Generation Y’s working style has its older colleagues grumbling under their breath. But shifting expectations of both employees and employers means the office atmosphere has changed for good.

Angela Cesere
(CLIF REEDER/Daily)
Angela Cesere

As you stand in line at a company’s job fair table, waiting for another aloof recruiter to take your resume from your trembling hand, you can be comforted by the fact that you make that company pretty nervous, too.

You, and thousands of other young Internet networkers, are the reason who companies like Aetna, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Verizon Wireless pay consultants to tell them how to handle the office alien that is the Generation Y employee.

Anna Ivey, a former dean of admissions at University of Chicago Law School, makes a living advising employers how to adjust to new recruits fresh out of college and graduate school.

“Generally, we see a bit of a culture clash in the workplace,” Ivey said. “For people who are older than Gen Y there are some re-occurring complaints.”

Ivey said managers, who are used to the working style of Generation X, think that incoming classes of employees have problems dealing with authority, receiving criticism and conducting themselves professionally. They say that Generation Y employees do the bare minimum to complete a task and still expect to be rewarded.

But if employers think you’re lazy and unprofessional, job market statistics show you’re in a good position to be a difficult employee.

A 2003 study of workplace trends by RainmakerThinking, Inc. estimated that for every two employees who leave the workforce, one will enter it. This year, 79 percent of employers in a CareerBuilder.com survey expect to hire recent graduates, compared with 70 percent in 2006.

Ivey said that because of the low supply of workers, employers must learn to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of their 20-something employees. “If you don’t figure out how they think, what makes them tick and what motivates them, you’re going to be in trouble,” she said.

Generation Y has some key assets, Ivey said. Young employees are more flexible, expecting and desiring less regularity out of their work day. Growing up during the computer boom, they are comfortable learning new technology and, as websites like Facebook.com demonstrate, take an effective online approach to networking.

A manager might be riled by the upstart on his sales force who disregards the traditional workday, but what that young gun accomplishes using his Blackberry on his own schedule could be more valuable.

Part of the reason managers are willing to bend to the ways of the young, though, could be that they expect they won’t have to deal with those employees for long. If you think getting a job after graduation is hard, try finding a long-term benefits package.

According to RainmakerThinking’s report, employers are moving away from holding on to full-time employees and adopting short-term hiring practices in an attempt to stay globally competitive. As competitors emerge across the oceans, companies realize that economic affluence this year doesn’t mean they won’t have to liquidate a regional branch the next.

“To remain viable, employers have been forced to adopt extremely flexible and efficient staffing practices,” the RainmakerThinking report said. “In turn, employees have adjusted by adopting more aggressive attitudes, expectation and behaviors.”

The report said today’s employees feel less secure about their future at a company, are more concerned that international events could affect their jobs and value immediate compensation over the promise of long-term rewards.

Instead of a sense of unity or the promise of future reward encouraging hard work, employees have an attitude of getting “what you can while you can.” Supervisors surveyed in the report complain about employees’ low-performance standards and lack of commitment. Employees in the report are more likely to make special requests of their bosses and indentify less with the mission of the company.

Tension between older supervisors and new Generation Y employees could be attributed to more than generational differences. As demands for productivity increase, companies are putting pressure on middle management to stay competitive in a global field. The report said supervisors are frustrated with rising expectations for the amount of work they goad out of employees.

But Ivey said recent graduates come into the office with a different outlook before they’re given the chance to be jaded by volatile job security. It’s developed, she said, before they even leave home for college.

Ivey said the parents of Generation Y prevented their children from learning the reality of life outside the nest by coddling them. Having grown up in a time where every kid on the soccer team got a trophy, a young employee is likely to expect praise for mediocre work.

If that gratification doesn’t come, if in its place is termination, college graduates of Generation Y have no qualms running back to mom and dad. A study by Experience Inc. said 58 percent of college graduates from the classes of 2000 to 2006 moved home after graduation and that 32 percent lived there for more than a year.

In a survey of 18- to 25-year-olds by Pew Research Center, 73 percent see their parents at least once a week and half see them daily.

Ivey said employers complain that the parents of young employees will sometimes try to extend their parental protection to their children’s professional lives by meddling in affairs at the office.

“I think you have a whole generation of 20-somethings that are uncomfortable making decisions on their own,” she said. “How do you make leaders out of people who seemingly can’t do anything without their parents?”

There are exceptions to the rule. Ivey said she tells employers to look to Army graduates or children of immigrants for employees with discipline and an appreciation of opportunity. And if employers really want to avoid the personality characterizing the applicant pool, they can always move operations to another country.

“When managers complain about work being just OK, there are a lot of eager, hardworking people overseas who are willing to do that work for you,” Ivey said.

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