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Millennials hold the key to changing government workplace culture for the better

By Gwynneth Chandler

As Baby Boomers retire from the government workforce, you’ve likely heard concerns about brain drain, ticking time bombs, and a looming mass exodus. In fact, the pace of retirements is accelerating in all sectors, and Baby Boomers are unlikely to return to work at the rate they did after the Great Recession. 

As critical as this issue is, agencies continue to turn to the usual solutions to build leadership pipelines. But what they should consider instead is investing in organizational culture.

Your future leaders are Millennials

It’s been seven years since Millennials became the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, so it’s no surprise that Millennials make up over a quarter (26%) of the government’s current workforce. This generation is particularly sensitive to government workplace culture and cultural issues at work. According to recent Eagle Hill research, Millennials’ commitment, productivity, drive, and creativity are more influenced by culture than the generations that came before them.

Culture drives performance for Millennials

Q: Does the culture at your workplace impact your: 

Source: Eagle Hill Consulting Government Workplace Culture Survey 2023

At the same time, Millennials are more likely than other generations to observe toxic behaviors and have a more negative outlook on government workplace culture as a result. Nearly half (48%) of those we surveyed have observed a high-stress or burnout culture compared to 43% of Gen Xers and 38% of Baby Boomers, and employees between the ages of 30 and 39 provided the lowest scores in the most recent Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

As culture empaths, Millennials are also the most likely to voice their displeasure with culture at work. The recent “quiet quitting” trend is a perfect example of Millennials taking to social media platforms to air their frustrations.  

Agency leaders would be wise to examine their organizational culture as a way to engage, develop, and retain their Millennial leaders, starting now. Positioning government leaders as culture champions requires understanding and cultivating the aspects of culture that matter most to Millennials. 

A culture problem (and opportunity)

This Millennial-focused approach is very different from what we see most agencies doing to prepare for Baby Boomer retirements. Many are investing in leadership development training, career pathing, coaching, and succession planning initiatives, but culture isn’t part of the equation. 

The irony here is that agency leaders today have a powerful impact on government workplace culture. Our research shows that most employees believe that leadership is responsible for culture. However, a good portion think that they’re falling short—negatively impacting culture and not considering culture when making key decisions. Not surprisingly, this is eroding employees’ trust in agency leaders. 

It’s time for agencies to prepare Millennials to be future leaders and culture champions.

This dynamic creates a timely opportunity for agencies to prepare Millennials to be future leaders. The opportunity isn’t to mold tomorrow’s leaders with yesterday’s leadership styles. It’s to create tomorrow’s leaders anew—as the culture champions that employees expect them to be. Given the cyclical churn of senior leaders in government, embedding culture with Millennials is simply more sustainable. They are much better positioned to be long-term keepers of government workplace culture. 

Ignore the urgency at your own risk

Agency leaders engaged in succession planning—and grappling with a future leadership vacuum—shouldn’t underestimate the importance and value of workplace culture in government. Those that consider culture a future issue will miss out on key opportunities to drive positive change today and mission success within their tenure.