Which is it?

Are we slackers or are we tough cookies? Can we really be both? What am I talking about? I just read this article from Fortune on Attracting the 20-something worker.

One minute I’m happy to be a 20-something (even if I am closer to 30 than 20 now) – and the next I want to bury my head in the sand. This is a great article, even though it made me want to wring the author’s (who turned out to be a 20-something herself) neck sometimes.

The good (as I see it):

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.

“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.”

To get noticed by Gen Yers, 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: affinity groups, flat hierarchies, divestment from the more notorious dictatorial regimes.

No one joins a company hoping to do the same job forever. But these days even your neighborhood bartender or barista aspires to own the place someday.

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.”

The bad (as I see it):

When it comes to Gen Y’s intangible characteristics, the lexicon is less than flattering. Try “needy,” “entitled.” 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.”

Never mind that they often need an entire team – and a couple of cheerleaders – to do anything. For some of them the concept “work ethic” needs rethinking.

“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. There’s no stigma, and many of us grew up with both parents working, so our moms would love nothing more than to cook our favorite meatloaf.”

Subha Barry, global head of diversity, recalls running into a colleague having lunch with a potential summer recruit and someone she didn’t know. It turned out to be the boy’s mother.

“If somebody would have said to me, ‘You’re interviewing for a job somewhere, and you’re going to bring your mother to the closing, decision-making lunch,’ I would’ve said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy,'” she says, wagging a finger. “But I tell you, his mother was sold. And that boy will end up at Merrill next summer. I can guarantee that.”

The silly (as I see it):

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.

Gen Yers always seem to be at the gym. More than a third of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press have a tattoo, and 30 percent have a piercing somewhere besides their earlobe. But those are considered stylish, not rebellious.

And speaking of fashion, this isn’t a group you’ll catch in flannel. 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 fact is – that through the generalizations (I have no tattoos, no piercings other than ears, I do own and wear flannel, my mother did not come on any interviews with me, and quitting my job and moving home is not an option) a pretty good picture comes out of this article. We’re ambitious, we’ll work if you let us, we’ll speak our minds and we have our priorities straight (family always come before work – no matter what!).

It’s a good read – and I’ve only given you a tiny piece of it here – so, feel free to read it for yourself.


  1. The Washington Post’s Magazine Reader column wrote about this piece in a recent column. You may need a password to read it. The author points out that Fortune published a similar piece about baby boomers in 1969. “These kids today!”

  2. I just read that article about an hour ago. I was re-shelving some periodicals and the title struck me. After reading it I was insulted, and felt that other people from older “generations” should feel insulted as well. So I carry around an iPod and can’t be parted from my laptop…My mom and other friends in their 50’s and even 60’s also have become inextricably linked to technology and knowledge! I thought it was overly critical and a broad gross generalization of Gen Yers. I’m still fighting the urge to write them a letter…but that would probably further their assertion that my generation is self-centered and demanding, huh.

  3. The thing is – the author is a Gen Yer – and she’s talking about herself the same way – that’s the only thing that calmed me down. A lot of what she said was true (about me at least) and it’s great that we (as a generation) can be honest and speak our minds – even if it means pointing out our (the author’s) flaws.

    Does that make sense? My brain isn’t working, it’s Friday afternoon.

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