The nation’s current crop of sixth-graders contains an unknowable number of budding public servants who a decade from now will sign on to work for the federal government.
The tail end of the so-called millennial generation (those born since 1982), these young professionals are apt to join agencies with reduced staffs and shrunken office space, but equipped with mobile technology and telecommuting options. And these young adults of 2024, if survey data are borne out, may be less inclined than their parents to commit to long-term federal service and more eager to see evidence of their impact on the mission.
For the federal government of 2014, the task of getting ready is at hand.
“The good news for the federal government is that from everything we’re learning about the millennials, they have a strong community ethic, and are not as hostile to government as some of their parents,” says Elaine Kamarck, a leader of the Clinton administration’s reinventing government initiative who is now at the Brookings Institution. “They really believe in service, many having served in the military, in marked contrast to their elders.” But the downside, Kamarck cautions, is that “the hierarchical format that still characterizes of a lot of government makes for a very frustrating situation for young people who want to achieve.”
In contrast with the older Generation X, millennials are a “closer fit” in government, agrees Neil Howe, an author and economist who has conducted surveys on generational issues as president of LifeCourse Associates. “They believe in big government by more than 20 points over baby boomers and early-wave Gen Xers,” he says. “They’re involved in community service and tend to be collaborative. They’re not oriented toward individual incentives and rewards,” as are many of the Gen Xers who came of age after the conservative Reagan years and who are not fans of bureaucracies.
Indeed, age patterns show that entrepreneurial Gen Xers (those born from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s) are underrepresented in the civil service, compared with millennials and baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964). “Millennials are not looking to be free agents,” Howe says. “They are more risk-averse, and do prefer a single employer taking care of them on a long-term basis.”
But the millennials will face a new form of competition: aging baby boomers who are hanging on to their jobs. “What we’re seeing has never happened before,” says David Baxter, a former CIA officer now with the futurist group Age Wave. “In the 1970s, because of the massive movement of 78 million young boomers into the workforce, the workforce size increased by 30 percent. But in the past decade it has increased by only 4 percent,” he says. “That has widespread implications for how companies and the public sector need to motivate workers.”
All of this is happening in a federal workforce that is shrinking. The current workforce of 2.1 million employees dropped by 80,000 over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is projected to lose 407,000 more by 2022. The decline, however, is not evenly distributed. The civilian workforce in the past decade has been growing at the Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments, a function of the post-9/11 security buildup and two overseas wars.
In preparing for millennial job applicants, the government is also conscious of demand for diversity. The number of minorities in the federal workforce grew by 86,719 from fiscal 2008 to 2012, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Minorities now make up 34 percent of the workforce. New hires of whites, by contrast, fell from 217,764 in 2008 to 154,239 in 2012, according to OPM.
To house this 21st century workforce at a time of tight budgets, agencies—led by the General Services Administration—are taking advantage of mobile technology to encourage telecommuting and reconfigure their offices to create group workspaces that facilitate collaboration. In some cases, that means “hoteling”—a setup in which employees who work mostly away from the office sign up to use desks temporarily as needed.
Since reporting began under the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, OPM says, the number of employees deemed eligible to telework increased by 49 percent; the number with telework agreements in place increased by 84 percent; and the number who actually teleworked in a September-to-September snapshot went up by 24 percent.
“Today’s workforce demands a workplace that enables mobility, and mobile collaborative technologies allow employees to get work done wherever is most effective,” says GSA spokeswoman Jackeline Stewart. “GSA’s approach to these already existing national workforce shifts allows the agency to help reduce the federal footprint.” Agencies who have reported savings using this approach include not only GSA, but the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The mobile approach ought to suit millennials to a T. At some agencies, “Every year brings a big influx of relatively younger, late-Gen Xers and millennials,” says Rick Holgate, president of the American Council for Technology and chief information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Combined with those coming into government from tech-savvy political campaigns, they bring new expectations and work styles,” as well as opportunities for innovation across the federal sector.
