Generation Y, the fastest-growing segment of the American work force today, is also the least understood group for many employers. This generation is a unique group in both their demands and demeanor, and they are taking on a very different set of obstacles than their parents or grandparents did in their younger years.
Generation Y, also known as the "Millenials," is the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce today. At almost 80 million strong,Gen Y includes those born between 1980 and 1995. This is a generation whose behavior and worldview is dominated by two factors that pull them in different directions: technology and anxiety.
Technology makes Gen Y a completely unique group. They have been immersed in technology from an early age, and they don't remember what the world was like before cell phones, computers, and the Internet. These devices are as common to them as television similarly was to previous generations, but the impact of new technology on Gen Y is more significant. Theirs is an always-on, always-connected generation, and consequently, the lines between work and private lives are beginning to blur.
They may receive personal text messages and check their Facebook page at work, but they also expect to read work-related email on their iPhone, Blackberry, or Treo during evenings and weekends. While previous generations were linear in their thought processes, separating and organizing their lives according to hierarchies, this generation is always adding and blending connections – or to use the network term, nodes - in their personal, work, and social lives.
The anxiety factor of Gen Y results from traumatic changes and threats that they have witnessed in their young lives. They are becoming adults in a post-9/11 world in which foreign wars have drained confidence in our country's future and leadership. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is roughly where it was 10 years ago, and the current crises in housing, credit, and energy further threaten national prosperity. Environmental and health care concerns also trouble them. Looming financial obligations to Medicare and Social Security will fall on their shoulders, as will the burgeoning national debt.
Students' responses to these pressures and challenges are reflected by their choices in college majors. Serious losses in IT, science, and health care majors are contrasted by a rapidly increasing number of business majors. This represents the pragmatic side of Gen Y, but sizable percentage gains are also seen among majors in visual and performing arts, communications and journalism, and parks and recreation.
Previous generations have observed a close tie between their choice of a college major and their subsequent career, but this generation sees it differently. They don't believe that a college major necessarily links them to a particular career path.
What they do believe in is the power of technology. This is demonstrated through a variety of network effects. One of these involves a sense of belonging developed through online communities and the personal branding that comes with it. Through technology, Gen Y makes connections across borders, gender, race, religion, and color.
Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr allow people to create a personal brand, something that was never possible for previous generations. YouTube's tagline is "Broadcast Yourself," and members create and protect their personal brands in the same way that business marketers create and protect their product brands.
Another network effect involves the instantaneous viral spread of information among Gen Y. Information today moves online like the flu through networks, and opinions are sorted out in the process. Information is quickly sized up and deemed to be good or bad, useful or useless, cool or uncool. True to the survival of the fittest principle, only the best, most useful, and coolest stuff survives the information gauntlet.
The wisdom of groups rules the process, as music, politics, gossip, clothing, beliefs all pass through the network and are judged at high speed. A message must be attractive and innovative to the masses to make it through the process.
This process is important because for the first time in history, an information glut exists. For previous generations, information was in short supply. Baby boomers went to libraries and had to read entire books – or at least search the index - to find the information they sought. For Gen Y, information is abundant and comes at them rapidly and relentlessly.
The scarce commodity for this generation, and the most difficult thing for consumers and potential employers to gain from them, is their attention. As masterful as they are at multitasking, they don't have enough time to devote their attention to everything that comes at them with equal force.
Facebook, with over 60 million users, gets a significant amount of Gen Y attention. More than half of Facebook users are in the 18 to 24 age group, according to comScore, Inc. research. As it is also one of the 10 most trafficked Web sites in the United States, it is not a surprise that companies large and small are now taking steps to create a presence on Facebook for recruiting purposes. This is a potentially treacherous move, as intrusive marketing messages do not belong there and will get discarded quickly – as well as earn you a negative reputation.
To build a successful recruiting program on social networking sites like Facebook, you must respect the unwritten rules of Gen Y. This generation expects you to respect their community, and they are not concerned with traditional hierarchies of power and authority. They don't respond to traditional marketing, but instead to authenticity and understanding.
Their attention span is short, as they are constantly moving from one idea or trend to the next, and they will not stay with an employer unless the employer provides them with a variety of experiences. Keep them moving. One theory about why IT has lost its charm for college students is that the IT industry actually consists of 150 different jobs practiced in relative isolation. Gen Y prefers collaboration and teamwork. If you want to attract and bring in Gen Y candidates to replace retiring baby boomers, start by structuring jobs for interaction and teamwork, and defining career paths with variety in mind.
Gen Y is a unique generation. Technology and networking has bred them to be comfortable in a world of speedy global networks where decisions about adopting or discarding ideas are made faster than ever before. On the other hand, coming into adulthood in post-9/11 America has made them needier for community and security than their parents were at their age. Looming social and political crises are a threat to their way of life.
And while they are more comfortable and knowledgeable in the world outside of the United States, that world also appears more dangerous to many, both from a competitive and political point of view. Because of this, Gen Y workers are more demanding. They insist that managers from older generations "get it" - get the technology and the networking and the new paradigms for decision making. On the other hand, they seek comfort in financial stability and clear career paths.
Gen Y, the newest, fastest-growing, and fiercest generation of workers to date, seeks both a dynamic company culture and a stable vision of the future that allows them to focus on work – their definition of it, of course.
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