NASA Chief Information Officer Renee Wynn promised herself growing up that she would never go work for the federal government. That promise clearly didn’t work out.

Wynn said her mother, father, stepfather and grandfather had all worked in various federal agencies, and she’d been thoroughly exposed to the federal workforce as a child. Her mother even wanted her to become a spy.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that, that’s what everybody else is doing, I really want to work in the private sector,’” said Wynn.

However, while working at Booz Allen Hamilton on a contract for the Environmental Protection Agency, Wynn said that she fell in love with the agency’s mission.

“The work I was doing was looking at schedules and doing database management associated with the cleanup schedules for the most polluted, most toxic sites in the United States, and I really came to love the mission. So, when a job opened up, I applied immediately, and I frankly have never looked back,” said Wynn. “For me to go to work and gain a paycheck, I needed to love what I was doing. It couldn’t be about the bottom line.”

According to Wynn, who began working for the EPA in 1990, the missions of agencies, and their ability to make employees feel like they’re contributing to something bigger, is one of the strongest motivations for people to join the federal workforce.

According to Stephen Rice, deputy chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security, working for the federal government offers the kind of satisfaction that is impossible to get in the private sector.

Rice joined the federal workforce with the Secret Service in 1991, and said that, originally, he was just looking for any job. However, after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, Rice was assigned to the Secret Service duty desk to compile a chronology of events surrounding the attack as leads came in to the office.

“It was something that just kind of stuck with me,” said Rice. “The ability to make sure that you’re available, understand the value to the mission, understand that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and at the end of the day that the U.S. government has such tremendous impact on citizens’ lives that you don’t really understand until you’re immersed in the government.”

Though Wynn and Rice joined the government decades ago, their experiences with mission-driven federal work hint at a primary motivator for millennials joining the workforce: meaningful work.

Traditional motivators

According to Donald Kettl, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, where baby boomers often sought out federal service for the stability it provided, millennials are more concerned with making a difference in the work that they do.

“Most don’t imagine that they will work in the same job for five or 10 years, let alone for their entire careers,” said Kettl.

“That means traditional benefit programs — like pensions — matter relatively little. Having jobs where they feel valued and can make an impact matters much more. That puts far more focus on employee engagement, development opportunities and networking than was the case in the past.”

The federal government is one of few sectors that still offers pension benefits to its employees, and retirement benefits have recently been a sticking point in congressional budget negotiations.

“From a personal perspective, a lot of federal jobs are pretty high scope, and they’re very, very responsible positions,” said Wynn. “And while it’s hard to have a public-sector equivalent, I think that one of the things that the government should do reasonably is make sure that when you’re giving up a portion of pay […] offering them security and some retirement benefits and health care will give them a better employee. We want the best and brightest, and if we can’t compete on salary then we ought to compete on giving them a more stable life.”

However, according to Kettl, this focus on pensions and benefits may be a moot point for new employees entering federal service. He questioned how much risk the government was taking on if it assumed that millennials would adapt to current policy, rather than policy adapting to them.

“And it’s a case where the emerging battle over changing employee pensions, something that the Republicans are pushing and Democrats are fiercely opposing, might be a case of fighting the last war,” said Kettl. “The big, important and often overlooked question is how best to get the next generation of government employees into the workforce — how the environment will have to change to do so — and the new contributions that the new generation of workers will make.”

However, Xavier Clark, a current graduate student at George Mason University and intern at DHS who plans to work for the government after graduation, said that millennials not wanting stability in jobs is largely a misconception, from his perspective.

“I am looking for a job that allows me to impact policy, affords me mobility and allows me to have stability,” said Clark.

“I always knew that working for the federal government was not going to be the most lucrative opportunity,” said Rice. “But in addition to pay, pensions and benefits, I take the longer definition of benefits to include more than just health, dental and life insurance. It’s knowing you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”

According to Rice, innovations like social media have helped younger generations to realize the impact they can have on the world around them.

“I think that with the younger generations, they have gotten to the point faster of being a part of something bigger than themselves. It took me a little while to figure that out. But I think the millennials and Generation X, they are already there,” he said. “I think that is bringing them to federal service: their ability to make an impact, to make a lasting impact, with their knowledge and capabilities.”

Federal demographics

Despite the fact that work in the federal government fulfills many of the making-a-difference requirements sought by younger generations, the federal workforce is still noticeably older on the whole than the private-sector workforce.

A 2016 Common Characteristics of Government report released by the Office of Personnel Management found that the average age of federal employees was 47.4. That same year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projections found that the average age of the American workforce was 42. And September 2017 Fedscope employment data shows that employees 50-54 represent the largest demographic within the federal government.

That same data set also found that nearly 74 percent of federal employees have served the government for five years or more, making the demographics of the federal workforce strikingly different than the stereotypical millennial worker, who will not remain in one place for more than five years.

Jay Huie, director of the General Service Administration’s Secure Cloud Portfolio, joined federal service two years ago after working as a private contractor, and said these longer tenures are likely attributable to agency mission as well.

“As a contractor, you generally have a chance to go really deep in an agency, diving into their mission and the organizational and cultural elements that have grown over time to make them unique,” said Huie, a member of Generation X. “I think that sort of history and love of the mission is why many people end up spending significant amounts of time within a single agency and get to see the transformation over time.”

Are millennials that different?

The characterization of millennial workers as unwilling to stick with a job beyond the five-year mark may be simple generational stereotyping, rather than a stark change in new worker behavior.

“I don’t know that I believe the statistics because I think I heard that about my generation, and my comment is, ‘Well, wait until you get a mortgage,’” said Wynn, explaining that before getting married, buying a house or having kids, young people should be taking the chance to explore employment options. “Why not go experiment when your life responsibilities allow you to be more flexible?”

Since a 2014 Pew Research study found that baby boomers were nearly twice as likely to be married as millennials when they were the same age, it’s possible that the younger workforce has not yet been driven to seek stability as quickly as previous generations.

“There is one school of thought that suggests they will eventually be relatively conventional,” said Kettl. “Once marriage, kids and family obligations settle in, they will look for more stable jobs. Another school of thought suggests that both they and the job market have both fundamentally changed: that they’re looking for careers that have impact, that they’re willing to switch jobs to find it and that the job market itself will constantly present churning and new opportunities.

“My view is that marriage will, eventually, bring an instinct for greater stability and security. But, more importantly, I do think there’s something different in this generation, in the jobs that individuals seek and in the job market, which is going to lead to more job changes. In fact, most of the heavy betting is that this generation of workers will have far more jobs before retirement than previous generations.”

However, Clark said that he and others of his age group are attracted to stability long before those responsibilities set in.

“If we garner stability at a younger age, it gives us more room to grow,” said Clark.

“In my experience, employees generally want similar things, including a nurturing place to participate, the ability to own a chance for positive impact and recognition for their contribution. There are certainly those that group each generation’s aspirations differently, however I’ve found there’s far more nuance and shared values across generations than separations between them,” said Huie, adding that a diverse workforce often contributes positively to an agency’s success.

According to Wynn, to attract new talent, agencies need to “return to their roots” by playing up the cool factor of their mission. For example, Wynn said, environmentalists join the EPA to make a difference in protecting the planet, former military servicemen and women join Veterans Affairs to look after their fellow veterans and people go to NASA because going to space is just so cool.

“What is attractive is the fact you are truly helping to better lives,” said Clark. “Some might not think that, but it is the truth.”