New Paths At Work: Restless 20-somethings Use Their Leverage To Reshape The Workplace

March 20, 2006 | By Nisha Ramachandran

They are just a few years out into the workforce, and already these employees have earned themselves a reputation. Dubbing them the “entitlement” generation, employers say that these young cubicle dwellers (born in 1978 or after) have forgone paying their dues and slowly climbing the corporate ladder for wanting it all right now.

At the top of the list: the ability to work whenever and wherever they want, with job variation, continual feedback, and learning. Sounds like the folly of youth? Changing demographics may work in the favor of these latest entrants. An impending crunch in the labor supply could give 20-somethings leverage to get what they want—and soon. “Companies cannot afford to treat this generation as a noisy minority,” says Robert Morgan, chief operating officer for Hudson Human Capital Solutions. “They really are setting the pace for how work is going to be in the future.”


Ditto that for their generation X predecessors (born 1965–1977), with a few more years of experience. Dan Ross, 29, graduated from Stanford Business School in 2005. Before he started working as an associate consultant at pharmaceutical company Covance, he asked his future supervisors for more feedback and communication, another hallmark of younger employees. He now provides the same for those he supervises. After a recent project, Ross had his younger charges list tasks that were well done and those that needed improvement. “Going three weeks without telling someone how they are doing is less likely to keep them in that position,” he says. “You’ve got to give them the challenge of some things to change.”

That’s partly because the demands of these new workforce players have their roots in more than simple inexperience. Generational experts point to their relative affluence, dutiful preparation, and the wide range of opportunities available to them at an early age. “These are the kids who have been taught to do their PSATs before their SATs and to look at potential employers in middle school, not just in college,” says Neil Howe, coauthor of Millennials Rising.

Typical of this new generation is Stella Kenyi. Long before she started her first job, she sported a polished resume. As an undergraduate at Davidson College in North Carolina, Kenyi, now 23, pursued her interest in international development by designing and carrying out a program to teach business skills to men and women in Sudan.

That experience and others shaped her career expectations. “You’ve done multiple things, and you’ve done them well,” says Kenyi, who was born in Sudan and lived in Kenya before moving to the United States when she was 12. “You don’t just live in a small bubble.” So, looking for an entry-level position last year, she focused on organizations that would let her build on her previous work instead of just pushing paper. She picked the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which works on bringing electricity to rural areas. “Although I’m the youngest in the office, they respect me and are willing to send me into the field,” she says. Last year, NRECA sent Kenyi to Yai, Sudan, to do a survey on energy use. And she returned this month to work on another project.

Empty chairs

With a labor shortage forecast, young employees like Kenyi may get even more choosy. While it remains to be seen if the baby boomers will retire en masse, the United States could see a workforce shortage of anywhere from 4 million to 10 million workers by 2010. While those born after 1978 number 78 million strong, about the same as the baby boom population, the intervening gen X is only 46 million members, not enough to fill future openings.

It may not simply be a numbers game. “It’s not as though we are running out of younger workers,” says Robert Morison,coauthor of Workforce Crisis, due to be published next month. “It is that we aren’t going to have enough well-prepared young workers.” That’s particularly true of fields that require advanced schooling, such as nursing, or ones with large numbers of graying employees, like the oil and gas industry.

Those without higher education or specialized training stand to lose the most. In the past, “these guys would have had a factory job that lasted a lifetime and had great benefits,” says Maria Kefalas, associate member of the MacArthur Foundation Transitions to Adulthood Network. Kefalas, with sociologist Patrick Carr, recently tracked a group of Iowa high school grads as they sought their first jobs. Those with at most a high school education ended up in a series of low-paying jobs, with little career advancement and security. “The jobs are more brittle,” says Kefalas. “There is a sense that you can fall through the cracks more quickly.”

Yet for younger skilled workers, the competition is already prompting changes in the workplace and driving a more aggressive approach to recruiting and retention. Professional services firm Deloitte & Touche recently launched initiatives targeting would-be and young workers. “Historically, the people who were interested in us were the people who were interested in accounting and who showed up,” says W. Stanton Smith, national director for Next Generation Initiatives at Deloitte. That’s all changed. Deloitte now looks for a new kind of employee. While those with quantitative skills are still in demand, company recruiters target individuals who also are tech-savvy, communicate well, and think creatively. “That’s a particularly crowded space because those are the skills most companies want,” says Smith.

That realization pushed Deloitte to examine what prospective recruits wanted. After surveying roughly 1,000 young people ages 14 to 21, the company found that most respondents highly valued job variation and mobility in a prospective career. So Deloitte introduced a career-counseling center for its own workers to confidentially explore future options within the company. As a result, the company estimates, about 550 employees have decided to stay with Deloitte instead of leaving for other jobs, saving the firm roughly $83 million in hiring and training costs.

Other employers are also making adjustments. The federal government, which will see half of its employees become eligible to retire by 2007, is doing its best to recruit younger workers by accommodating their preferences, particularly when it comes to technology. “If some bright young person wants to work at 4 in the morning from their home in the Midwest for the federal government, we are going to work to make that possible,” says Linda Springer, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management. That means making workers more wired, by giving them the technology to make it easier to work at home and in remote locations, and keeping up to date with all the latest gadgets. Younger workers have a greater expectation of having access to technology “because they have grown up with it,” says Springer. The federal government is also looking at ways to enable employees to rotate through different departments instead of staying with one agency for a working lifetime. Last year, the government launched a partnership with three information-technology companies, giving individuals a chance to transition seamlessly in and out of the public sector.

But it’s not solely up to companies to keep their youngest charges engaged and happy. New employees should be proactive about seeking out more responsibility and challenging assignments, says Carolyn Martin, principal at consulting firm RainmakerThinking. She suggests talking with a manager about unfilled needs at work, volunteering to take on extra projects, and in general going the extra mile. “You’ve got to seize the opportunity, looking for mentors and developing skills,” says Martin. “You are in charge of your life.” Which, for this latest generation, may be exactly what they want.