A Millennial’s Field Guide to Mastering Your Career

January 4, 2016, 11:30 AM UTC
Illustrations by Andy Rash; Millennial Myths icons by Martín Laksman
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Welcome to a working world that doesn’t understand you, might not want to hire you, and definitely doesn’t want to pay you very much. Still, there’s hope for the nation’s rising group of idealistic and tech-savvy young workers. Here, our best advice on how to get the right job—and crush it.

There are a lot of different kinds of cakes that you can make in a mug. That’s the key takeaway of the cooking blog hosted by Lana Lingbo Li, a millennial who burned out on Burning Man, freelance web design, and world travel, then settled down to fulfill a passion: a website primarily dedicated to the sheer variety of mug-size confections that young, lazy singles can bake in their microwaves. By day the Harvard grad has a full-time job at a Boston startup, but Li couldn’t imagine herself on a typical corporate trajectory. “I’m doing better than most people my age, and I’ve had an interesting life,” she says. “I do feel like I’ve really drunk the millennial Kool-Aid.”

Just what is the millennial Kool-Aid? All we really know is that corporate America is about to be chugging it. In 2015 the generation surpassed Gen X to become the largest in the workforce. Though misconceptions abound, the economy’s youngest workers really are different: They’re accustomed to the swipe, refresh of constant notifications, the steady ping of chat messages, and the reassuring weight of a smartphone on their person at all times. They’re principled—and statistically less likely to pursue a job they hate just for the money. And for all their supposed entitlement, they ventured out from the nest during one of the greatest economic recessions of our time, a fact that still weighs on their paychecks.

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Right now, the oldest millennials—loosely defined as any adult born after 1980—are starting to move up the managerial ranks, just as the youngest enter a workforce that’s less stable than ever. Corporate pensions are a relic, and the life expectancy of the average S&P 500 company dropped from 61 years in 1958 to about 20 years today. There are up to 54 million people in the “freelance economy,” but it can be hard to make that pay—just as it’s hard to make a living writing about cake. What’s a twenty- or thirtysomething to do?

Fortune surveyed dozens of economists, hiring managers, and working millennials (this author is one of them) to compile the best advice on how a new generation can thrive in the new economy.

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With all due respect to Peter Thiel: You need to go to college

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When it comes to the aftermath of the Great Recession, millennials have earned their whining rights. In the past five years real average hourly earnings have mostly declined, but no age bracket has seen a drop as bad as the millennials—and that’s despite their being the best-educated generation in American history. That education? Overrated, says iconoclastic venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who’s paying young people to skip school and start companies. That may sound particularly appealing to someone facing a student-loan debt likely to be 56% higher than that of a graduate a decade ago.

But evidence is clear that college—and even a secondary degree—is the best ticket out of young workers’ economic quagmire. “The opportunities for young adults have been pulled apart,” says Pew Research Center’s Richard Fry. Millennials with a bachelor’s degree take home median annual earnings of $45,500, a slight increase from the college grad take-home pay of previous generations at the same age. But for millennials without a college degree, which is most of them, earnings have fallen since their parents’ and grandparents’ time. Now the median difference between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree is almost $20,000 a year—a gap that will only grow as degree holders earn promotions and those without higher education compete for a pool of jobs that has been shrunk by automation and outsourcing. “They’re bouncing around in a world with no way up,” says Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce director Anthony Carnevale. Almost one-quarter of millennials with only a high school diploma live in poverty—and even a few of Thiel’s truant protégés have decided to go back to school after all.

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WATCH: Debating Millennial Myths — Part 1/2:

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Don’t expect your employer to be your friend

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Think of all the adults who have guided you into maturity: parents, teachers, coaches, and deans. Your boss may be the first adult in your life who doesn’t necessarily have your best interests in mind. In fact, your interests might be completely at odds: New employees with less seniority are often the first to get the ax when the economy tightens. The rest of the time companies save money by retaining good workers. Accounting for the cost of living, real median hourly wages have languished in recent years. But according to a November report by ADP, while employees in the same positions as the year before got a 3.5% wage bump in 2015, job switcher’s pay increased 6.5%. In many cases a new gig may be the surest route to escaping salary stagnation.

That’s probably part of the reason the median job tenure of workers ages 20 to 24 is now less than 16 months. The trend has taken a toll on workplace collegiality, though, decreasing bosses’ motivation to coach new talent. Kathryn Minshew, 30, who founded career site the Muse, says that after watching many of her friends struggle to find mentors at work, she added a coaching service to her startup’s offerings, catering to a clientele starved for career guidance.

“No one cares more about managing your career than you do.”
—Career expert Jodi Glickman

There are exceptions, of course. Eric Smith, 27, took an accounting job in 2010 because he “wanted to be employed more than anything else.” But after about four unhappy years of boredom and angst, he left the profession and joined Teach for America, moving across the country to teach in Las Vegas. A former boss coached him through the move, knowing his heart wasn’t in accounting.

Yet give or take the odd employer willing to give farsighted advice (let alone dispense the constant feedback that millennials famously crave), young professionals today must navigate their own winding career paths. Says Jodi Glickman, author of Great on the Job: “No one cares more about managing your career than you do.”

