In a little over a decade, millennials are projected to make up roughly 75% of the global workforce. But for Nancy Lublin, who runs Do Something, a nonprofit organization that inspires young people to take social action, the future is already here. Eighty-four percent of her paid staff members are under the age of 30. While this means Do Something is blessed with its share of self-directed multitaskers, it creates challenges too. The cliché that millennials are uninterested in paying their dues is at least partially true.
So how can managers inspire a sense of long-term commitment in a generation that prioritizes flexibility and autonomy? When Nancy meets with new hires, she immediately explains that there are two paths available to them at Do Something. One is the "Be here forever!" path—where the goal is to be like Bill Gates, who spent his whole career at Microsoft and yet still managed learn, grow, change, undertake new challenges, and have increasing impact.
The other option is to commit to two years, achieve one great thing, and then either take on another defined mission at Do Something, or go to a different organization. As Nancy explains to her employees, it’s okay to be thinking like this from day one—as long as a real commitment to stay those two years exists. And employees who make that commitment, and do accomplish something great, essentially become a part of the Do Something team for life, even after they’ve left the organization. In fact, after successful tours of duty at Do Something, Nancy often helps them find their next jobs.
In his new book, The Alliance, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman presents a similar approach—something he and his co-authors Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh have dubbed the "tour of duty."
The "tour of duty" encourages employers and employees to make a significant investment in each other. While tours vary in length, their primary characteristic is a mutual commitment by both parties to complete a significant but clearly defined goal, like launching a new product or opening up a new market.
While tours of duty arise out of an environment where lifetime employment is no longer the dominant paradigm, they’re not a ploy to move toward more temporary and/or provisional work relationships. In fact, they’re the opposite. Both employers and employees benefit when they make significant investments in each other, and tours of duty are a framework specifically designed to facilitate such investments.
Through a process of candid discourse, both parties identify their aspirations, values, and intended outcomes. Then, they agree upon a mission that delivers mutual rewards. While the tour of duty isn’t a legally binding contract, it is an agreement that carries the strength of moral obligation. And in many instances, an employee may engage in multiple consecutive tours of duty with the same company.
While the tour of duty concept may be implemented for employees of all types, we realized in talking with each other how crucial it is when engaging with millennials. Employees of all ages move from job to job now, but this trend is even more pronounced for workers at the younger end of the spectrum. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2012, median employee tenure for workers aged 25 through 34 is just 3.2 years now—which is 1.4 years less than the median tenure for all employees.
High turnover in this age group makes sense. Jobs have been hard to come by in the Great Recession. Student loan debt is at record levels. Many young people take the first jobs they’re offered then hope for something better to materialize. In addition, millennials have expressed a higher interest in self-determination and entrepreneurship than prior generations. A 2011 survey funded by the Kauffman Foundation found that "54% of the nation’s millennials either want to start a business or already have started one."
Obviously, this kind of ambitious and entrepreneurial mind-set can bring great energy to a company. But managers also need to know that they can retain employees long enough to accomplish specific mission objectives that will deliver real value to both the company and the employee. Tours of duty are one way to harness entrepreneurial energy to the benefit of both employers and employees over the long term.
Because tours of duty are flexible, transparent, and highly personalized, they resonate well with millennials. But what managers should also emphasize is the commitment that tours of duty require, and how that commitment can increase meaning and build crucial career capital.
Indeed, many millennials are at the beginning of careers that are going to play out in a world where professional relationships will have increasing importance. While most millennials understand the value of a college degree—and commit both significant time and money to obtain one—professional networks often have more impact on long-term career success than a diploma. At its heart, a tour of duty is about building relationships that endure beyond the tour itself. They should also create opportunities to develop new skills or hone existing ones, and result in tangible accomplishments that a person can point to as proof of their competence and expertise.
So while young people just starting out in the world of work may think that they should only stay at a company for a year at most, this isn’t necessarily the case. Indeed, even more than seasoned professionals, individuals who don’t have much workplace experience should seek out opportunities that lead to enduring alliances and portfolio-caliber accomplishments. Those kind of results are more likely to arise from longer-term engagements than one-year stints. Like early contributions to a 401k plan, early investments in career capital compound over decades.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that tours of duty are explicitly organized around specific missions. Survey after survey shows that millennials want jobs at companies whose values are aligned with their values, and where they have opportunities to produce social benefits as well as profits. When Nancy posts a job at Do Something, they get 100 applications within 24 hours. And among today’s college grads, the most sought-after job isn’t at Goldman Sachs or even Facebook—it’s at Teach for America.
In some instances, research shows, millennials even say they’d take a 15% pay cut to obtain a job where they "can make an impact." As the largest generation in American history (95 million strong), there is little doubt that millennials will substantially impact the world.
Still, in an era where immediacy and personal fulfillment are so prevalent, it can be easy to lose sight of the roles that commitment and sacrifice play in creating a strong social fabric. In the end, though, the most reliable way to create meaningful relationships and communities is through long-term engagement. While tours of duty offer flexibility and individualized specificity, they also prioritize long-term investment and relationship-building. They reinforce the idea that life is a multi-shot game, and that teams accomplish more than individuals do. For anyone seeking meaning and impact—and especially for those at the start of their careers—these are valuable perspectives to adopt.
—Nancy Lublin is a serial social entrepreneur, currently at the helm of DoSomething.org and Crisis Text Line. She edited a book on millennials in the workplace called XYZ Factor, out in February 2015.
—Reid Hoffman is cofounder and executive chairman of LinkedIn and Partner at Greylock. He is co-author of New York Times bestsellers The Alliance: Managing Talent In The Networked Age, and The Start-Up of You.