Millennials at Work

A new generation is shaping Westchester workplaces. Millennials are bringing fresh ideas and different expectations — and challenging the status quo. Here’s how.



 Illustration by Andrea Mongia

Westchester’s workforce, and its workplaces, are changing. The catalyst? Millennials. 

A younger generation is increasingly filling out company rosters across the county. According to Pew Research Center, more than one-third of American workers today are ages 18 to 34. And as these Millennials (those born between the early ’80s and early 2000s) join company ranks, they’re bringing new perspectives that can challenge the status quo. 

A level of disruption is hardly surprising; Millennials have a colorful pedigree. They’re a generation who grew up largely online, taking smartphones and lightning-fast Internet for granted. They’re also a generation who entered the workforce during or immediately after a trying recession. As a result, Westchester’s newest workers are digitally adept and highly tenacious. 

What does this new crop of professionals mean for Westchester? And what does it mean for the Generation X and baby boomer coworkers one desk over?

According to experts, it means sizable, but mainly positive, changes. Not chaos but rather an intersection of new ideas and institutional knowledge.

“We see Millennials as only strengthening the workforce,” says Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester (BCW). 

A fixture in Westchester’s business community and a boomer herself, Gordon says Millennials are rethinking long-held mores. “They’re doing business in different ways, communicating in different ways,” she says.

Jeffrey Alstete, a professor of management and business administration at Iona College who researches workforce changes, agrees. “This generation is quite a bit different,” he says, citing traits like fierce independence and resourcefulness. “They grew up in a different era, a different time.”

To unpack the workplace shifts underway, 914INC. spoke with a slate of Westchester professionals: younger Millennials just starting their careers, older Millennials settling in, and managers from previous generations. 

From an entrepreneurial streak to unorthodox working hours to new office layouts, here are the big changes and trends afoot.

 

An Academic’s Take on Millennials

Jeffrey Alstete is a professor of management and business administration at Iona College, where he teaches Millennials who are preparing to enter the workforce. Alstete also studies shifting trends in today’s workplace. Below, he shares four bits of wisdom about Westchester’s youngest workers. 

ENTERPRISING SPIRITS. “[Millennials] have a very strong independent streak. They have a lot of side businesses,” Alstete says. An entrepreneurial flair is a common trait among his students. Having weathered a recession — and perhaps having witnessed their parents lose jobs — has made Millennials wary of dependence on a single employer, he explains.

CAUTIOUS PLANNERS. “Millennials are much more concerned about their retirement benefits than Xers and boomers were,” Alstete notes, citing heightened attention to 401(K)s and other nest eggs. “I never used to hear 20-year-old college students worrying about their retirement plans.”

EAGER TO LEARN. Young workers aren’t dismissive of their older colleagues. On the contrary, they’re hungry for instruction. “[My students] specifically say, ‘I’m looking for a mentor,’” Alstete notes. “They want guidance from the older generations.”

ALWAYS DISCERNING. Millennials aren’t necessarily willing to take a hiring manager’s word when it comes to company culture/reputation — especially when you can find an unvarnished opinion on the Web. “They don’t see employers as the ultimate authority of knowledge on the companies,” Alstete says. 

Workplaces are becoming more flexible

For many Millennials, the nine-to-five workday seems like a relic, a dusty convention not suited to a world of emails and texts. “Millennials want flexibility; they don’t want a lot of structure,” Gordon says. “More flexible hours are part of it.” 

This doesn’t mean working less — it means working differently. While older colleagues might expect silence over the weekend, Millennials are likely checking their inboxes on Saturday and Sunday. 

“They take calls on weekends or at night,” says Carolyn Fugere, a brokerage manager with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty in Larchmont. Fugere, a Gen Xer, manages a team of five full-time employees and about 70 independent contractors, many of whom are Millennials. 

Christine Sanders, 28, is executive assistant to the president and CEO at United Hebrew in New Rochelle. She challenges the idea that work only gets done when sitting in an office chair or at a conference-room table. “It goes beyond the desk,” Sanders says, noting she checks email at night. “It doesn’t bother me. I like being connected to work.” 

Eileen Carey, 26 and a registered nurse at White Plains Hospital, says Millennials actively seek out unorthodox schedules. “Millennials tend to love working the 12-hour schedules… so we can have more days off afterward,” she says. “Millennials love to travel and explore, so this type of flexible scheduling is amazing.”

 

Everyone is an entrepreneur

For managers of any generation, there’s one phrase in particular that sounds like nails on a chalkboard: “That’s not my job.” Often, it’s the mantra of surly employees unwilling to try something new. 

Fortunately, it’s a phrase largely absent from Millennials’ vocabularies, says Fugere. “My Millennial employees, they never say that,” she explains. They say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that on’ or ‘Yeah, I’ll try that.’” 

It’s a dynamic that Sanders of United Hebrew embraces. “[I do] a little bit of everything, which is something I love about my job. It’s not the same thing every day,” she says. Often, this means playing the part of technology tutor. “We do have an IT director,” Sanders continues, “but when he’s not there, I usually get called. That comes with the age and the title ‘Millennial.’”

