Attracting the twentysomething worker

Written by 10:24 am People Focus • 20 Comments

I came across this article from Fortune Magazine, and, as an unashamed Gen Y, it was such a great read, so I thought I’d share a few relevant insights…

I came across an article from Fortune Magazine, and, as an unashamed Gen Y, it was such a great read, so I thought I’d share a few relevant insights from Nadira Hira’s field guide to Generation Y

Published in Fortune by Nadira A. Hira on 15 May 2007

Nearly every businessperson over 30 has done it: sat in his office after a staff meeting and – reflecting upon the 25-year-old colleague with two tattoos, a piercing, no watch and a shameless propensity for chatting up the boss – wondered, What is with that guy?! […]

At once a hipster and a climber, he is all nonchalance and expectation.

According to Hira, these twentysomethings are new, annoying, and invading corporate offices everywhere…

Their effect on the workplace

As a generation, we Gen Y-ers can’t be lumped into one box, but we do have a widespread and significant effect on the workplace…

They’re ambitious, they’re demanding and they question everything, so if there isn’t a good reason for that long commute or late night, don’t expect them to do it. When it comes to loyalty, the companies they work for are last on their list – behind their families, their friends, their communities, their co-workers and, of course, themselves.

But there are a whole lot of them. And as the baby-boomers begin to retire, triggering a ballyhooed worker shortage, businesses are realizing that they may have no choice but to accommodate these curious Gen Y creatures. […]

As a curious young creature myself, it was interesting to read that Gen Y-ers have hefty expectations when it comes to filling the baby-boomer business gaps…

Being themselves all over the business world

The article quoted a 1969 issue of Fortune, which stated that the early baby-boomers were in a strong position to dictate terms to their prospective employers because the demand for their services exceeded the supply. And now their kids are claiming similar rights…

The kids – self-absorbed, gregarious, multitasking, loud, optimistic, pierced – are exactly what the boomers raised them to be, and now they’re being themselves all over the business world.

“This is the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world,” says Bruce Tulgan, the founder of leading generational-research firm RainmakerThinking. “The good news is they’re also going to be the most high-performing workforce in the history of the world. They walk in with more information in their heads, more information at their fingertips – and, sure, they have high expectations, but they have the highest expectations first and foremost for themselves.”

Joshua Butler, audit associate, KPMG

Hira delves deeper into these Gen Y creatures in ‘the wild’, talking with people like 22 year old, Joshua Butler, an accountant who chose his career path because he wanted ‘transferable skills’…

At KPMG he’s getting them – and more: The firm has let him arrange his schedule to train for a bodybuilding competition. […]

Even before that, KPMG got his attention when it agreed to move him to New York, his chosen city. “It made me say, ‘You know what? This firm has shown a commitment to me. Let me in turn show some commitment to the firm.'” […]

You are outnumbered

Boomers, know this: You are outnumbered.

If a Gen Y is anyone born between 1977 and 1995, then that made 79.8 million Gen Y-ers to the 78.5 million boomers in 2007… Hands up! You’re surrounded…

Gen Y sometimes seems to share one overstimulated brain, and it’s often tuned to something featuring Lindsay Lohan. Add to that the speed with which Y-ers can find Lindsay Lohan – day or night, video or audio – in these technology-rich times, and it’s suddenly not so strange that Gen Y has developed such a distinct profile. […]

They’re all about quiet kitsch – a funky T-shirt under a blazer, artsy jewelry, silly socks – small statements that won’t cause trouble. The most important decorations, though, are electronic – iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops – and they’re like extra limbs. […]

I’m in complete agreement about everything except Lindsey Lohan. She’s so 2007…

Not that into “work”

According to Hira, the Gen Y work ethic leaves something to be desired though…

Despite a consensus that they’re not slackers, there is a suspicion that they’ve avoided that moniker only by creating enough commotion to distract from the fact that they’re really not that into “work.” […]

For some of them the concept “work ethic” needs rethinking. “I had a conversation with the CFO of a big company in New York,” says Tamara Erickson, co-author of the 2006 book “Workforce Crisis,” “and he said, ‘I can’t find anyone to hire who’s willing to work 60 hours a week. Can you talk to them?’ And I said, ‘Why don’t I start by talking to you? What they’re really telling you is that they’re sorry it takes you so long to get your work done.'”

