Welcome to the Gen Y Workplace


Gwendy Donaker, a quintessential Generation Y-er, decided to defer a prize job offer at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. just after graduating from Pomona College in California. Instead, she went for a Fulbright fellowship and a year in Venezuela, working with a development bank on issues of sustainable development and renewable energy. A year later, Donaker, 25, joined McKinsey, but quit after three months.

"I soon realized that it just wasn't worth sacrificing two years working so hard on issues I don't care about just so the firm could pay me to go to B-school," says Donaker, who's now a full-time graduate student at New York University's Wagner school studying nonprofit management and who hopes to start an organic food and cultural center.

Does Donaker's experience offer a glimpse of how her generation will deal with work and career issues? Shockingly so, experts say. It's already being repeated at thousands of companies across the nation. It's causing hand-wringing among top executives at corporations and creating worry lines in the foreheads of deans at business schools. Companies are finding it harder to hire and retain younger people, and applications at business schools are plunging.

70 MILLION STRONG. Nick Hahn, a managing director at Vivaldi Partners, a New York consulting firm, remembers just a decade ago when he was looking for a job, how most college graduates would have given almost anything for a top-paying spot at a big-name investment bank or consulting firm. It was taken for granted that to climb the corporate ladder they would all work 80-plus-hour weeks. That's beginning to change. Increasingly, "today, college grads ask: 'what can your firm do for me' to help them lead a more purposeful and meaningful life," says Hahn.

Such a dramatic attitudinal shift toward work will have far-reaching implications for society at large. Gen Y is one of the most closely watched age groups because it's among the largest -- almost three times the size of Generation X. Born from 1977 to 1997, they're 70 million strong and are also known as echo boomers because they're the closest in population size to the 75 million baby boomers.

With both parents working and more disposable income than previous generations, Gen Y has often been branded as an overindulged, spoiled, and disengaged group that looks at the world through a prism of self interest. Having grown up with the Internet, it's also the first generation that's completely comfortable with technology. And marketers say Gen Y'ers lack attention spans and absorb information in very short chunks.

BEYOND MATERIALISM. As the Gen Y-ers begin to marry, have families, and confront the challenges of parenting and career juggling, experts believe they'll bring radically different demands and attitudes to the workplace than did previous generations. Maria T. Bailey, CEO of marketing firm BSM Media and author of Trillion Dollar Moms, says they'll definitely work more on their own terms. She also believes that their command of technology and having experienced affluence so early in life puts them in a unique position to negotiate those demands.

Ironically, that affluence has given many of them a bad rap, especially with the conspicuous consumption associated with the likes of the Paris Hilton-Nicole Richie set. Still, for many, comfort has led to a move beyond materialism, because it means they can focus on bigger and better goals. "They have experienced personal prosperity and already have their Coach bags, so they can now turn to social issues," says Bailey.

Others agree. This is a generation whose career choices and behavior are driven, first and foremost, by their quest for opportunities to play meaningful roles in work that helps others, say authors Bruce Tulgan and Carolyn A. Martin in their book Managing Generation Y. In essence, they want to be "paid volunteers," joining an organization not because they have to, but because they really want to, because something significant is happening there.

STRAIGHTER ARROWS. Members of this generation volunteer in their communities more than any other in American history. Teen sexual activity is on the decline, and virginity is on the rise according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Teens now form the most religious age group in the U.S., and their participation in church groups rose to 28% from 17%, while drinking among college freshmen is the lowest since 1966.

This social consciousness can be attributed to self-esteem-laced parenting, educating, and counseling of the 1990s, Tulgan and Martin say. In their book, they say Gen Y kids are responding to messages from schools, homes, and churches that they can make a difference -- from toy drives to working for better child labor laws; from supporting local recycling programs to calling for corporate ecological standards.

They've been hearing these messages repeatedly all their lives. It's little wonder that Gen Y'ers exhibit an altruism that embraces the environment, poverty, and community problems. At the same time, two life-altering events the last few years played a big role in shaping the consciousness of this generation-- the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the shootings at Columbine and other American schools.

THE APPEAL OF ARTISTRY. Take, Ji Park, who graduated from Yale University in 2002 and worked at the bond-trading desks in Wachovia Bank and another New York brokerage. She quit earlier this year to pursue her passion -- to start a restaurant. Park, 24, is trying to learn the business from the ground up and is working in two kitchens at restaurants in Philadelphia. She hopes to join the Culinary Institute of America next year.

"It's not like I didn't like working in finance, but when I evaluated my life and thought about what I wanted my life to end up being, I knew that the corporate check just didn't compare to the artistry of being a chef," says Park, who has noticed that many of her peers are making similar career switches. She acknowledges that September 11 has played a role in making Gen Y a more introspective generation.

Is Corporate America ready for them and their new attitude toward work? Heidi Locke Simon, a partner in the San Francisco office of management consulting firm Bain & Co., hears the same refrain during campus recruiting. "Instead of a simple 100-hour week, now the model is: work 60 hours a week, devote 20 hours to nonprofit, and spend 20 hours writing a plan to start your own business," says Simon, whose firm offers employees a flexible work schedule that's individualized according to their needs.

Companies will have to respond to this as long as labor conditions remain tight. And it would be smart for executives to check in on human resources and consider rewriting a few policies to prepare for and to capture the talent of Generation Y. By Pallavi Gogoi in New York


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