Oh, millennials! What will you do next? How will we ever understand you? You are "emotional" about buying coffee, yet "bored with life." You love talking about polyamory, yet refuse to have sex with one another. You have become the most numerous generation in America, and companies are bending over backward to hire you, to sell to you, to catch your eye for just a fraction of a second before you resume scrolling mindlessly through the Instagram feed of someone you neither know nor like. How do you want to work and live__? Everyone wants to know.
Fortunately, a new Gallup report, "How Millennials Want to Work and Live," should shed light on that question. There have been other reports and surveys like this before, and there will undoubtedly be more in the future, but for the moment, let us bask in the comforting glow of yet another poll purporting to tell us something new about millennials. And that new thing is: Millennials are bored at work.
There are other findings, including that millennials are less likely to be religious and more likely to get news from the internet, but everyone already knew that. The big takeaway is that 55 percent of millennials are "not engaged at work," with 16 percent being "actively disengaged," that presumably being the technical survey term for the kind of feeling you have where you just want to walk away from the cash register out into the street and see what happens.
These numbers aren't crazy different from those of other generations—more Gen Xers and baby boomers are actively disengaged from their jobs—but millennials have the lead when it comes to non-engagement at work. That's a big deal because for many millennials, those crazy kids, "work must have meaning. They want to work for organizations with a mission and purpose," according to the report's introduction. Fewer millennials tend to belong to churches or other religious bodies. We are less likely to marry young and burrow ourselves into family life, and we are even wary of declaring allegiance to a political party. Maybe it's because we've moved away from these traditional institutions that we are willing to give ourselves over to our jobs. Or maybe it's that a single man or woman must be in want of something that makes them feel like they are bettering the world. The world, after all, is pretty fucked, and it stands to reason that those who are going to inherit it want to attempt to fix it.
The report is mostly meant as a guide for employers looking to attract and retain millennials, who presumably are desirable because of their tech savvy, their supple young minds, and their small hands that can be used to help unjam machinery. Gallup's recommendations are that workplaces adapt their cultures to cater to millennials and their values, meaning that bosses should focus on clarifying the purpose of the work being done, give their young employees constant feedback, and—this is actually a refreshing suggestion—stop handing out infantilizing perks like pingpong tables in favor of making sure people are happy about their work.
But seen from the perspective of a millennial who is at work right now and pretty fucking disengaged, the picture is different. It's maybe nice in a way to know that it's not just you who toggles from Facebook to job listings to random Vines for hours on end, that there are millions of people like you who are feeling their youth slip away from them slowly to the soundtrack of a humming air conditioner. It's less nice to know that around 50 percent of Gen Xers and boomers are also not engaged, that your boredom is not actually just a symptom of a childish angst you'll grow out of. This is just the way the world is. Office Space is 17 years old, but if you updated the software and slang the characters used, that black, ennui-tinged workplace comedy could have come out yesterday. Jobs are grinding, they are dull, they are absurd, and they always have been, ever since some Mesopotamian paid another Mesopotamian to watch his sheep for a while.
Gallup found that most millennials are looking for, or at least open to, new job opportunities—and it's easy to see why. If you're young and unhappy, you imagine a better gig over the next hill that will make you a fulfilled, fresh, new person with a wardrobe of clothes that fit and a group of friends you universally like and admire. Instead of changing themselves, in other words, a lot of people think they can solve their problems by changing jobs. "For millennials, a job is no longer just a job—it's their life as well," writes Gallup CEO Jim Clifton in his intro to the report.
Maybe that's kinda the problem? A job isn't a life, after all—when millennials go home from work, engaged or not, they're still millennials, with all the problems that come from being young and wanting things. It's actually pretty OK to be disengaged from your job, to smirk at its illogic rather than being crushed by it. That's the whole idea behind the term day job, something that you can do in order to keep yourself under a roof without it defining you. That's not a bad thing! Not all jobs have a purpose, not all jobs should demand 100 percent of our energies. The sooner we all recognize that, the better.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.