Highly educated, sometimes entitled and incredibly humbled by the current labor market, Generation Y is hungry for work. But do employers understand this enormous and grossly underemployed demographic?
Nearly eighty million strong, Gen Y is loosely defined as those born between 1980 and 1994 (or 2005 depending on who you talk to). Raised in a kid-centric time, many continue to be coddled by helicopter parents not willing to wean their precious lot from the proverbial financial teet. As a result, Gen Y’s expectations of the workforce are vastly different from baby boomers and even the closely-related Generation X.
“When they get to the workplace, they have a sense of entitlement, a need for validation, difficulty in really discerning what to do because their whole lives were managed,” says Christine Hassler, a Gen Y career expert and consultant. “They have challenges with making decisions and have expectations of work-life balance. They want their opinion to matter and [want to work] for a company that is really making a difference.”
Major employers are struggling to understand this often fickle demographic, choosing instead to focus on candidates familiar with the corporate structure. And in this fragile economy, a new employee who can hit the ground running is an asset. “I’m seeing a lot of corporations saying they know they need to engage Gen Y and hire young employers because it costs less, but they don’t want to take the risk of hiring someone without work experience,” says Hassler.
Corporate America is also waiting for this demographic to conform to the old playbook, something completely foreign to Generation Y, says Garrison Wynn, CEO of career management website Wynn Solutions and author of “The Real Truth About Success.” They were told they could have everything they wanted and could be whatever they wanted to be. “They’ve come to collect on that,” Wynn says. “That’s what they expect. So when they get in a job interview and it looks like the path isn’t going to be good enough or fast enough, than they’re not interested.”
Volatility in global markets, weak domestic growth and persistent economic concerns in Europe are also complicating an organization’s willingness to expand, despite high corporate profits. “The pain of downsizing and the distruction of the organization is so difficult that companies are playing it safe,” says Jackie Greaner, North America practice leader, talent management and organization alignment for Towers Watson. “It’s hard in this type of market, where it goes up and down to such a degree; it leaves everyone feeling less than confident about the state of the economy.”
The labor market hasn’t been this dire for twenty-somethings for more than 60 years. Nationally, employment among those aged 16 to 29 dropped from 67.3 percent in 2000 to 55.3 percent in 2010, according to new data released from U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Across age groups, the 2007 to 2010 employment-to-population ratio plummeted faster than any other comparable period since 1948 — the year the government began tracking data. Even a college education isn’t helping: For those 25-years-old or more with a bachelor’s degree or higher, more than 13 million are out of the labor force, according to the same survey.
For recent college graduates who either couldn’t find that first job or who have been laid off, the ramifications of prolonged joblessness may have ramifications for years to come. Even when the job market improves, there may be a large segment of the population that has been skipped over because they missed out on years of work experience that would have added to their skills and capabilities, says Greaner. Not only will this cohort have to compete with fresh college grads, they’ll have missed out on critical earning years. “If you leave an organization and three or four years later get into the market, that compounding on compensation is very hard to make up at any point,” says Greaner.
This pervasive joblessness and lack of earning power could have great implications for the broader economy — delayed household formation as college grads move back in with Mom and Dad and a difficult path to the middle class. Generation Y is known for being “the first generation that actually likes their parents,” so the tendency to move back home after college or layoffs was already quite prevelent says Peter Singer, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. But couple this tendency with the fallout of a recession and unstable growth and, “It was like it got hit with steroids,” he says.
What companies are reaching out and getting it right?
But some companies — in particular, their human resources and recruiting departments – are listening. “The companies that are doing it well and right know that it’s really about the culture you create,” says Ryan Healy, co-founder and COO of Brazen Careerist, a career-management site for young professionals. “The companies that are really successful … are sitting down and defining what is our mission, what is our culture and how do we want people to perceive us. They are then turning that culture outward and trying to show the world, through various means, here is what it’s like in our company,” he says.
After watching their parents log long hours for corporate America with zero semblance of work-life balance, humanizing a faceless corporation and training opportunities are important to the Gen Y demographic. Opportunities to interact with the brand they represent is imperative. “They grew up with technology at their fingertips since they were very small children. Technology has formed their generation and they’re used being able to engage and interact with companies,” says Hassler.
Hassler and Healy cited Zappos as a leader in the field, both for promotion of an alternative corporate culture and transparency — another imperative for the Gen Y employee. The online discount footwear retailer has an entire website, Zappos Insights, dedicated to “how the Zappos family does business.” Potential employees can sign up for a full-day corporate tour or request a free Culture Book — a behemoth of a “dictionary” that details an “open and honest view” of what the Zappos culture means to current employees.
“They don’t have a dress code and are famous for brining new employees in for two-weeks of training. At the end, they will say ‘Anyone not sure they want to be here can come up and we’ll give you a $2,000 check to go home.’ “ They want to make sure that everyone has bought in,” says Healy.
What other sectors are getting it right? Healy says tech startups are very attractive to the Gen Y employee for the simple fact that they aren’t trying too hard. “When companies ask what they can do to attract Genration Y, I always say look to start ups because they’re the ones who don’t have to put a plan or strategy in place to appeal to Gen Y, they just do because of who they are,” he says.
Working with a large peer group brings out the best in Gen Y, which is where large consulting firms and the major accounting firms like KPMG and Ernst & Young are excelling, says Healy.
“No generation has ever been more effective on a team,” says Wynn. “You get a team of people in their 20s together and the information flows, the egos are low, they make decisions effectively, they don’t take things personally and if they have problems, they get over them. They believe that every single problem comes with it’s own existing solution and that is an amazing thing and it will take us into the future.”
These boomerang kids get a lot of flack, and rightly so in some respects. But as they’re forced to grow and change, so too should the companies hiring them. “I try to tell people who are my age that wishing someone is like you is a terrible strategy. That’s called hope and it’s wonderful but hope is not a strategy,” says Wynn. “If they were like you, than they couldn’t be better than you and for evolution to move forward, we need to have people who are better than we are. A 25-year-old is going to have a better idea. Not next week, but soon.”