Want that dream job, Gen Y? Be different, be yourselves, but "be good" too

November 12, 2009
How should the members of Generation Y approach their careers and job search today? Should they push autonomy aside and let their Baby Boomer employers and managers mould them into professionals in their vision? Or should they march to their own drummers and leave employers to adapt to their behavioural trends?

In 2008, W. Stanton Smith, national director of Next Generation Initiatives (NGI) at Deloitte LLP, provided an answer to this question. He published extensive research on generational divides in the work place, in his book "Decoding Generational Differences: Fact, Fiction…or Should We Just Get Back to Work?" His main point comes in 2 parts:
  1. Gen Yers, or "millennials" (those born after 1980) have different career demands and expectations from their Baby Boomer counterparts (those born between 1946 and 1965).
  2. Due to the escalating talent shortage, Baby Boomer employers and managers are well-advised to adapt their practices to the lifestyle and values of millennials, so as to leverage generational differences for mutual benefit.
Shortly after Smith consolidated his research, the recession permeated every aspect of talent management, reversing the supply-demand relationship for young talent. The "war for talent" turned into "warring talent" – highly qualified candidates across almost all industries struggling to prove their value to companies less apt to hire. Today’s job market reality is not a counterexample refuting Smith’s ideas on recruitment and talent management of millennials. Rather, it calls for a shift in responsibility from older employers to younger job seekers in selectively leveraging said generational differences.

Despite individual diversity within generations, he argues, each generation has a set of defining characteristics, which translate into defining attitudes regarding life and career. Amidst the current recession, it seems that whether these generational characteristics constitute actual differences is not too important; for it is employers’ perception of and reaction to these differences in attitude and behaviour that determine their hiring and retention patterns. For today’s Gen Yers entering the job market and advancing through career echelons in economic uncertainty, the key is to play up unique attributes that coincide with employer needs, while downplaying those that clash.

Smith posits the following gains for employers from hiring millennials. Such are perceptions and expectations that young jobseekers should fulfil and leverage to their advantage:
  • Community service orientation
  • Technological savvy
  • Flexibility / persistence in the face of change
  • High skill level in social networking activities
He also alerts employers to the following behavioural tendencies of the young workforce that vastly differ from their own. As the current world is one defined by talent surplus and not shortage, young jobseekers should be wary of the following perceptions:
  • Desire to be judged on "what they do" and not "where and when they do it"
  • A state of "continuous partial engagement" in their work – taking short and frequent breaks for online diversions to accommodate a short attention span
  • Impatience for routine and repetitive tasks
  • Lack of response to hierarchy and authority
By playing up their perceived strengths amidst current job market conditions, resourceful Gen Yers can stand out as job candidates and employees amongst both their intra-generational and cross-generational peers. This may mean "biting the bullet" a bit more than they would like to in their early years, executing assignments and requests that may not be the most exciting, but could be the most essential to their positions from an employer standpoint.

Ultimately, Smith aims to convince Baby Boomer skeptics, that millennials and their distinctive approach to work, are worthy of attention.

The employer / manager population today consists of both enthusiasts and sceptics with regard to the importance of generational differences. As most job-seeking and career-advancing millennials don’t know for sure where their next employer fits into the continuum, they should play it safe for now, and draw the right kind of attention as they await the passing of the economic storm.

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