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Careers: The Goods on Generation Y

Young people entering the workforce are changing the rules of the employment game. To them, fulfillment and time—welcome back, 40-hour workweek—matter

After graduating from Penn State with a bachelor's degree in business last year, Ryan Healy got a job at a Fortune 500 company. "I like the job, but it's not my dream job and not my ultimate end goal," says the 23-year-old. "It's to be an entrepreneur." So, like many tech-savvy twentysomethings that want to be heard and build a community, he and Ryan Paugh, a friend from college, started a blog. Since February, Employee Evolution has been a forum for them and their peers to share advice and experiences as they make the challenging shift from college to the workplace.

In one recent post, Healy sums up the advice given by his parents: "Find something you love and pursue that passion." This mantra has been passed down to many members of Generation Y, or so-called Millennials—the 79.8 million-strong force born between 1977 and 1995. Trouble is, the world is full of too many choices (even the cereal aisle can "turn into a painful decision process") and many of Healy's friends move home when they can't decide on a career. But that's not a bad thing: "If you make a bad decision and enter a new career that doesn't align with your strengths, wants, or desires, then you can simply pick up and make another career change with very little consequence," Healy wrote.

Banking on Self-Fulfillment

Indeed, twentysomethings don't view work as merely a way to make a living, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (Oxford University Press, 2004) and research professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "They expect work to be a form of self-fulfillment—they don't want to take a job that pays well but is boring or annoying," he says. Money is important to twentysomethings, he says, but it's not as important to them if the work's not enjoyable and exciting. This notion comes from their baby boomer parents, who invented the idea that work should be fun, he says.

Boomer parents have also taught their kids that they're wonderful, so they enter the workforce thinking they should be showered with things that they want, Arnett says. With strong self-esteem, they've also grown up in an information tidal wave, as technology has become much easier to use and widespread, notes Bruce Tulgan, founder of New Haven (Conn.)-based generational research firm RainmakerThinking and author of Managing Generation Y (HRD Press, 2001). "This group is always connected, always accessible, and creative," Tulgan says. He's fond of saying that Generation Y is the highest-maintenance generation that will also be the highest-performing workforce.

And as Healy describes, they also have a lot more choices. This generation has the luxury of living with their parents until they get on their feet, can start their own company, and can take time to travel, notes Penelope Trunk, columnist, blogger, and author of Brazen Careerist (Warner Business Books, 2007). "This gives them a lot more negotiating power," she says, adding that many in this group don't accept jobs that won't allow them to grow. In fact, the bar is set so low for entrepreneurship, it's become a safety net, she says. "Even if you start a company and it fails quickly, that's a great learning experience," she says.

Building Skills and Relationships

When it comes to building a career, Tulgan (who is about to turn 40) says twentysomethings should first realize that they're "free agents" and that there's no such thing as job security in an uncertain economy. He recommends focusing on learning transferable skills that will make you valuable anywhere. Evaluate a job's tasks and responsibilities, and figure out which ones will be grunt work and the ones that will provide a learning experience, he says.

Young workers should try to cut deals to ensure their work leads to personal growth, Trunk says. For example, if you're instructed to make copies for three hours, ask to be involved in a project that you can learn from.

When it comes to money, determine how much you're willing to sacrifice to make a buck, and be sure to compare salaries and analyze your benefits, health care, and retirement plans, Tulgan says (see, "Pay and Perks").

One key to success, says Tulgan and other experts, is to build relationships. With your manager, determine what he or she needs and how you can offer it, Tulgan says. Inside your job and out, target people who look like they have expertise that can help you, and assume that they will help, Trunk recommends. Ask them specific questions, and if they give good help, stick with them. "Networking gives you more flexibility in terms of what you can try," she says. "Build relationships at every level."

Says Blaire Fraser, a 26-year-old who has had three positions in her four years working at American Express (AXP): "Relationships are critical for me.…Getting around and working closely with colleagues in a team culture is critical to me."

In the fall, she'll begin an MBA program at Northwestern's Kellogg School to broaden her marketing skills to accounting and finance. Plus, B-school will help strengthen her network, which will come in handy when she tries to find a new job or switch careers, she says.

Balancing Act

Finding a work-life balance is important, too. Faith Black, a 26-year-old associate editor at Avalon Books in New York, says she leaves her office in New York at 5 p.m. almost every day. "I don't make as much money, but I have a life," she admits. "If you're not happy, it doesn't matter how much money you're making." Ask how much control you have with your schedule and if you can work at home, Tulgan says. Some companies offer "flex time" that allows workers a more flexible schedule than the traditional 9-to-5 slog.

Indeed, Generation Y has no interest in "extreme jobs," or ones that suck up more than 60 hours a week, Trunk says. "Today, the American dream is about time," she says, not money. This group was raised learning that time was valuable, and the September 11 terrorist attacks reinforced the importance of spending time with family and building relationships, she says.

The good news is that many large companies are adapting to the changing workforce, realizing that it's getting harder to lure Generation Y-ers as well as keep them longer than two or three years (see, 9/18/06, "The Best Places To Launch A Career"). For instance, Merrill Lynch (MER) is letting parents in on the recruiting process because of their huge involvement in their kids' decision-making, and Ernst & Young is using the popular Facebook Web site to recruit young workers, Trunk notes.

Healy, the 23-year-old blogger, offers companies "solutions to keep us around," such as flexible schedules and working remotely, optional rewards (instead of a tiny raise, give more vacation time), and a friendly working atmosphere. As well, he suggests keeping young workers informed of what the company achieves from their tasks, and providing two-way feedback with managers. Perhaps some companies will listen. If they don't, chances are this restless, highly mobile generation will develop a lot more entrepreneurs who can call their own shots.

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