Driven by the improved economy, more Baby Boomer government workers are beginning to retire. This has been expected for some time. But the Millennials—people born in the 1980s and 1990s, who were supposed to replace them—aren’t stepping up the way they were expected to.

The Millennials—one of the most studied generations in history—supposedly like public service and doing meaningful work, and don’t care that much about making money. “Millennials want to have a sense of mission and purpose when it comes to their work lives,” noted a 2014 report on Millennials from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM). “They want what they do to matter and to make a difference. Millennials also believe in the promise of government. Three-quarters of that generation believes government has the potential to address societal challenges, such as lack of educational opportunities, the need for job skills and training, and protecting the environment.”

Consequently, it was expected that Millennials would flock to the public sector. And this was true—for a while. But studies are finding that they aren’t staying in government, particularly the federal government.

In fact, a recent survey found that government-wide employee satisfaction and commitment drops 10 points after the first year of federal employment, and while the satisfaction rate does creep up a bit after that, it never reaches the same level during an individual’s time in government.

This is particularly true of Millennials. “Data show that the percentage of the federal workforce under age 30 dropped from 9.1 to 6.6 percent, a steady reduction of more than 45,000 employees between 2010 and 2015,” writes the Partnership for Public Service in its report, Improving the Employee Experience. “Those under 25 dropped from an already low 2 percent to an alarming 0.9 percent during the same period. In contrast, in the entire U.S. workforce, 23.5 percent are under age 30. Federal employees under the age of 30 are also slightly less satisfied overall than all other employees.”

So why are they leaving? And why are they unhappy?

  • Hiring—It’s hard to get hired in the federal government, especially for less-experienced people. “Since 2003, less than half of employees agreed with the statement, ‘My work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills,’” writes the Partnership. “In 2014, only 39.2 percent of the federal employee survey respondents said their teams can attract the right people.” A similar survey found that 42 percent of federal agency leaders reported that they were unable to recruit the best employees, due to the slow hiring process, the outdated civil service system, and the hard-to-navigate USAJOBS. gov federal employment job site. “For those millennials who still want to land a government job, the hiring process can be an infuriating mystery,” writes Lisa Rein in the Washington Post.
  • Advancement—Another well-known trait of Millennials is that they like to move on to other things. But the pace of government is too slow for them, especially with a number of political challenges that have kept promotions and raises in check in recent years. Moreover, government promotions tend to be predicated on experience and seniority rather than by merit.
  • Training—Millennials like to keep learning, and have complained that they don’t have the opportunity in government. “Less than half of all federal employees (46.8 percent) surveyed in 2014 reported being satisfied with the training they receive, and this number has dropped by 8.6 points from the highest level in 2005,” according to the report. In comparison, 62 percent of private sector employees are satisfied with their training. Similarly, the PwC report, Millennials at Work: Shaping the Workplace, found that “The opportunity for personal development” came in first as the reason why a Millennial chose a particular job. The salary? That was fourth.

“The reality is that Millennials are attracted to government work because they want to feel like they’re giving back to the community, but quickly leave when they feel caught in a slog of forms and red tape upon taking up the position,” writes Rachel Burger in The Hill.

All this wouldn’t be a problem, except that the long-awaited wave of Baby Boomer retirements in government—sometimes known as the “silver tsunami”—is finally happening. It was postponed for a few years due to the recession, because potential retirees were nervous about the value of the investments they expected to live on. But now that the economy is improving, they’re feeling more comfortable about retiring, and they’re leaving—taking their institutional memory with them.

“By 2016, 42 percent of the Department of Housing and Urban Development workforce will be eligible to retire,” Rein writes. “At the Small Business Administration, it’s 44 percent.” More generally, by 2016, more than a third of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire, she adds—including nearly three in five senior executives and almost half the ranks of top managers.

The Partnership’s report offers a number of suggestions for retaining Millennials—provide training, define career paths, use social media in hiring, and so on. However, the OPM has also had a tough year, recent security problems that made it harder to focus on hiring and retention. The next President may find that they have their work cut out for them on the recruiting front.

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