Millennial world image

Flexible millennials bend for the right contingent work

Jeremy Market Trends

The numbers don't lie: More millennials are abandoning the corporate ladder and opting for entrepreneurship.

A recent survey of millennials from Bentley University found only 13 percent of respondents said "climbing the corporate ladder" was a career goal, while 67 percent said their primary goal was starting their own business.

This demographic outlook speaks to the flexibility millennials crave, one of many factors driving the shift toward a contingent workforce today and beyond.

Long company tenure losing its luster
Unlike their baby boomer parents, who grew up expecting security from an employer-employee relationship (complete with comprehensive retirement benefits), millennials have grown up expecting to make their own career fate.

Much of this can be attributed to millennials coming of age in the shadow of the Great Recession, when it became abundantly clear that long-term job security can be fleeting.

"Millennials don't expect long-term job security."

Fred Tuffile, director of Bentley University's Entrepreneurial Studies program, said millennials are eager to make their own pathways because they suspect the traditional ones may lead nowhere.

"Millennials see chaos, distrust of management, breaking of contracts and bad news associated with business," Tuffile said. "They've watched their relatives get fired and their peers sit in cubicles and they think, 'There has to be a better way.'"

Meanwhile, with the modern world rapidly shifting the parameters of how workers can reach their employment goals, the very need for direct employment is starting to appear antiquated.

"Why be a direct employee when you can get the benefits without it?" asked Ted Elliott, CEO of Jobscience. "I can make more money being an independent contractor and offering flexibility to employers. And I can stay employed regardless of which company I work for. My fate is not tied to the employer. The advantages of becoming a free agent are becoming more apparent."

The appeal of independence
The number of people leaving the workforce permanently is exponentially increasing. This has led to industry experts forecasting an explosion in the contingent workforce over the next 20 years. However, even if age were not a driving force, it's likely the unique demands of a millennial workforce would lead to an increase in contingent employment.

While a 2014 Oxford Economics survey of millennials and non-millennials found remarkably few differences in what they want from their careers, the differences are in the definitions of these criteria: the expectations of how millennials will achieve their goals, what constitutes meaningful work and what it means to balance work and home life.

Security from an employer isn't expected to the degree it once was by their parents' generation, but that doesn't change the fact that the hierarchy of needs is still built from that base. The difference is that when millennials recognize security isn't coming from a particular company, they demonstrate a high agility in turning to their skill sets and building a more creative passport to income security.

Furthermore, even when security is offered, it's not always accepted. Whether it be the chance to work from home or take extended leave, millennials are much more likely than their forebears to opt for a contingent work lifestyle if the standard 9-to-5 model doesn't fit their hunger for flexibility.

Millennials value contingent work for different reasonsMillennials value contingent work for different reasons.

Not all workers are equal
Another characteristic of the millennial generation is a great divide between the educated and the uneducated, and, among the educated, the technically savvy and the generalist. The big winners, of course, are the educated who are also technically savvy, be they social media mavens, engineers, business analysts, supply chain experts or app architects.

Some of these millennials will eventually find themselves lured into the very corporate life that once sent them running; others will truly be those entrepreneurs with the marketplace at their feet.

Still others, who may have become discouraged in their entrepreneurial efforts or who simply want more time off, project variety and controllable work locations, will continue to seek contingent work. The same goes for workers who make a generous work-life balance their No. 1 priority.

"As older workers retire, millennials can fill in the gaps."

Finally, there are the generalists and the less educated, who find themselves unable to find significant full-time work and lack the prerequisites for entrepreneurship. These millennials, if reliable and serious about skill-building, may be bundles of potential for the right employers. Through contingent work, they can work their way up to full-time employment or simply to greater challenges as members of the flexible workforce.

In short, while the millennial workforce comes in all shapes and sizes, the majority can be useful to employers who are in desperate need of skilled workers. That need will only grow as older workers retire, leaving staffing agencies in the prime spot to bridge the gap between millennials and the companies ready to hire them.

Combining technology with humanity
While the contingent work trend wasn't started by millennials, this enormous group, who (globally) will soon overtake the baby boomers in number, will be a key driver of its explosion over the coming decades.

Staffing agencies that recognize the many different motivations millennials have for seeking contingent work, and respond sensitively to their needs for feedback, inclusion and appreciation, will come out the winners.

Of course, having the right tools in place to market to millennials, treating each candidate as the customer, as it were, is crucial to accomplishing this.