Gen Y Feeling Fortunate and Learning Lessons in the New Economy

Millennial stereotypes

Highlights

  • An impressive 54 percent of Gen Yers believe the economy will improve by the end of the year.
  • 'Should I lower my expectations and 'settle' while I wait for the economy to straighten out before I shoot for that perfect job? I'm not ready to settle yet.'
  • Gen Y employees report the greatest decrease in engagement as compared with Baby Boomers and older workers.
In an ironic twist, the generation most often labeled 'entitled,' whose members seem to believe they deserve to have it all in an instant, is starting their careers in a job market where most have to take what they can get. Technically proficient and full of idealism and an entrepreneurial spirit, Gen Y seems well poised to shake up organizations that bring them into their fold. Yet, the organizations in this position are becoming fewer and farther between. Where does that leave 80 million young workers, energized to change the world and the world of work, one cubicle at a time? Many are still optimistic, driven by the same enthusiasm for achievement, adaptability, and self-reliance that so often characterizes them.

Feeling Lucky

Study results reveal that the children of the Baby Boomers are more confident about their future career success than they were in 2008. An impressive 54 percent of Gen Yers believe the economy will improve by the end of the year. According to a 2009 study published by Scotttrade, Inc., Gen Yers do not share the same concerns as older generations, such as protecting wealth and having too much debt. Yet even though Gen Y does not have the same anxieties as their predecessors, they are not blas' about the economy's effects on their career plans. 'If I were to leave my company, for whatever reason, I would not be able to find another job with good pay', said Marlena, a 23-year-old applications specialist. 'I was very lucky to get a job when I did, with a great company'. Maggie, a 22-year-old business development associate, echoes Marlena's concern over the job market. 'I'm happy with the company I work for and consider myself very, very lucky for the position I'm in', said Maggie. Maggie attributes her 'luck' in getting her job soon after graduating to taking an internship with the company while she was still in school. Maggie has therefore been with her company for more than a year and a half, sparing her the exhaustive job search many of her peers are experiencing.

Trying to Look Up in a Down Economy

While some Gen Yers are finding luck with employment, many are experiencing the realities of a slow economy. According to two studies released this past spring by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers nationwide expect to have 22 percent fewer job openings and offer nearly 21 percent fewer internships to new college graduates this year than they did in 2008. In addition, the Labor Department shows that for workers under 29, the unemployment rate jumped to more than 11 percent in December 2008, much higher than the overall rate of 7.2 percent. Working Gen Yers are feeling the effects of the economy across all industries. 'The fact that schools are cutting a lot of positions makes it challenging to find new jobs,' said Annie, a 26-year-old middle school math teacher. 'Instead of hiring new staff, schools stretch the positions within their school to fill the gaps and do not allow for much turnover or new opportunities'. Nora, a 25-year-old account executive whose previous job was cut in December, has felt the cutbacks. 'I was forced to find another job quickly, and luckily, I did,' she said. Yet, true to Gen Y form, Nora is not letting the new reality of the job market dampen her spirit. Instead, she is allowing her troubles with a tough economy to teach her lessons for the future. 'Think outside the box,' she advises herself and others in her position. 'Try to stand out in any way you can,' she said. 'Even if you don't get the job you want, leave a lasting impression and build strong relationships.' Michael, a 22-year-old police officer, also is mindful of not letting the challenging economy suppress his future career ambitions, having graduated with a job that has sustained him through these economic hard knocks. 'Being young in the workforce is stranger now than it has ever been,' Michael said. 'Should I lower my expectations and 'settle' while I wait for the economy to straighten out before I shoot for that perfect job? I'm not ready to settle yet.' At the same time, Michael is aware of how his generation is perceived, balancing the labels put upon him with his drive to succeed. 'It's a fine line to walk between being confident, compelling, and capable without seeming arrogant, young, and entitled.'

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

One of the most common stereotypes surrounding Gen Yers is that they lack a strong work ethic. Maybe it's because of their reputation for wanting instant rewards, or maybe it's because of their desire for more flexible work hours. But whatever the reason, Gen Y's work ethic is raising a few eyebrows, especially in a time where work is difficult to find. One 22-year-old government employee asserts that his generation's approach to work is misunderstood. 'I think our generation's work ethic is strong, but looks different compared to previous generations because of the technology differences between us,' he said. 'Previous generations tend to look at things like social networking as less personal or even lazy forms of communication, but I think it's just a product of the times we live in.' Tamara Erickson, the McKinsey Award-winning author of Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent (2006), also credits Gen Y for being 'the first generation of unconsciously competent technology users' that is seemingly reinventing the wheel of productivity. 'Gen Yers have invented a new process of getting things done. Companies need to be open to the idea that there may be more effective ways to do things.' Erikson adds that their eager adoption of technology has encouraged flexibility in the workplace. 'People like to work at different times of the day, and Gen Yers have helped people begin to understand that,' Erickson said. 'I think they're breaking down some of the hierarchies and in doing so are better at reaching across organizational boundaries.'

Where's That Spirit?

Yet, recent research statistics indicate that the stereotypes associated with Gen Y's work ethic may not be so far off. According to a 2009 national survey of workers, Boston College's Sloan Center on Aging and Work found that Gen Y employees, ages 26 and younger, report the greatest decrease in engagement as compared with Baby Boomers and older workers. The study attributes the lack of engagement to the fact that younger workers just don't have the same depth of life experience to handle a depressed economy as compared with their older colleagues who may have a 'been there, done that' attitude about the downturn that makes them more resilient and engaged. Aaron K. Chatterji, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and a member of Gen Y, believes the spirit of his generation will lift it to the levels of excellence it aspires to ' and the economy may be the extra spark that inspires the already charged up group. He writes in his column: 'To weather this crisis, my generation will have to live up to its billing as an entrepreneurial, innovative, and socially aware boomlet'. How my generation navigates the next few years will have a lasting impact on the way we view economics, politics, and our obligations to society. If the economic crisis gets much worse, it might be the beginning of the kind of cataclysmic era that profoundly shapes everyone who lived through it and everything that comes after it. Even so, if all the things they say about us are true, this generation and its values will persevere.'

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.