By Nadira A. Hira
December 16, 2008

As stressful as the last few weeks have been to anyone with a pulse and a 401(k), nothing’s been quite so disturbing to me as the inordinate number of times I’ve been asked, “With the economy the way it is now, will Gen Y stop being so demanding?” It may sound innocuous at first, but once you’ve heard the line a few times, it quickly becomes clear that what it really means is, “Now that you don’t have any choice, will you finally stop forcing us to do right by you and just settle like everyone else, for crying out loud?”

Well, thanks, folks. Good to know that, in all this turmoil, the silver lining for some people is the potentially broken Gen Y spirit.

But don’t start celebrating just yet. As a high-profile Los Angeles businesswoman told me last week, what said schadenfreuders don’t realize is that the outcome of the financial crisis may not be a defeated Gen Y, but a more determined one — determined, that is, to follow fulfilling work. “There won’t be any trust in companies,” she said. And the fact of the matter is, without that trust, corporate America becomes even less attractive to standout young employees than it was before the recession hit. The security that a Lehman Brothers or Merrill Lynch business card used to mean — never mind the cachet that they carried — began to evaporate as even those peers who chose the “stable” path of, say, financial services found themselves jobless. And as the list of the white-collar unemployed grows longer every day, it’s beginning to look like they’re gone for good.

Believe it or not, a paycheck doesn’t necessarily make up for all that. True, it may get a few young candidates in the door. It may even get them to stay a little while. But as today’s far more footloose Yers wait longer for spouses, kids, and mortgages — the trifecta of entrapment for the company men of generations past — they’ll be harder to corner. Every time they get a paycheck, they’ll be wondering if it’s their last. And they will always resent a company that uses that paycheck as a shackle — not to mention as an excuse not to improve the myriad other aspects of worklife — rather than as a reward for a job well done. So much so that the moment something better appears– whether it’s an NGO in Bangladesh, their own small business, or a plain old better job as the economy stabilizes — they will be out like The Flash.

So what’s a company do? (Besides advise managers not to hope for a generation of employees cowed by financial instability, of course.) It’s simple: See this time as an opportunity, not to snare young candidates while they’re down, but to distinguish your organization as one that can shine in difficult times and, as a result, attract and retain the very best employees. Yers are all about partnership, so talk to them about the challenges your company’s facing, and use those challenges to build that stirring startup energy that gets young hearts beating. And even when layoffs are a must, do them humanely, so all your employees can stay and go with dignity (and without saying mean but true things about you on every blog this side of Gawker).

As a Washington utility executive reminded me recently, Shakespeare wrote, “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” We Gen Yers are learning that, I think. Let’s see if the people in charge can, too.

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