breaks through the cynicism and wants to challenge the notion that the system is dysfunctional. In all likelihood, you’ll immediately encounter a byzantine hiring system and a rule-bound operating structure that rewards longevity over creativity and initiative.

Right now, according to the Office of Personnel Management, the median amount of time millennials spend in their federal jobs is less than four years, and barely a third say they’re happy with advancement opportunities.  

Federal officials are making some strides to address these issues, especially at cutting-edge, digitally oriented organizations. But they’re having to literally “hack the bureaucracy” to do so. Whether they can build lasting organizations that have a steady influx of talent -- and whether that model can be extended to agencies generally -- remains very much an open question.

It’s important to remember that generational generalizations are a tricky business. Not all millennials are the same. There will always be people who want to do the compelling, mission-oriented work of government -- and who like the steady paycheck. But if systems don’t change, they’re likely to be a self-selected group of people who aren’t bothered by having to jump through bureaucratic hoops and potentially not see the results of their efforts for years. Is that who we want in charge of tomorrow’s government?

Photo: Flickr user Beverly & Pack