Have you heard the one about the kid who got his mom to call his boss and ask for a raise? Or about the college student who quit her summer internship because it forbade Facebook in the office?
Yep, we’re talking about Generation Y — loosely defined as those born between 1982 and 1999 — also known as millennials. Perhaps you know them by their other media-generated nicknames: teacup kids,for their supposed emotional fragility; boomerang kids, who always wind up back home; trophy kids — everyone’s a winner!; the Peter Pan generation, who’ll never grow up.
Now this pampered, over-praised, relentlessly self-confident generation (at age 30, I consider myself a sort of older sister to them) is flooding the workplace. They’ll make up 75 percent of the American workforce by 2025 — and they’re trying to change everything.
These are the kids, after all, who text their dads from meetings. They think “business casual” includes skinny jeans. And they expect the company president to listen to their “brilliant idea.”
When will they adapt?
They won’t. Ever. Instead, through their sense of entitlement and inflated self-esteem, they’ll make the modern workplace adapt to them. And we should thank them for it. Because the modern workplace frankly stinks, and the changes wrought by Gen Y will be good for everybody.
Few developed countries demand as much from their workers as the United States. Americans spend more time at the office than citizens of most other developed nations. Annually, we work 408 hours more than the Dutch, 374 hours more than the Germans and 311 hours more than the French. We even work 59 hours more than the stereotypically nose-to-the-grindstone Japanese. Though women make up half of the American workforce, the United States is the only country in the developed world without guaranteed paid maternity leave.
All this hard work is done for less and less reward. Wages have been stagnant for years, benefits shorn, opportunities for advancement blocked. While the richest Americans get richer, middle-class workers are left to do more with less. Because jobs are scarce and we’re used to a hierarchical workforce, we accept things the way they are. Worse, we’ve taken our overwork as a badge of pride. Who hasn’t flushed with a touch of self-importance when turning down social plans because we’re “too busy with work”?
Into this sorry situation strolls the self-esteem generation, printer-fresh diplomas in hand. And they’re not interested in business as usual.
The current corporate culture simply doesn’t make sense to much of middle-class Gen Y. Since the cradle, these privileged kids have been offered autonomy, control and choices (“Green pants or blue pants today, sweetie?”). They’ve been encouraged to show their creativity and to take their extracurricular interests seriously. Raised by parents who wanted to be friends with their kids, they’re used to seeing their elders as peers rather than authority figures. When they want something, they’re not afraid to say so.
And what the college-educated Gen Y-ers entering the workforce want is engaging, meaningful, flexible work that doesn’t take over their lives. The grim economy and lack of job opportunities don’t seem to be adjusting their expectations downward much, either. According to a recent AP analysis, more than 53 percent of recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed, but such numbers don’t appear to keep these new grads from thinking their job owes them something.
In a MarchMTV survey of about 500 millennials, called “No Collar Workers,” 81 percent of respondents said they should be able to set their own hours, and 70 percent said they need “me time” on the job (compared with 39 percent of baby boomers). Ninety percent think they deserve their “dream job.” They expect to be listened to when they have an idea, even when they’re the youngest person in the room.
“Why do we have to meet in an office cross-country when we can call in remotely via Skype?” asks Megan Broussard, a 25-year-old New Yorker who worked at a large PR firm for three years before quitting to become a freelance writer and career adviser. “Why wouldn’t my opinion matter as much as someone else’s who only has a few more years of experience than I do?”
These desires are not exactly radical. Who wouldn’t want flexibility, autonomy and respect?
What’s different, says Lindsey Pollak, the author of “Getting From College to Career: Your Essential Guide to Succeeding in the Real World,” is how Gen Y-ers are asking for those things. Pollak, a consultant who advises companies on how to deal with Gen Y, says these workers — at least, the well-educated ones who can afford to make demands — want what everyone wants out of a job, they’re just asking for it in a more aggressive way. “And they’re the first ones to leave when they don’t get it,” Pollak says.
According to surveys, 50 percent of Gen Y-ers would rather be unemployed than stay in a job they hate. Unlike their child- and mortgage-saddled elders, many can afford to be choosy about their jobs, given their notorious reliance on their parents. After all, they can always move back in with Mom and Dad (40 percent of young people will move home at least once, per Pew research), who are likely to be giving them financial help well into their 20s (41 percent of Gen Y-ers receive financial support from their parents after college, according to research from Ameritrade).
In fact, it’s possible that a bad economy can make being choosy even easier — if more people are struggling to find work and living at home, there’s no stigma to it.
Nancy Sai, a 25-year-old who works at a nonprofit in Manhattan, spent a year living with her parents and working at a gas station while trying to snag her dream job. Her mom kept bugging her to look for something different — teaching! government! anything! — but Sai held firm. While it took her a year to find the ideal gig, she’s glad she waited. Her job is meaningful, the office environment friendly and welcoming, her bosses forthcoming with feedback. Some of her friends have not been so lucky — one quit her job in politics when her boss refused to give her any time off.
“She couldn’t separate her work life from her personal life at all,” Sai says. “She quit without another job lined up. She said she felt the most liberated she had in two years.”
Despite the recession, or perhaps because of it, corporations are eager to hire and retain the best, most talented Gen Y workers. “In this risky economic environment, the energy, insight and high-tech know-how of Gen Yers will be essential for all high-performing organizations,” said a 2009 study on Gen Y from Deloitte, the professional services giant.
Companies are beginning to heed Gen Y’s demands. Though flextime and job-sharing have been staples of the workforce for a few decades, they are becoming more accepted, even in rigid corporate culture, says Laura Schildkraut, a career counselor specializing in the needs of Gen Y. There has also been a rise in new work policies, such as ROWE, or “results only work environment,” a system in which employees are evaluated on their productivity, not the hours they keep. In a ROWE office, the whole team can take off for a 4 p.m. “Spider-Man” showing if they’ve gotten enough done that day.
Radical-sounding perks such as unlimited paid vacation — assuming you’ve finished your pressing projects — are more common among companies concerned with attracting and retaining young talent. By 2010, 1 percent of U.S. companies had adopted this previously unheard-of policy, largely in response to the demands of Generation Y.
The Deloitte study warns that, to retain Gen Y-ers, companies “must foster a culture of respect that extends to all employees, regardless of age or level in the organization.” In other words: Treat your Gen Y workers nicely. But we should be treating everyone nicely already, shouldn’t we?
Beyond that, Gen Y’s demands may eventually help bring about the family-friendly policies for which working mothers have been leading the fight. Though the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 afforded some protections for working parents, genuine flexibility is still a privilege of the lucky few, and parents who try to leave the office at 5:30 p.m. are often accused of not pulling their weight. Well, guess what? Now everybody wants to leave the office at 5:30. Because they’ve got band practice. Or dinner with their grandma. Or they need to walk their rescue puppy.
The American workplace has been transformed during economic upswings and downturns. The weekend was a product of labor union demands during the relative boom of the early 20th century. The Great Depression led to the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which introduced the 40-hour workweekand overtime pay to most Americans. But now, workplace change is coming from unadulterated, unorganized worker pushiness.
So we could continue to roll our eyes at Gen Y, accuse them of being spoiled and entitled and clueless little brats. We could wish that they’d get taken down a peg by the “school of hard knocks” and learn to accept that this is just the way things are.
But if we’re smart, we’ll cheer them on. Be selfish, Gen Y! Be entitled! Demand what you want. Because we want it, too.
Emily Matchar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Gourmet and Outside, among other publications. She is the author of an upcoming book about “new domesticity.”
Read more from Outlook: