Internet or air? One in three young workers say Internet

November 2, 2011, 6:34 PM UTC

FORTUNE — A study by Cisco Systems (CSCO), which makes equipment that runs the Internet, concludes that the Internet, to many young people, is as important as life itself.

A third of the 2,800 college students and workers under 30 polled said the Internet is as valuable to them as air, water, food, and shelter. Followed to its logical conclusion, that means they would sooner die of asphyxiation than go without Twitter updates and friends’ wacky photos on Facebook.

Presumably (hopefully) if you sat those respondents down and talked to them, you (and they) would learn that they wouldn’t actually rather die than live without the Internet. But the results of Cisco’s Connected World Technology Report nevertheless carry an important message for corporate recruiters: you’d better make technology and communications freely available to your employees, or you might be in trouble.

Cisco says the study reveals the “increasing role of the network in people’s lives,” which might offer a hint as to why one of the world’s leading manufacturers of Internet routers and switches conducted it in the first place. Dave Evans, Cisco’s chief futurist, said in a statement that the results highlight the “lifestyles of ‘prosumers’ — the blending of professionals and consumers in the workplace.”

This is the second such study, which the company says will be conducted annually. Last year’s results were much the same, though the company emphasized young workers’ preferences for mobility and flexibility over their preferences for Internet access over life itself.

A third of respondents in the new report said that, in choosing an employer, they would put the ability to work from home, choice of mobile device, and “social media freedom” above salary as priorities.

Some older people might see statistics like these as evidence of a streak of entitlement and a lack of focus on the part of younger people, and no doubt those are factors. But the good news is that two-thirds of them would still choose oxygen over Internet access.

More to the point, the survey reveals that younger people are less apt to make distinctions between their work and personal lives. They are “always on,” which from an employer’s perspective (if not necessarily society’s) can only be a good thing. Most respondents — 70% — are friends with their bosses or coworkers on Facebook. They keep up with work along with keeping up with this weekend’s keg parties.

Employers that are still restricting their workers’ Internet access, such as by blocking certain “time-wasting” sites, should take note, as should IT managers that are still restricting which technologies workers should be allowed to use. Everything else being equal, if you can snag talented workers at lower salaries by letting them look at Facebook or by giving them an iPhone (AAPL) rather than a BlackBerry (RIMM), it seems like a no-brainer that you should. Workers prone to wasting time will waste time no matter what. Allowing access to Facebook and Twitter makes workers feel empowered and connected — including to the workplace. Blocking access makes them feel like children.