And that’s not all. The widespread consumption of media has had its effect too – Gen Y girls watch sports and play videogames – that’s just the norm. Race is less of an issue and Gen Y-ers are generally more accustomed to diversity…

It all makes for a universe where anything – such as, say, being a bodybuilding accountant – seems possible.

Of course, Gen Y-ers have been told since they were toddlers that they can be anything they can imagine.

And apparently it’s something we cling to in this unstable world of shock shootings, unexpected uprisings, Al Gore’s inconvenient truths, and polar bears drowning from ice caps melting. It tells us we’re not “promised a healthy, happy tomorrow”.

So they’re determined to live their best lives now.

Sheryl Walker, assurance associate, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Sheryl Walker majored in accounting to make her parents happy…

“They’re big on saying their children are ‘a doctor,’ ‘a lawyer’ -‘a something.'”

And she continues to make them happy by living at home…

“I don’t have any plans to leave,” she says, laughing. “My father told me if I did, he would be very upset.” […]

“I think parents want to feel needed,” she says, “and it’s like, because I’m so independent, they get excited when I ask for a favor.”

The baby-boomer parent

From the moment Gen Y-ers were born, long before technology or world events affected their lives, they were dealing with a phenomenon previously unknown to man: the baby-boomer parent. Raised by “traditionalists” after World War II, the boomers, once they had children of their own, did exactly the opposite of what their parents had done, cooing and coddling like crazy.

Couple all that affection with the affluence of the ’80s and ’90s, throw in working parents’ guilt, and boomers’ children not only got what they wanted but also became the center of their parents’ lives. Self-esteem was in, spanking was out, and coaching – be it for a soccer team or a kindergarten interview – was everywhere.

Affirmation continued as they grew, and when they spoke up, their opinions were not only entertained but celebrated. Overscheduled grade-schoolers became overcommitted teens, with the emphasis on achieving. The goal was to get into a great college, which would lead to a great career and a great life.

Gen Y-ers ran into a little trouble though – with no lessons in struggle or sacrifice, new graduates couldn’t handle the educational debt and the only safety net we could rely on was home…

Emerging adulthood

A survey of college graduates from 2000 to 2006 by Experience Inc. found that 58 percent of those polled had moved home after school and that 32 percent stayed more than a year. Even among those who’ve managed to stay away, Pew found that 73 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds have received financial assistance from their parents in the past year, and 64 percent have even gotten help with errands.

It’s what Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls “emerging adulthood” in his 2004 book of the same name. “People think very differently about their 20s now,” the Clark University research professor says. “It’s so volatile and so unfettered and so very unstructured. Nothing has ever existed like it before.” For example, in 1960 the median age at marriage was 20 for women and 23 for men. Today it’s 26 for women and 28 for men. In sociological terms that’s a revolution.

And though Gen Y-ers will eventually have to grow up – like all of us, they’ll lose their parents, face layoffs and suffer insane bosses – they are stretching the transition to adulthood well into their 20s. “If we don’t like a job, we quit,” says Jason Ryan Dorsey, the 28-year-old author of 2007’s “My Reality Check Bounced!,” “because the worst thing that can happen is that we move back home.”

Difficult to start making decisions

“It’s difficult to start making decisions when you haven’t been making decisions your whole life,” says Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist and president of consulting firm Joining Forces. He points to one of his recent projects at a software development company. His client, which had one health-care plan, was acquired by a bigger firm that offered five more.