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Remember, you’ll never be good enough

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Hey, great, you’ve learned to code. But now that you know Objective-C, you’re behind on Swift. Just as state-of-the-art microfiche-browsing skills were later supplanted by web-search know-how, today’s in-demand skill sets are guaranteed to be outdated tomorrow. “Businesses are reshaping at this amazing velocity,” says Mary Lyons, PricewaterhouseCooper’s talent innovation leader. “You see business strategies adapting every three to five years.”

For those who fall behind, the consequences can be dire. At Wall Street darling Netflix (NFLX), the HR philosophy embraces laying off employees whose roles are no longer critical. The company parted ways with hundreds after it outgrew their skill sets. A spokesman says the ethos is key to the company’s agility. In a leaked PowerPoint deck that laid out the strategy, the penultimate slide summed up the modern corporate mentality: “Your economic security is based on your skills and reputation.”

The solution? Develop abilities that can’t be automated away: timeless talents like critical thinking, playing nice, and effective writing. And don’t be afraid to skip around to pick up relevant skills. Riley O’Neill, a 25-year-old employee at Bellevue, Wash., software startup Limeade, puts it this way: “For people my age, you stay at a place for the minimum amount of time you can without it looking bad, and you try to find the next place that will give you the skills you want to learn.” O’Neill spent only a year in Limeade’s marketing division before asking to transition to product management. “I don’t want to stagnate,” he says.

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WATCH: Debating Millennial Myths — Part 2/2:

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Always have a side hustle

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Easy access to online publishing, e-commerce, and an entire Internet full of potential consumers has lowered the barriers to entry for starting new ventures—so much so that it can seem as if everyone under 30 keeps one going in addition to a day job: a politics blog, a band, a fledging startup.

These passion projects have real benefits. “Twenty years ago you needed an internship at Vogue, and today you have Nasty Gal, and she’s the voice of a generation.” says Glickman, referring to Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, who started her buzzy online fashion company on eBay (EBAY) when she was bored with her job checking student IDs at an art school. “It takes so much hustle and initiative and forward momentum. But you don’t need to quit your job.”

A side gig might not launch every millennial into the ranks of the Fortune 40 Under 40, but it can still offer a raft of other benefits: new skills, a broader network, and extra cash. In some cases a second pursuit can offer a sense of purpose, something that three in every five young professionals say they seek in their professional lives. Take Greg Gonzalez, 23, who has wanted to run his own business since he began selling Halloween candy on the middle school bus. On weekends and from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. most nights when he gets away from his job at a real estate software startup, he runs his own company that sells novelty shredded-currency products. The signature item is a sleep mask stuffed with the paper strings of destroyed dollar bills (obtained legally from the Treasury Department). “I’m running it the way that I want to run it,” Gonzalez says of his company, Money Never Sleepz. Eventually he plans to work for himself. “Working for a traditional company—I never wanted that lifestyle or career.” Plus, his company was profitable as of late 2015, and the extra cash he makes selling shredded cash doesn’t hurt.

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Overcome your stereotype

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Consider these laments about young workers, all taken from the pages of this august publication: 1. “Loyalty. Gratitude. Fortitude. They’re dead, man.” 2. “You might want to laugh derisively the first time one of your youngest subordinates tells you he intends to work a mere 40-hour week so he can go scuba diving and learn a non-Indo-European tongue.” And 3. “We’re dealing with a lot of tender little egos. They have to be told they’re loved quite frequently.”

Sounds familiar? Those complaints could be plucked from almost any column about millennials today—except they weren’t. The first two complaints were written in 1998 and 1990 about Gen X. And the third? It was written in 1969—about the baby boomers.

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Many of the faults typically associated with millennials have more to do with being young than with being born during the ’80s or ’90s. Still, generational differences do plague offices. “Whenever I get together with a bunch of other founders and CEOs, one popular topic of conversation is the millennials,” says 42-year-old Mark Organ, CEO of marketing software company Influitive. “‘Expletive millennials.’ A lot of people are having real challenges with attracting and managing them.”

Luckily, low expectations mean it can be easy for driven employees to impress supervisors. “If they expect you to be entitled or have your face buried in your iPhone all day, it’s good for you to defy that stereotype,” says Lindsey Pollak, the Hartford’s millennial workplace expert. “Talk to as many people face-to-face as you can.” A bonus tip for the text-addicted: “Have a strong voicemail message to show that you respect that form of communication,” Pollak advises.

When it comes down to it, millennials want a lot of the same things as other employees: They want to work with people they like, in comfortable surroundings (for example, remotely—from bed), and they want a good sense of how they’re doing and where they’re going. A genuine generational difference, says Jennifer Deal, senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, is that they often have the chutzpah to ask for what they want, without necessarily paying their dues first. But in a workplace where pay is languishing, pensions are dead, and skills are rapidly evolving, the “whiny” millennial might be exactly what everyone needs.

A version of this article appears in the January 1, 2016 issue of Fortune.