How millennials are shaping the university workplace

When they're not rewatching Friends and taking Buzzfeed quizzes millennials are working hard in universities up and down the country. James Coe finds out what a new report from Onward says about his generation at work

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party- the spectre of millennials.

According to thinktank Onward in their latest report Missing millennials why the Conservatives lost a generation and how to win them back millennials are the first generation to become more left wing as they age.

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If there was an election tomorrow two to one millennials would vote for Labour over the Conservative Party. Millennials find the vibes of the Conservative Party to be off and 62 per cent agree with the statement “the Conservative Party deserves to lose the next election.” The top three traits they associate with the Conservative Party are “dishonest”, “incompetent” and “out of touch”.

Millennials are unhappy with the state of the country, unhappy with a party that has been in charge for 13 years, and they are unmoved by the culture wars. The only hope for the Conservative Party is that Rishi Sunak is more popular with millennials than his party as a whole. Some 46 per cent of 35-39 year olds have a positive view of the Prime Minister. This is about the same proportion of Britons that believe they could beat a goose in a fight.

There is a certain imprecision about the term millennial. Onward use the term to mean anyone aged 25-40 years old. They are not really young people as such but a cohort born somewhere between Thatcher’s and Blair’s premiership and whose fortunes have been shaped by the financial crash. A pretty massive group (nearly 13m in England and Wales alone, according to the 2021 Census) all in all.

Pop idols

Onward identify this cohort as “shy capitalists”: asserting that they are culturally liberal, but crucially that they prefer keeping more of their own income over more redistribution of incomes generally. This culturally left and economically centre left worldview chimes with work carried out by Ralph Scott for LSE on the political views of graduates. Onward’s method includes quotas for education but there is an argument to be made that at least part of this shift is as a result of the availability of higher education to millennials.

The story of millennials within higher education is one of a squeezed middle. Economically, they face a supply induced wage squeeze. Culturally, they were right on the cusp of the sector’s development in technological learning, mental health, and wider work on a duty of care for students. Gen Z have not had it easy, particularly in light of Covid-19, but they have benefited from the lessons learned with the 25-40s.

Of course millennials now work in universities. HESA data does not map on to Onward’s definition precisely (HESA allows us to look at 26-40) and some data points inevitably become confused by definitions and self reporting an estimated 37 per cent of professional services staff are 26-40. However, when it comes to staff classed as managers, directors, and senior officials around only 25 per cent of staff are between 26-40. Age is also not evenly distributed. At Imperial College London over 40 per cent of academic staff are aged 26-40 compared to only 13.6 per cent at the Open University. Here’s a plot covering academic staff on fixed term or open-ended (non-atypical) contracts.

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As well as having different values, 25-40 year olds also have different political affiliations to older generations. As the chart below demonstrates the higher proportion of millennials there are within a constituency the more likely that constituency is to vote Labour. Given this data is from the 2019 election it puts to bed the idea that there were a lot of young-ish shy Conservative voters.

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There is little evidence that there is a direct relationship between the number of millennials within a constituency and the number of millennial staff at a university within the constituency. There is also not a clear link between the institutions with the most millennial staff and Labour votes within a constituency.

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What does it mean then to have an emerging workforce that has values different to the generations before them and by proxy their organisational leaders and managers?

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Onward’s analysis is that this cohort is moving to the left as they do not have a material stake in society. By implication, policies around pay, pensions, housing, maternity leave, transport, and so on, are particularly important to them. The challenge for the government and for universities is that if the median 25-40 year old is to have faith in institutions they need to feel that they have a stake in society.

This cohort is disinterested in culture war issues so this stake cannot be forged through the forever wars on issues like freedom of speech, drug use, or sex work. The actual challenge is how to improve the material conditions of this enormous part of the higher education workforce. In the context of ongoing industrial relations this is particularly important.

By their nature universities employ disproportionately large numbers of graduates. It is not that universities are making students more liberal but liberals are more likely to self-select into universities. In line with Onward’s findings it could be assumed that there is an expectation from millennials that universities will be open and liberal institutions. In reality, it is often assumed that universities already embody these values. Whether they do in reality all of the time is a separate debate.

The wider question is how universities can improve the security of their staff. A stake in society comes from feeling a stable part of it. This is easy to say but comes down to the complex and overlapping issues of pay, pensions, paternity and maternity rights, conditions, help with childcare, and in work benefits.

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