“The twentysomething software developers were up in arms about having to choose,” Marks says. “That was their No. 1 issue – not ‘Will I lose my job?’ or ‘Will there be a culture clash?’ but this – because they were just so put off that they were put in what they viewed as a very stressful situation.” […]

But even for the Gen Y-ers who try in earnest to succeed, Marks says, the way they’ve been raised can still be detrimental: “They’ve been made to feel so special, and that is totally counter to the whole concept of corporations.”

Katie Connolly, associate attorney, Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson

Unlike most new attorneys, Katie Connolly took a pay cut for her second job. Why? The 28-year-old graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School liked that it wasn’t the attorneys but the staff at Halleland, a 53-attorney firm in Minneapolis, who had windows (since they were more often at their desks) and that everyone dressed casually. Her decision paid off. At her old firm she spent all her time researching at her desk; at Halleland she has already tried her first case.

“Lots of firms say, ‘Oh, we’re 150 years old,'” she says, “and they do things like they did 150 years ago. That’s not attractive to me. I want to do good work, not just slog through for years till I get my Persian rug and my 50-gallon fish tank.” […]

Gen Y-ers still respond most of all to money. There’s no fooling them about it; they’re so connected that it’s not unusual for them to know what every major company in a given field is offering. And they don’t want to be given short shrift – hence the frightening tales of 22-year-olds making six-figure salary requests for their first jobs. One could chalk that up to their materialism and party-people mentality, but author Erickson has a different take. “They have to get some money flowing because they have a lot of debt to pay,” she says.

Shared values

To get noticed by Gen Y-ers, a company also has to have what they call a “vision.” They aren’t impressed by mission statements, but they are looking for attributes that indicate shared values. […]

At Halleland, […] offices are all the same size, new associates are encouraged to pass work up the chain and senior partners send out e-mails congratulating junior staffers on career milestones. In 11 years Halleland has lost just five associates to other outfits.

It hasn’t hurt that the firm emphasizes work-life balance. While Gen Y-ers will work a 60-hour week if they have to – and might even do so happily if they’re paid enough to make the most of their precious downtime – they don’t want that to be a way of life.

Some firms where long hours are the norm have found ways to compensate. At Skadden Arps, new employees are reimbursed up to $3,000 for home-office equipment and $1,000 every year after. And the firm’s gyms are a big hit with Gen Y-ers. “You’d be amazed, when people come by to interview or check out the firm, what a warm response the fitness center gets,” says Wallace Schwartz, who leads the firm’s New York office.

Meet Gen Y-ers on their own turf

At Ernst & Young, recruiters hand out flash drives instead of brochures, send text messages to schedule meetings with candidates, and give interns videocameras to create vlogs for the firm’s Web site. They also launched the first corporate-sponsored recruiting page on Facebook to meet Gen Y-ers on their own turf. […]

But as any worthy suitor knows, in the end the key to courtship lies at home – in wooing Mom and Dad. For Merrill Lynch, getting young people to commit wasn’t much trouble before. “In the past, if we gave you an offer, you accepted,” says Liz Wamai, who heads diversity for Merrill’s institutional business.

“It was Merrill Lynch. Now it’s sell, sell, sell.” The company holds a parents’ day for interns’ families to tour the trading floor. But it’s involving parents in recruiting that’s been a real shift.

Johnny Cooper, assistant designer, J.C. Penney

When an offer of real work came from J.C. Penney in Texas, wannabe fashion designer Johnny Cooper jumped on it…

“What 23-year-old can say that they affect a quarter-billion-dollar business on a daily basis?” he asks.

Yes, he actually has affected it, helping to revamp the company’s line of men’s swimwear. Cooper also organized a major fundraiser for the company after proposing it in an e-mail to the president. “He responded,” Cooper says, chuckling. “It took him a week, and it was a one-liner. But it was the most exciting thing to me.”

Succeeding quickly does have its challenges: “I sometimes feel like if I’m given so much responsibility and excelling, why can’t I have more and more? I have to say, ‘Slow down, Johnny. Sure, you want to be design director, but you’ve only been here two years.'”