Agencies such as the relatively new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board are “more agile because they don’t have to overcome a lot of history or baggage,” Holgate adds. Large long-standing organizations such as the Defense Department “struggle because they are a little more ingrained in the way they do things and have a well-established organizational structure.”
It was Einstein who said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” observes Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “In the next three or four years, we could be looking at as much as 30 percent retirements, losing a lot of experience and good people. We have an opportunity to bring in a new generation who are maybe as smart, maybe not as experienced, but who are good with technology.”
MANAGING THE TRANSITION
Many government job descriptions are heavily weighted with language describing conditions of employment such as “must be a citizen, no felons, etc.,” Howe notes. But private companies tend to lead “with love-bomb introductions such as ‘we’re looking for a real special person like you,’ ” he says. “This appeals to the millennials, who were raised by boomer parents to regard themselves as special and deserving of attention.”
The problem with government, Howe adds, is that the first message it sends to a young worker is, “get a number and get in line. It’s uncaring and it’s unacceptable to millennials who think, ‘if they cared about me they’d send me little Post-it notes with smiley faces saying, ‘we love you.’ ”
Millennials are less willing than their immediate elders to “do stuff on spec . . . for little or no money at the bottom end of the totem pole,” Howe says. By and large they are eager to see the immediate fruits of their work, and their technological prowess may be key to the government’s progress. Today’s federal workforce “is the same size as in the mid-1960s, but has gotten rid of much of the clerical support and added knowledge workers and enhanced technology,” says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, who spent years at the Office of Personnel Management. This should allow agencies to improve operations and offer opportunities to those with new skill sets, he says.
A key difference between millennials and their parents, says Baxter, is that “boomers were the first generation to adopt technology as a tool, while young people view it not as a tool but as an extension of themselves.” This affects not only how one performs tasks but how one thinks, he says. Millennials “are the generation of rule-morphers. When they browse the Internet, they don’t set a plan and a hierarchy and follow it, they just plunge in and experiment,” he says. “The older generation was more respectful of authority and hierarchy and being linear.”
OPM is keeping an eye on these generational tendencies as it prepares for the workforce of tomorrow and manages programs such as campus recruiting, mentoring and succession planning. OPM’s Division of Employee Services, says Sydney Smith-Heimbrock, the agency’s deputy associate director for strategic workforce planning, has “generation-specific strategies.”
These include retention tools that factor in the desire of young people for “personal meaning and connection” to their work” while including social media in agency outreach. “Particularly for Gen X, dependent care is an important issue that might impact their willingness to accept and/or maintain employment,” OPM says in a planning document. “Gen Y [millennial] employees, in particular, are looking for more frequent feedback, recognition, and coaching . . . Gen Y employees are thought to desire collaborative and creative work environments in which they will be treated respectfully.”
THE GREATER GOOD
Younger government employees who aspire to leadership are already organized—the nonprofit group Young Government Leaders has 5,000 federal, state and local employees who network at an annual Next Generation of Government Summit.
The pace at which they rise may depend on changes in both culture and technology. Already, “there’s a huge change from the new generation that is used to doing things in real time, acting quickly, communicating instantly in any forum,” says Ferhan Hamid, chief executive officer of INADEV Corp. and former managing deputy comptroller for the city of Chicago. “The changes will continue to accelerate at a pace where the older generation in government may have a hard time keeping up.”
Agencies will have to become more agile in hiring, says Holgate, citing pockets of progress through such efforts as OPM’s Presidential Management Fellows program. “Today, it’s not doing a terrible job at attracting 20-somethings, but the challenge is they disappear after two or three years.”
Millennials could be put off, Howe says, by government’s culture “in which there’s no way for really talented people to rise quickly, so you just pay your dues and wait. There’s also the slow pace of work, which tends to have longer turnover times than in the private sector.”
