Opinion | What Your Younger Employees Are Really Thinking

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By Adrian J. Rivera and Patrick Healy

Mr. Rivera is an editorial assistant in Times Opinion. Mr. Healy is the deputy Opinion editor.

They have political views but aren’t interested in talking politics at the office. Some like working from home and others prefer the office, but most agree that they communicate better with colleagues when at the office. They want bosses who give constructive criticism, but some think their bosses are scared of them. “They don’t want to hurt feelings,” a 30-year-old who works in auto sales said. Added a 33-year-old office manager, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings by telling me you’d like me to go in this direction or that direction.”

Most of all, they have power, perhaps more than any previous generation their age — and they know it.

In the latest Times Opinion focus group, 12 millennial Americans — ages 26 to 33 — discussed how the pandemic had upended and shaped their young careers, not all of it bad. Several said they quickly realized what they valued most in life when they found themselves working from home. In some cases, instead of looking after their own families or health or finding professional satisfaction, they worked long hours with unsupportive managers or faced the expectation of returning to the office prematurely. If earlier generations focused on paying their dues and putting up with tough treatment at work, some of the 12 focus group participants reveled in trying their luck in what a 29-year-old auditor called “the open market” of better-paying and more-fulfilling jobs.

“Prior to the pandemic, I think employers thought that employees were expendable and worked for their benefit. And now with the Great Resignation, I feel like it’s kind of turned the tables,” said a 26-year-old credit analyst. “Employees have a lot of power. And so I think employers need to be able to show employees that they do care and value them.”

This is the ninth group in our series America in Focus, which seeks to hear and understand the views of cross-sections of Americans whose voices are often not heard in opinion journalism. We conducted the discussion with Margie Omero, who does similar work for political candidates, parties and special interest groups. (Times Opinion paid her for the work.) This transcript has been edited for length and clarity; an audio recording and video clips of the session are also included. Participants provided their biographical details.

Margie Omero: What word or short phrase would you use to describe your concerns about the country right now?

Ryan (29, white, auditor, New Jersey): Division.

Brittney (33, Black, customer service representative, Tennessee): It’s all a mess.

Cameron (32, white, customer success manager, California): Hopeless.

Adam (29, white, independent insurance agent, Indiana): A lot of uncertainty.

Bettina (33, Latino, property management, Arizona): Concerned for the next generation.

Margie Omero: Now fill in the blank: I feel blank about how things are going for me personally.

Patrick (32, white, business development analyst, Virginia): Anxious.

Bettina: Still fortunate.

Niccolina (30, white, paralegal, Ohio): Somewhat lucky.

Alexa (26, white, credit analyst, Texas): In the middle — not good or bad.

Brittney: Nervous.

Margie Omero: People seem to feel — not everybody — more positive about themselves than they feel about the country overall. Tell me a little bit about that, anybody.

Alexa: I feel fortunate because I know a lot of people have it worse than I do. I tend to get caught up in what’s going on in my life. I’ve been able to keep a job during Covid and be relatively healthy.

Brittney: That’s why I feel nervous, because I’ve made it through the pandemic fairly easily compared to a lot of people I know. But my situation is always teetering. It’s one bad bill, one health issue, and everything could just be gone.

Tina (33, white, office manager, Georgia): My family and I have gotten through the pandemic better than some people. But now the way the economy is going, with everything spiking and student loans potentially coming back, I’m nervous.

Margie Omero: Let’s shift gears a little. How about this fill-in-the-blank exercise: I feel blank about my job these days.

Bettina: Burned out.

Cameron: Bored.

Niccolina: Overworked.

Patrick: Slightly optimistic.

Dontavious (30, Black, auto sales lead, Georgia): Secure.

Alexa: Nervous.

Adam: Empowered.

Brittney: Frustrated.

Emily (white, 33, business analyst, Wisconsin): Happy.

Ryan: Comfortable.

Vikas (28, Asian, computer technician, New Jersey): Concerned.

Margie Omero: A mix of positive and negative. Adam, you picked “empowered.” Tell me about that.

Adam: Since the pandemic, we’ve brought about new ways of communicating with people. The work I’m in, I’m really relationship-driven. So it’s given us a lot of new ways to work with folks and to help folks out. The pandemic wasn’t a good thing, but it definitely brought about new ways of working with people.

Ryan: I said “comfortable.” I started off fully remote, but since we’ve gone back to the office, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the people that I’m working with and the people that I’m leading. And I’m also comfortable being in the office three days a week instead of five, which is, prepandemic, what we were doing.

Margie Omero: What about the folks who said that they felt burned out and frustrated? Bettina?

Bettina: We’re approaching returning to the office more or less full time. And within this transition, because we went through a hiring freeze, we have some shortages in some positions I oversee. So I have to directly cover or find coverage for those gaps.

Cameron: My word was “bored.” I’m just tired of sitting at home. I’m very bored with the Zoom calls. I’m very over the current situation. I’m comfortable. I’m very fine and good at my job. But I’m just tired of sitting here and doing it, honestly.

Margie Omero: Have your views toward your career and the kind of work that you do changed during the pandemic?

Alexa: Yeah. I made a career change and a relocation in August. During Covid, I realized that my former employer pushed me to burn out pretty quickly. I felt like my work was becoming my life. It was having a negative effect on my physical and my mental health, especially. I wanted to kind of step back and reprioritize what was important to me and my life, and just get to a place where I’m not dreading going to work every day — just wanting to actually live my life, and not wake up every day just to go to work.

Margie Omero: And how do you feel since you’ve made that change?

Alexa: So I know I used the word “nervous.” I only feel nervous because things have been going great. I’m thinking, everything’s too good to be true at my current job. There has to be a point where something bad happens, because I had it so bad at my last position.

Margie Omero: Other folks who have had a similar change in how they view their work or their career?

Dontavious: Working from home was very new to me. It wasn’t hard to get used to. Typically, I have to work on a computer all day, every day anyway. If I wasn’t at my desk in my room right now, I’d be at the desk in my office. A job is a job.

Niccolina: I did have a change of view, but it’s kind of the opposite of what everyone is saying. At my company in 2020, I was like, we can absolutely do this job working from home. There’s no reason for us to be in the office. Then I applied for this job back in February of 2021. And I was like, there’s absolutely no way I can do this job from home. I actually wanted to go into the office because it gave me a sense of normalcy. It gave me that separation of work and home. So everything kind of shifted in the midst of the pandemic, if I can even say that, because it’s still ongoing.

Margie Omero: Has anybody else had that experience of wanting to be back in the office?

Ryan: There’s a certain level of personal connection that you’re going to make and maintain a lot better if you are consistently going to the office, where you have that human touch, rather than just sitting on a computer all day and then going on with the rest of your day once you’ve done what you need to do. There’s no time for small talk on a Zoom call, unless it’s right before a meeting and we’re waiting for people to get into the room. For me, it’s something that I value. And it might not be revenue generating, but it’s definitely morale boosting in some way.

Margie Omero: Cameron, that sounds familiar to you?

Cameron: Absolutely. When I relocated last year, I was actively hoping to be able to get a job where I could go in person at least sometimes to meet my co-workers. And I was really unhappy in my previous role because of the remote nature of it. And that is explicitly the reason why I’m in the job that I’m in now, because they had the opportunity to work in office.

Margie Omero: I want to get a show of hands. How many people think that they feel more productive when they’re in the office?

[Six raise their hands.]

How many people feel more productive at home?

[Five participants raise their hands.]

Margie Omero: How many people feel that they have better communication with their colleagues when they’re in the office?

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