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What do Younger People Want?

June 5, 2023
I think if we started to sell the plumbing profession as a force for good it might do a lot to attract younger workers.

We live in accelerated times. Advances in technology don’t just mean that people have more access to information and entertainment, it means that digital content of every conceivable type is proliferating exponentially.

2,500 new videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute—about 183 hours worth. There are over a billion monthly active TikTok users, and 83% of them have posted a video. Users currently spend 17.6 million hours per day on Instagram Reels.

All of this content is being tracked for how many eyeballs it can hold for how long. The most popular gets amplified by algorithms and then rocketed around the infosphere at the speed of social networking. We are all of us—but most especially younger people—awash in the new. New trends, new fashions, new art, new language, new celebrities, concepts, perspectives.

It is no wonder then, that the gap between how the older generations and the younger perceive the world seems to grow wider with every passing day. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is just the way generations have always worked—think of the gulf between teenagers in the 1930s and teenagers in the 1960s!—but it certainly feels that way.

In 2023 the oldest Millennials are in their 40s, and the oldest Gen Z-ers are in their early 20s. Those digital natives are now the backbone of the US workforce. At this same time, every plumbing business survey has workforce development as a top concern. Consequently I, like so many others in the trade press, have been asking for years: just what do younger people want?

(To hear from some of these young people themselves, check out our Under 30 All-Stars feature, or read about a group of high school students volunteering working to help upgrade the plumbing and sanitation in their community.)

I think young people want that sense of community, of belonging, that comes from working for a good company. But they’ve lived through two historic economic downturns (the Great Recession and the pandemic recession) and they know that the days of a company keeping its employees on, through good times and bad, is not how things are done. A boss might say, “we’re all family here,” but they know a company is only as loyal to them as the numbers allow them to be, so they are slow to show loyalty in return.

I think they want to develop skills and expertise they can take pride in. At the same time, they’re wary of being exploited. There was a time when “paying your dues” and “putting in the hours” had a payoff: job security, home ownership, the kind of benefits (healthcare, vacation, pension) you could build a life around. Now, even generous employers are hard-pressed to compete with the rising cost of living. Why put in those long hours for so many years just to still be stuck in an apartment you can barely afford?

I think the skilled trades can offer a sense of belonging. I think the trades can offer independence, security and prosperity. But more than that, I think it can offer young people the opportunity to make a difference for the better in the world.

In our May issue Matt Michel wrote a column that’s attracted a lot of attention, 6 Reasons Why Plumbing is a Noble Professionand it is! Plumbers protect communities against waterborne disease. They solve people’s problems when there’s a leaky pipe or a toilet that won’t flush. They help people live happier, more comfortable lives. They can make homes and businesses more resilient and more sustainable.

I think if we started to sell the plumbing profession as a force for good it might do a lot to attract younger workers; and I think once they discover for themselves all the profession offers, they’ll stick around.  

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