Why Millennials Have Trouble Advancing


The traditional slow-and-steady climb up the corporate ladder would probably be a thing of the past if Millennials –who tend to jump from job-to-job—had their way.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics their average tenure at a job is a little more than three years and on surveys they say a good life involves balancing personal and work demands.

Perhaps because they expect a less predictable career progression, Millennials also tend to feel the traditional corporate hierarchy doesn’t apply to them. A survey from Bentley University in Massachusetts found that Millennials are ambitious but success, for them, doesn’t necessarily mean climbing a corporate ladder. Two-thirds said they are interested in starting their own business. A recent study from Gen Y research and consulting firm Millennia Branding, and The Career Network found that 45% of companies experience high turnover among Millennials–twice the rate of Boomers–and nearly 30 percent of Millennials leave a job because their career goals aren’t aligned with the company’s.

That misalignment may come from the belief that companies are becoming (or have already become) flatter, with more importance placed on teams and teamwork. New research from Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, shows it’s time for a reality check. Millennials, according to Pfeffer, will probably have to do the usual corporate climbing if they want to get to the C Suite.

Pfeffer says that although some organizations are getting flatter, the way most companies operate today is with hierarchical power structures, and that has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Hierarchies have staying power, he says, because they work, and the beliefs and behaviors that go along with a traditional, top-down structure are linked to survival advantages in the workplace. “Relationships with bosses still matter for people’s job tenure and opportunities, as do networking skills,” he wrote.

The best way to both survive and advance on the job is still a steady climb up the organizational chart.

Make a plan. Learn the organizational chart of your company and figure out where you want to get and the different qualifications you’ll need, as well as the positions you’ll need to inhabit, to there.

Know your company. Make sure you really understand the company’s values and its goals overall, and beneath that, know your boss’ objectives and goals, so you can offer help in a way that helps him or her achieve them.

Worker harder and smarter. Long hours may look good on the surface, but you really need to do great work as efficiently as possible, because that will give you the time to volunteer for high-visibility projects under high-profile managers.

Become an expert and a resource. Follow your industry’s leaders (read their published articles, blogs and tweets); attend industry conferences and industry association events.

Network. It’s probably the most frequently given advice, but that’s because it works. Make time to meet with others in your company to better understand the organization and their roles within it and meet with those in your industry but outside your company to learn how they achieved success. Growing your professional network gives you the opportunity to find valuable mentors, and you will need to lean on that network when you’re looking for your next position.

Whether you resent them or not, hierarchies fulfill a deep-seated need most of us have for order and security. In fact, writes Pfeffer, that may be why people will continue to work for very difficult bosses—we associate ourselves with individuals that are the most likely to win fights for survival, even if we don’t like them very much. And as ambitious younger employees advance they actually reinforce the traditional power structure, rather than flattening it. Not all Millennials of course, jump from job-to-job or eschew the corporate ladder. That survey from Bentley University found that 16% of Millennials think they will likely stay with their present employer for the rest of their career.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.