Loving, encouraging and rewarding them

No one joins a company hoping to do the same job forever. […] What’s more, the ties that have bound members of this age group to jobs in the past – spouse, kids, mortgage – are today often little more than glimmers in their parents’ eyes. So if getting Gen Y-ers to join a company is a challenge, getting them to stay is even harder.

The key is the same one their parents have used their whole lives – loving, encouraging and rewarding them. What that amounts to in corporate terms is a support network, work that challenges more than it bores, and feedback. “The loyalty of twentysomethings is really based on the relationships they have with those directly above them,” says Dorsey, the “Reality Check” author. “There’s a perception among management that those relationships shouldn’t be too personal, but that’s how we know they care about us.” […]

Business cards are an easy way to make young employees feel valued. Letting them shadow older employees helps, as does inviting them to a management meeting now and then. And marking milestones is major, says Dorsey. No birthday should go uncelebrated, and the first day on the job should be unforgettable.

Make big companies feel small

The idea is simply to make big companies feel small, and even major corporations can do much of that work through mentoring. This no longer means creating a spreadsheet, matching people by gender, race or a shared love of baseball, and hoping for the best. At KPMG, says Jesal Asher, a director in the advisory practice, every junior staffer is expected to have a mentor, every manager a protégé, and those in the middle often have both. There’s a Web site to facilitate the formal process, and social activities – happy hours, softball games, group lunches – are organized to encourage informal networking. […]

This summer KPMG will send 100 new hires to Madrid to train alongside new hires from other countries. The firm also gives employees time off to do community service. Steps like those have helped bring turnover down from 25 percent in 2002 to 18 percent last year, says KPMG’s head of campus recruiting, Manny Fernandez.

“Gen Y-ers are able to do and learn so much more than I could at that stage,” he says, “and they’re not looking to have a career like I have, with just one company. So we’ve got to build tools that are not just about retention but about having people develop skills faster, so that they can take on larger opportunities.”

Innovation, enthusiasm, energy and fresh perspective

While development is a long-term goal, it begins in the short term with harnessing Gen Y-ers’ energy. “They’re so vocal that you can almost take an associate to a meeting with the CEO,” says Asher, “because something that comes out of her mouth is going to be actually outside the box, something that none of us have ever thought about.”

And twentysomethings can thrive when given real responsibility. Mark Meussner, a former Ford manager, remembers one instance when, faced with a serious manufacturing problem and two young engineers begging for the chance to solve it, he took a chance on them. He gave them one more-experienced person as a counselor, and they made what he estimates was a $25 million impact by solving a problem that had proved intractable for a decade. The success spawned a slate of company-sponsored initiatives led by more-junior staffers. Says Meussner: “We need to use 100 percent of an employee – not just their backs and minds, but their innovation, enthusiasm, energy and fresh perspective.”

We are unapologetic

The most significant characteristic of the Gen Y bird is that we are unapologetic. From how we look, to how spoiled we are, to what we want – even demand – of work, we do think we are special. And what ultimately makes us different is our willingness to talk about it, without much shame and with the expectation that somebody – our parents, our friends, our managers – will help us figure it all out.

But that’s the beauty of Gen Y. […]

It speaks to a confidence that’s been building since our parents clapped at our first steps, right through the moment when – as so many new college graduates are doing now – we walked across the stage at universities throughout the country, straight into America’s finest corporate foyers. If that makes us a bit cocky at times, it’s forgivable, because I’m willing to bet that in coming years, all that questioning will lead us to some important answers.

Digitlab is fortunate enough to be a Gen Y company – I say fortunate because innovation, enthusiasm, energy, and fresh perspective are my job requirements, which makes working to my full potential, not to mention performance reviews, a lot more fun…

For more information on Generation Y, and that new bunch, Gen Z, check out our CEO, Mike Saunders’ blog.

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