Has Generation Y Changed?: Update from the World of Emerging Adulthood

We all know the rumors about Generation Y. On the one hand, they’re talented, tech-savvy, and altruistic (see our April 14 posting). On the other, they’ve coddled, ambivalent and narcissistic (or so people say…).

Three years after the Great Recession broke out, with unemployment levels still looming at almost ten percent, it’s worth asking: Have Generation Y’s supposedly lax attitudes about work changed? And if so, how can agencies best respond to manage and retain the leaders of tomorrow?

An article published a couple of weeks ago in the Miami Herald asserts that work attitudes among Gen Y are in fact changing. Claiming that Generation Y has “swallowed a piece of humble pie,” the article suggests that younger employees are working harder, are complying more with their boss’ desires, and are feeling luckier just to have jobs. With almost 40% of 18-29 year olds either lacking a job or underemployed, “many of them realize that they can’t make the demands for raises, promotions, time off, training and the hottest technologies during a recession that they’ve previously made on their employers.”

As one law firm executive quoted in the Herald piece argues, a new consciousness has dawned on younger workers that portends deeper change: “I think their concept of the ultimate safety net has shattered. I’m seeing them much more engaged. I think this was a tipping point that helped the new generation suit up for the game.” It’s a point similar to an argument made recently by a young blogger for Forbes, who wrote that, “The Great Recession Saved My Generation” by giving it “a unified experience forged in the hardship we have faced”

Hard data on the subject remains rare, yet recruiters seem to be seeing higher acceptance rates, a willingness to accept lower salary levels, and a willingness to accept positions below their skill set. According to one generational expert, workplace dynamics may be changing, as Gen Y is “having to understand the other three generations in order to compete with them, in order to collaborate with them at work and in an effort to be able to learn anything new.”

On the other hand, one public relations CEO we queried reported that he’d “seen little change in Gen Y’ers,” although their work ethic did seem to have “jumped a notch.” Research released by the Pew Foundation found that Gen Y itself continued to rank its own work ethic lower than those of older generations. And a study released this past Spring found that Gen Y did in fact value leisure time more than other workplace generations. As one of the authors noted, “In the short term, the recession could reset some of Gen Y’s high expectations, making them more grateful to find any job. On the other hand, the economy is only one factor in many — parents, media, friends — that influence people. We looked at data from 2008 and attitudes had not changed.”

Ultimately, the picture surrounding Gen Y is still murky. Some caution against our very tendency to try to identify a generation’s “character”, and experts haven’t even agreed how to assess the trends we commonly associate with twenty-somethings.

When we travel to different cities around the country meeting with member firms to talk about the state of the business, generational dynamics in the workplace is always a spirited discussion, and the newest entries to the workforce tend to get the most scrutiny.

The truth is, public relations is a fairly young (people) business; we constantly need infusions of new blood to make us go.  With so much still in flux, and the job market still tight, we in the public relations field would probably be best served to continue to watch younger employees closely, remain open-minded about ways we can make work more appealing to them, and to take a longer-term view and still try to win loyalty. That way, Gen Y will stay even after the jobs come back.

7 thoughts on “Has Generation Y Changed?: Update from the World of Emerging Adulthood

  1. Very insightful post. I’d agree that Gen Y attitudes should be judged on a case-by-case basis. But, I can tell you that, as the eonomy has improved and PR firms have begun hiring again, I’ve seen the same old sense of entitlement bounce back in some Gen Y types. I think that’s because it’s inbred (as Ron Alsop pointed out in his excellent book, ‘The trophy kids grow up.’ Gen Y workers may be temporarily humbled, but I think we’ll see a resurgence of the ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality as job offers increase.

    1. Thanks, Steve: I’ll put you down in the skeptical column. I tend to think that time irons (pummels?) out a lot of our youthful naivete, presumptions and arrogance. My sample size is much smaller than yours, but the few 20-somethings I’ve worked with have been the opposite of many of the popular Gen Y stereotypes, but maybe I’ve just been lucky!

  2. At Linhart PR in Denver, about half of our workforce consists of Millennials. Our clients and our firm are very fortunate to have them.

    It’s true our team members in this cohort value their free time (as do we all). They hike, ski, climb Colorado’s 14ers, compete in triathlons, hop on their bikes for Denver’s weekly cruise night, volunteer for non-profits or just hang out with family and friends.

    But their work ethic is very strong. On Fridays at 4 p.m., when we gather in our café to celebrate the week over a glass of wine or a Colorado craft brew, it’s sometimes hard to muster a quorum because our Millennials are trying to get one more thing accomplished for our clients before heading out. Our main issue with the hours these people keep is that some arrive too early and stay too late.

    Maybe it’s the thin air. Maybe we’ve been fortunate to recruit and retain young professionals with exceptional character. Maybe it’s the culture we’ve worked hard to build. For whatever reason, Generation Y has been and remains a vital part of our success – and our future.

    1. Thanks, Paul. It sounds like a great environment there at Linhart, in many ways. When we next visit Denver we’ll make sure to stop by your offices on a Friday at around 4:00 p.m.

  3. As Confucius says ” find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” ~ so I have chosen the path of entrepreneur and love the work life I live.

    I believe knowledge based industry will find many GenY aspire to entrepreneurship. Others too will discover that a project based work life is the best way to apply our talent, live our passion & pursue the dream.

  4. Very timely and absorbing analysis. Need more such assessments to prepare the Y generation to face the challenges of 21st century more boldly. Well done


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