Scared straight: How Gen Y has benefited from the recession

December 2, 2010, 4:18 PM UTC

To say the recession represented a rude awakening for Gen Y would be an understatement. Hiring freezes and massive layoffs forced the younger set to consider that perhaps having a good job was not a given but a privilege.

By Alexandra Levit, contributor

When I graduated from college in 1998, I knew exactly what I had to do. As a Generation X-er (born 1964-79), I had been raised in the school of self-reliance, and I thought it was nothing short of my god-given duty to move from Chicago to New York City by myself, get an apartment and a job, and promptly start life on my own.

In my first job at a global PR agency, I didn’t question my entry-level role.

Processing my boss’ expenses? Check.

Setting up meetings? Check.

Escorting clients to the airport? Check.

All of these things were part of paying my dues and working my way up.

When I began to write and speak on careers and the workplace, I found that my advice resonated with my Gen X peers, who had equally strong work ethics and a realistic comprehension of where they were currently and where they were going in the corporate hierarchy.

After a few years went by, however, I started feeling old. My twenty-something audience was getting younger, and I found that I didn’t understand these young professionals at all.

This new crop, all members of Generation Y (born 1979-94) had been raised by doting Baby Boomer parents thinking they were the most special and worthwhile individuals on the planet. They wanted to leave college one month and be running a company the next.

They worked on their own time and with their own styles. They brazenly demanded that managers be personally accountable for their career growth and, overall, developed a reputation for being self-centered, overconfident, and entitled.

I began receiving desperate phone calls and e-mails from Baby Boomer and Gen X-er supervisors who begged me to come in and set their Gen Y employees straight.

Most were so frustrated they wanted to hang their young professionals out the window by their iPod earbuds. And since I had just become a manager in my PR job, I could relate.

At the time, I had a 22-year-old Gen Y report named Laurie who told me during her first week that she was “ready for more strategic responsibilities.”

I threw her a project to see if she’d run with it, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she was in my office every five minutes, overwhelmed because she now had “too much responsibility.”

The tension in workplaces across America was palpable, and nowhere was it more obvious than in a mid-2000s conference session I attended that involved a panel of Gen Y employees sharing their opinions about work with a Gen X and Baby Boomer audience.

Before the panel even called for audience questions, several people from the peanut gallery had taken over the microphone with hostile, anti-Gen Y responses that threatened to derail the entire event.

Nevertheless, Gen Y, unlike prior generations of twenty-somethings that had clashed with older employees, continued its quest to be heard and accommodated now.

That is, until the recession hit.

To say the bloodletting represented a rude awakening for Gen Y would be an understatement. Twenty-somethings watched in shock as hiring freezes and massive layoffs forced them into unemployment lines in record numbers. They began to consider that perhaps having a good job was not a given but a privilege.

It was just in time, too, because stressed-to-the-max employers weren’t interested in complacent Gen Y hires anymore. They needed top-notch employees yesterday.

The Springboard Project — an independent commission of thought leaders convened by the Business Roundtable that I had the opportunity to participate in — conducted an October 2009 survey revealing that 61% of U.S. employers were having major difficulties finding qualified workers to fill vacancies. According to the research, over half of these employers felt that at least 16% of their workforces have a skill gap that profoundly affects organizational productivity.

Organizations’ biggest problem with employee performance centers on soft skills. Survey respondents reported severe deficits in such areas as work ethic, self-motivation, personal accountability, punctuality, time management and professionalism — the very things I’d been hearing Gen Y hires criticized for over the last five years.

In response to the research, the Business Roundtable, the HR Policy Association, and Accenture partnered with me to develop JobSTART 101, a free, 90 minute online course for college students and recent graduates that introduces the professional skills necessary for entry-level employees to succeed in the workplace and the challenges and expectations they will face.

I think that Gen Y’s reaction to this course has been much more positive because of the recession. If we’d released it in 2007, we would have had lots of Gen Y-ers saying, “I don’t need this stuff. It’s all common sense.”

But, as noted in August by Cindy Krischer Goodman in the Miami Herald, today’s entry-level hires have been humbled. Many of them have been down on their luck for several months, and their dreams of instant corporate domination have crumbled around their feet.

According to a Pew Research Study conducted in February 2010, about 37% of 18 to 29-year-olds have been underemployed or out of work during the recession, the highest share among the age group in more than three decades.

Gen Y-ers have realized that maybe they don’t know everything right now and that they will have to buckle down and do what parents, mentors, and senior managers say is necessary to be successful in a tough business climate. And with only minimal prompting, in the last few years they have been actively taking the initiative to prove their worth to employers on a daily basis and hone their soft skills in the long-term.

The recession has forced Gen Y-ers to put some of their best qualities to use — ingenuity, efficiency, and collaboration — in defense of their own career survival.

For the first time, many found themselves in a hole that even their all-powerful parents couldn’t penetrate, and they had to figure out how to pull themselves out. In other words, they were forced to grow up, and growing up is never a bad thing, even if you hit some bumps along the way.

Alexandra Levit is a nationally recognized business and workplace author and speaker, as well as an expert on intergenerational communication. She is the host of JobSTART 101, and the author of several books, including They Don’t Teach Corporate in College.