On the other hand, Howe adds, so few Gen-Xers have joined government that “in 20 years the boomers will be gone and millennials will really set the tone. The vacuum will suck them up, and I suspect we’ll find many quickly rising to top leadership ranks—like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton writing the Federalist Papers while in their 30s.”
The government’s success in attracting the future’s top talent may depend on repairing the damaged public image of the typical federal employee. Kamarck sees the fed-bashing easing. “The latest Nielsen ratings show that the median age of Fox News viewers is 68. Given what we know about the Tea Party age, I don’t see this excessive hostility to government lasting a long time,” she says. “But the next administration, whether Democratic or Republican, will probably look for ways to reshape the federal workforce into a leaner operation.”
Palguta says there’s a bigger danger than anti-government sentiment “if we do still attract young people and don’t give them the right kind of work environment and leadership expectations and waste those resources.” Despite rhetoric denigrating public service, he notes, agencies have managed to attract lots of job applicants. “There is still an innate desire among young people to want to do something for the greater good, and government is the place to do that.”
Carper says the key will be providing good service to taxpayers. Surveys of government workers worldwide, he says, show that what they like most about their job is the idea that “what I’m doing is important and I’m making progress.”
In recent years, the legislative branch has impeded the ability of many in government to do their work, Carper adds. “It’s very demoralizing, and it creates barriers to hiring good people and keeping them,” he says. “People in my job need to be mindful that government folks work very hard without a lot of money, and without thanks or praise. That’s got to change.”
Bumps on the Information Highway
Setting aside the limits of any prediction into the future, agency planners are already aware of obstacles to their efforts to expand telecommuting, permit employees to use their own mobile devices and shrink real estate needs through shared desk space.
Though telework has boomed, the Office of Personnel Management’s 2013 telework study noted it must occur with some frequency to result in substantial achievements. Barriers to progress involving “information technology, budget constraints and security represent different sides of a common problem,” the study found. “In tight budget environments, equipping teleworkers with the necessary technology for telework and ensuring the security of data are critical challenges that must be addressed.”
Then there’s the problem of managerial resistance. Some agencies are more suited than others to “overcoming the managers’ attitude of ‘I need to see you to be comfortable you are working,’ or fear of losing the sense of community,” says Rick Holgate, president of the American Council for Technology and chief information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Agencies that operate in a highly classified environment make telecommuting harder to contemplate, but not impossible. And work at laboratories or at research facilities requiring access to instruments and equipment has to be on site.”
As private employers shift to a looser definition of the work week, Holgate adds, the government may have to adopt to “employee expectations of less checking in while doing a week’s worth of work” their own way while taking care of doctors’ appointments and child care. “In government, we don’t readily give flexibility within working hours; we take a more time-and-attendance approach,” he says.
But even in the private sector many balk at a totally virtual workforce. “If you look at high-tech leaders and read descriptions of their workforce, they want them together on a campus because they want them working all the time,” says Elaine Kamarck, a leader of the Clinton administration’s reinventing government initiative who is now at the Brookings Institution. “Google and Facebook have their nontraditional office arrangements with free food and basketball courts, which I can’t imagine in a government office.”
Also blurring the lines between work and personal life is a need to reconcile a bring-your-own-device approach to employee mobility with agencies’ need to protect data. “The public sector is significantly behind when it comes to use of mobile devices for internal purposes, the main reason being concern over security of data,” says Ferhan Hamid, chief executive officer of INADEV Corp.
The push toward mobility and on-site shared desks also triggers cultural resistance, particularly among older workers. “It used to be an indication you were not highly regarded if you didn’t have your own office,” says John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “But the prestige factor has worn away, and the younger folks have learned to adapt to the noise factor—they have headphones.”
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, says his staff is fine with desk-sharing and mobility. “But I’m not sure one size fits all,” he says. “What may work for us may work for agencies, but we should try different approaches.”