Millennials may be happier defining and creating their own work environment. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Millennials may be happier defining and creating their own work environments. (Photo via Shutterstock)

To explain how Millennials were really affected by the Great Recession, I need to tell you about a bank of windows on the southeast corner of 50th St. and 7th Ave. in Midtown Manhattan. I’d walk under it every day on my way to work in the Time & Life Building during the 2000s. And every day, there they’d be—a long line of twenty-something finance boys in starched Wall Street blues perched on the windowsill for their morning meeting. They’d chat and laugh, shoulders square against the glass, looking a lot more sure of themselves than the various starving artists, actor/waiters, and professional students our age that I knew.
And why not? They were Lehman guys. Till one bright fall day, they weren’t.
I think of those young men all the time, especially when someone who considers herself  very grown up suggests with a grin that Millennials like me have been cowed by the recession. We must want security above all else now, the argument goes, because we’ve seen how rare it is—and if getting it means suffering corporate serfdom, then so be it. It’s the not-so-secretly self-serving view of folks who’re hoping against hope that the enterprising spirit (aka sense of entitlement) that Millennials displayed as we began entering the workforce about a decade ago has been washed away in the wake of the recession.
Here’s the trouble with this schadenfreude logic, though: Why in the world would Millennials bet our futures on the very system that failed us and everyone else so spectacularly in the first place? We’re not dumb. Whatever the recession rendered Millennials—cautious, cynical, underemployed, overeducated, boomerang kids who couldn’t be more grateful that debtors’ prisons have gone out of style—most of all, it made us aware. It showed us just how disloyal corporate America can be, no matter how loyal its staffers have been. It proved that security doesn’t exist, however prestigious your background or business card. And it forced us to interrogate the motives that had pushed our economy past its breaking point—to ask ourselves what work ought to be and mean and yield.
When I speak to Millennials these days, I find us answering these questions in ever more intriguing ways. Some of us want impact, founding organizations to take action on everything from bullying to climate change. Some want excitement, whether that means using their Yale degrees to start a salad truck or leaving a sweet gig at Microsoft to launch a video podcast adventure-travel series. Some just want to live whole, satisfied lives that allow us to do right by our work, our families, and ourselves. And before your eyes roll right out of your head, I know what you’re thinking: What about that suited-and-booted MBA who’s killing it at your office as we speak? Well, trust me—even that kid’s got plans that’d surprise you. In fact, especially that kid. Because he’s smart enough to notice what’s amiss, and he’s got the personal and professional resources to do something about it. It’s the very best of us, the ones you would absolutely want to lead your organizations, who’re the most likely to push the boundaries of what’s possible in work—because they can.
We aren’t all there yet, of course. Some of us will certainly have to take this or that job to pay the rent. But I wouldn’t bet on keeping a despondent Millennial there long. With many of us waiting on big commitments like marriage and homeownership, we aren’t as compelled as previous generations might’ve been to settle simply for the sake of settling down. We want more. And we’ve redefined “more”: Far from wanting it all, we’ve grown to value real, holistic happiness over the old, traditional (albeit lucrative) choices, be they the stability of workaday middle management or the wealth and status of total corporate dominion.
We have the recession to thank for this, I think. In effect, the Great Recession freed us. The youngsters in Lehman’s window had done everything right, for all intents and purposes; they’d gone to the best schools, chosen a career their parents could brag about, landed at an organization that was all but synonymous with success—and what did it get them? Cab fare, more or less. Which is both terribly sad and, for Millennials, incredibly empowering: When the safe path proves to be more treacherous than anyone could have imagined, who can blame us for going our own way, wherever that might lead?
So it falls to anyone who wants to engage us for the future to meet these challenges now…
–       To define a mission that motivates Millennials;
–       To create meaningful opportunities for Millennials to contribute;
–       To give Millennials agency—and straight talk—as we shape our careers;
–       To foster a culture that encourages Millennials to invest as partners;
–       To help Millennials succeed—whatever that means to us.
Nadira Hira, a former Fortune writer, is author of the forthcoming “Misled: How a Generation of Leaders Lost the Faith (And Just What You’ll Need to Get It Back).” She will speak about Millennials and the workplace at the Techonomy 2013 conference, Nov. 11-13. Follow conversations about the event @Techonomy and #Techonomy13.