By Philip D. Gardner
November 6, 2008
Employers express excitement about the young adults that are arriving in the workplace. They bring exuberance and energy that suffuses the organization where older workers may be tired and jaded. They have new ideas to share and a different perspective on how some things work (if we are willing to listen to them and acknowledge their ideas) that can open new channels for service and product development. Employers recognize selected competencies as assets from young adults: especially teamwork, technological aptitudes and basic communication skills.
Yet, these same young adults cause employers heartburn with some of their behaviors and how they approach work in general. In our recent study on young adults poised to enter the workplace, we identified several behaviors that suggest that some young adults have difficulty settling into the workplace and building the foundation for success in their early careers after graduation from college.
-¢ Surfing. Young adults have a proclivity to try out a number of experiences before settling down. Just like the channel surfer in front of the flat-screen, the young adult job surfer will consciously try out jobs, moving from one to the other, without warning. Even college students who participated in internships will continue to surf after entering the workforce. Some observers do not believe this is a bad thing; as young people gain experience, they gain an understanding of how they fit into an organization. When it comes time to make a long term commitment they are more likely to stay, so the argument goes. On the other-handother hand, surfing would be beneficial if we could be assured that young adults are reflecting on these experiences to draw out the skills and perspective they have gained and integrate those into their role in the workplace. Unfortunately reflection is not taking place. Many young adults are like one from Po Bronson’s book, What Should I Do with My Life?, who learns about his future career when a letter is delivered by a delivery service.
-¢ Reneging. A troubling variation of surfing is reneging on a job offer after already accepting the position. Young adults have learned from the crib not to trust business. Their parents, who extended loyalty to their employers, saw their jobs disappear in the 1990’s and early 2000’s after 25 or 30 years of service. Coached and marketed to with the message to always take the best offer, many young adults do.
-¢ Entitlement. The art of giving praise versus the inability of accepting responsibility. Not all young adults hold a sense ofentitlement; but about 40% percent hold high entitlement beliefs. This attitude has various ramifications to the employer but two stand out:
Young adults want to be continually reinforced and mentored.
At the same time they want to be praised for their efforts without any criticism.
It is tricky handling praise and constructive criticism jointly with this group. Underlying this issue rests a concern of some employers
that young people today just do not want to accept responsibility for their actions or failures.
-¢ Work Identity. Nothing sets young adults apart from Boomer managers more than how they identify with their jobs. Boomers hold the highest identity with work: work is who they are. They live work; they count who works more hours; has the most sales; writes the most articles. Their children (yes, these young adults are their children) have other aspects of their life to which they attach their identity. It could be family, the tribe they move with, or their leisure time. This shift in identity marks a major change in the workforce which will play out over the next decade.
Managers must avoid stereotyping young adults, No single characteristic listed above accurately describes our young adults today. Some possess multiple characteristics while others demonstrate none of these factors. In managing young adults employers can try a few strategies:
* Show patience as young people are taking longer to grow up and understand how they fit in the workplace.
* Let them find a mentor who can provide a foundation for success in the company.
* Help them establish professional networks that can be used to facilitate their work assignment and provide career guidance
* Offer training and learning opportunities that can contribute to success. Young adults really want to succeed and contribute to your organization; they believe company- provided opportunities to learn are a positive.
* Provide information on career opportunities within the company as well as the outlook across the industry.
* Share your values and validate their values within the company. Young adults hold strong environmental, family and community values; they are especially interested in contributing to sustainable activities within the company and community in which they live.
Additional information on young adults in the workplace can be found on our web Web site at www.ceri.msu.edu.
Philip D. Gardner, Ph.D. is director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. He can be reached
at [email protected]