What really makes NC millennials tick?

Entering the word “millennials” into Google’s search engine instantly yields nearly 22 million hits. That’s just one more indication that this generation, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, is one that everybody’s talking about.

Carolina Demography, a consulting service at UNC-Chapel Hill, predicts that before 2016 ends, the total number of millennial adults in our state will surpass those of Generation X, the group born between the mid-1960s and early ’80s. By next year, millennials (also known as Generation Y) will outnumber baby boomers, becoming the largest adult generation in North Carolina.

Already, they are exercising a powerful influence on work, culture and government. millennials helped push North Carolina into Barack Obama’s column in 2008 – marking the first time a Democrat had carried the state in 32 years. An NPR report recently included North Carolina on a short list of states where millennials will have the most impact in this year’s presidential election.

Yet, for all the buzz about millennials – and the stereotypes of laziness, entitlement and self-absorption often associated with them – there’s been a dearth of solid information nationally about what really makes this generation tick.

Career opportunists?

Several researchers with ties to North Carolina are working to change that. In the process, they’re helping all of us understand how to unlock the full potential of the generation that will shape the future of our state for decades.

The most ambitious of these projects is “What Millennials Want from Work”– co-authored by Jennifer J. Deal of the Greensboro-based Center for Creative Leadership (where we are both affiliated). Released in January by McGraw-Hill, the book draws on data from more than 25,000 millennials globally and 29,000 workers from older generations.

As Deal and co-author Alec Levenson note, “Our research revealed that, fundamentally, Millennials want what older generations have always wanted: an interesting job that pays well, where they work with people they like and trust, have access to development and the opportunity to advance, are shown appreciation on a regular basis, and don’t have to leave.”

Millennials are frequently labeled as career opportunists with no loyalty to their employers, but Deal and Levenson present evidence to the contrary. Nearly 70 percent of the millennials they surveyed are satisfied with their jobs, more than three-quarters like working for their current organization and half said they’d like to spend the rest of their careers with their current employer. Leveraging these and other insights, the book offers in-depth, practical advice for what organizations can do to attract, develop and retain millennials.

“Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace,” a white paper published by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, reaches some similar conclusions, describing a “tech-savvy, multi-tasking, collaborative approach to life” as a hallmark of millennials. The paper cites data showing that meaningful work and a sense of accomplishment are significantly more important to millennials than to older managers, who are focused more on pay and responsibility.

Reluctant drivers

But pay is definitely on the minds of millennials, many of whom carry student loans averaging $20,000 or more and also had the misfortune of starting their careers in the wake of the recession. As the UNC white paper by Jessica Brack and Kip Kelly highlights, compensation packages that are even just slightly above average can provide a powerful recruiting advantage for organizations seeking the best millennial talent.

Given the massive size of the millennial generation, urban planners are also watching carefully for preferences that will have an outsized impact on the future of transportation systems. Noreen C. McDonald, associate professor of city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill, helped define this conversation with her article, “Are Millennials Really the “Go-Nowhere” Generation?,” published last year by the Journal of the American Planning Association.

The article confirms that millennials are driving less than previous generations, in part because they are migrating to urban regions that provide travel alternatives, including services such as Uber, and also because they are delaying careers, marriage and families longer than previous generations. This trend, if it continues, could have a major impact on how roads, public transportation, and other key pieces of infrastructure are funded.

As with many things involving millennials, though, it’s still a little too soon to tell, which makes building on the research momentum we’ve helped create here all the more crucial in the coming years.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.