What’s a Millennial to Do? Tips for Navigating the Post-Secondary Industry

Much has been written about the plight of the millennial workforce. The majority of the literature oscillates between a doom-and-gloom rhetoric, where there is no hope for young workers, and the suggestion that there might be opportunity in the adversity they face. These paradoxical messages seem to reinforce the notion that now is one of the most uncertain eras in which to make a living, especially if you’re a millennial starting your career. There is, in my view, a significant lack of practical advice out there for young workers suggesting ways they might navigate a precarious work landscape.  

What follows is a brief investigation of how to thrive in the uncertainty of my chosen field: postsecondary education. I share these ideas in the spirit of paying it forward and beginning a much-needed conversation between talented new graduates and their prospective employers. The tips and tricks below are drawn from my experiences of working day-to-day in the industry and lessons learned throughout my post-secondary training.

Qualified or Not?

Millennials are plagued by several stereotypes which create barriers to success. Many view the generation as an entitled, lazy, impatient, and selfish group made up of people who are more concerned with social media than anything else. These stereotypes—paired with a lack of opportunity and intergenerational conflict in the workplace—suggest a bleak future for young professionals. This apocalyptic outlook is exacerbated by the fact that postsecondary institutions are usually slow to change and innovate; as a result, millennials don’t seem to be an institutional priority due to a general lack of succession planning and mentorship opportunities.          

Yet millennials possess many qualities that prepare them for the future. Millennials are change champions; change is the norm for them. Most millennials are amenable to change and take to innovation like a fish to water, so they are well-adapted to a work environment fueled by innovation and technology. They also have an appetite for risk and an absence of allegiance to business as usual thereby making them valuable to postsecondary institutions that wish to modernize (1). Statistics say that millennials will continue to command much influence in the workplace; so much so, they will come to make up the largest cohort in the Canadian working population by 2030 (2). Baby Boomer retirements are also causing much turnover in postsecondary leadership, so this emerging cohort should have the critical mass required to penetrate the management hierarchy of the University.

Top Tips

So what’s a millennial to do? Ultimately, the way forward involves a two-pronged approach: post-secondary institutions need to make a commitment to retain and grow millennial talent, while young workers should hone the skills that make them useful for propelling organizations forward. It seems to me that incorporating the tips below as needed is the first step for millennials to forge a pathway to success.

Stay humble and be patient

Humility is a becoming virtue, so never forget where you come from. Success takes time and positioning. Trust your instincts and keep hustling until your breakthrough comes.

Seize every opportunity

Seek out professional development opportunities; the worst you will be told is no. The upside is huge.

Cultivate your brand and learn to market yourself

Focus on activities that build your brand. Be sure to define your core competencies and sell the services you can offer to your organization.

Look the part

Appearances matter. Dress for the position you hope to achieve. People will notice and treat you differently. Ageism is a real phenomenon; let your outfit be your battle armor when faced with prejudice about your ability.

Be selective with whom you associate

Who you surround yourself with is a reflection upon you and your reputation. Be concerned with optics. You are allowed to be picky in terms of who you let into your circle. Select those you can trust and learn from, and avoid drama seekers or jaded folks who might bring you down.

Manage up and gather social capital

Pay attention to the circles your boss rolls within. Try to anticipate their needs before they ask. Befriend the administrative assistant who supports your boss. They are a resource for you to draw upon.

Find a mentor

Find a mentor who will be a champion of your success. You can learn from this role model and leverage their networks to spread your web of influence.

Take calculated risks

No risk, no gain. Be strategic when taking risks; perform a cost/benefit analysis for any tough decision you find yourself having to make. There are productive capacities in failure.

Embrace the uncertainty

Stable employment is a dwindling privilege. Embrace the non-linear path that presents itself. Don’t worry about the traditional life trajectory forced upon you; this narrative no longer holds up, nor can it deliver on everything it promises. Every generation has its challenges. You have what it takes to adapt.


(1) Kim, J and Matthews, M. (2016, May 15). Make Space for Millennial Professionals in Higher Ed. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-05-15-make-space-for-millennial-professionals-in-higher-ed.

(2) Perez, A and Pereira, A. (2015, March 23). Meet the Millennials—‘generation screwed’. National Post. Retrieved from http://nationalpost.com/opinion/perez-pereira-meet-the-millennials-generation-screwed.

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