For Carey, the Millennial RN, the entrepreneurial spirit manifests as ongoing education. “[Millennials] tend to be hungry for knowledge,” she says. “We are trying to continually better ourselves by taking more classes, obtaining more education and obtaining certifications in our specialties.”

 Some Millennials take this a step further, going into business for themselves and offering not just one but a variety of professional services. Consider Melissa Colabella.

“I am a licensed real estate salesperson, but I’m also an interior designer and a stager,” she says. “I wear many hats.” Born in 1981, the Irvington-based Colabella is one of the older Millennials within Westchester’s workforce. 

“I was employed prior to starting my own business, and I didn’t feel comfortable knowing that my livelihood was in the hands of somebody else,” Colabella continues. “I didn’t feel comfortable knowing I only had two weeks of vacation.”

Now, as her own boss, Colabella rarely takes time off  — but she has the freedom to if and when she wants. “I’m just so happy knowing I’m able to always have a flexible schedule,” she says. 

 

The office spaces — and cities — Millennials expect

 

Millennial mores aren’t just shaping expectations and practices; they’re also shaping physical environments. Workplaces are becoming more open and collaborative, experts say. That means breaking down walls, literally.

“You see workplaces with fewer walls and private offices,” says the BCW’s Gordon. 

“The physical configuration is changing,” agrees William Mooney Jr., president and CEO of the Westchester County Association (WCA). Gone are the cubicles and corner offices, he says, replaced by open floor plans. “People are able to wander from one place to another and collaborate freely.”

What’s behind this trend? It might have something to do with growing up in an era of social media, according to Jessica Robinson, a senior director who manages Millennial employees at Heineken USA in White Plains. “[Millennials] grew up in a social world — one that is open, transparent and filled with instant gratification.” 

Millennials appreciate the evolving office spaces of Westchester, but what about its cities? Can White Plains or Yonkers compare with Midtown, where a lunch hour can easily be spent shopping or working out just down the block? For many Millennials, the answer is yes.

“White Plains as a city tends to draw you in,” Carey says. “[It] gives you the feel of working in NYC but on a much smaller scale. There’s still plenty of places within walking distance to go grab dinner with coworkers.”

Employers are paying attention. Danone North America — the maker of Dannon yogurt — is relocating from Greenburgh to downtown White Plains in early 2018. Opinions like Carey’s play no small part in the move.

“The motives…are to be in a more open and flexible space that is within walking distance of restaurants, shopping, and mass transit — all of which are key attributes for younger talent,” says Michael Neuwirth, the company’s senior director of public relations.

 

Changes, yes, but also business as usual

It’s true: Millennials are introducing novel attitudes and approaches to Westchester’s business landscape. 

But the larger concept of a changing workforce is itself hardly novel. Once upon a time, Generation-X employees were the disruptors. And before them? Young boomers — with their skinny ties and rock ’n’ roll — were the agitators.

Robinson, the Heineken USA senior director, says managing Millennials isn’t too different from managing others, after all. “The best way to attract and retain Millennials is to utilize the same principles that work with other generations,” she says. “It’s about empowering them to use their skills, their creativity, and their passions to help solve business challenges and identify opportunities.”

At the BCW, Gordon’s staff includes both Millennials and boomers — and they get along just fine. “We work together and learn from each other,” Gordon says. 

Alstete, the Iona professor, says many of his students are eager to find older, wiser mentors. “They want guidance from the older generations,” he says. “They have great respect for, and a desire to learn from, those people who are successful. They want to emulate them.”

Carey notes that shared passions and missions can eclipse friction between generations. “We’re all committed to one common goal here: our patients and their outcomes,” she says.  

A younger generation is increasingly filling out company rosters across the county. According to Pew Research Center, more than one-third of American workers today are ages 18 to 34. And as these Millennials (those born between the early ’80s and early 2000s) join company ranks, they’re bringing new perspectives that can challenge the status quo. 

Don't Call a Millenial....

No generation can escape stereotypes, and those sweeping generalizations are often misguided and inaccurate. Here are three stereotypes about Millennials that Westchester professionals are quick to debunk. 

LAZY.The [stereotype] that is painfully frustrating is that we don’t work hard,” says Melissa Colabella, a Millennial Realtor and interior designer based in Irvington. Mike Ragusa, a 21-year-old bookseller at Barnes & Noble in Eastchester, agrees: “I have experienced the stereotype that the Millennial demographic is entitled and has things handed to them.”

Carolyn Fugere, a Generation-X manager with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty in Larchmont, defends the work ethic of her younger employees. “They’re eager to go above and beyond,” she says.

TECH WIZARDS. True, many Millennials probably can fix your smartphone — but don’t assume they all can or should. “Given my age, it is assumed I know many of the ins and outs of social media,” says Roberto Ryder (below),  a 29-year-old brand manager for Heineken USA in White Plains.
Colabella is particularly bothered by this stereotype. “I am able to multi-task. Part of the reason I’m on my phone is that I’m working. I approach social media as part of my job.” 

UNFOCUSED. There’s a myth that Millennials are always distracted, with one eye or ear tuned to their phones, says William Mooney Jr., of the Westchester County Association. “You hear that all the time, [but] when you give them a specific problem to work on, they are focused.”

“While I do often use Instagram and Snapchat, the social space changes so much that many of us are learning as we go.”