Gen Y’s Take on a Career

As a new class of freshly minted college graduates begins its summer job search — and as its recession-era predecessors, still struggling to land that first full-time job offer, do the same — recruiters are getting to know the Gen Y job seeker quite well.

Talent Management spoke with Lindsey Pollak, a global spokeswoman for LinkedIn and author of Getting from College to Career, about the evolution of a “career,” the values of the Gen Y job seeker, and how recruiters can prepare to attract and retain top Gen Y talent.

How is the notion of a career changing?
The biggest shift is the idea of a career ladder, where you start at a company at the bottom and you work your way up until you finish by retiring. What we’re seeing now is some people call it a career lattice or career web — where you might work in corporate America for a few years, you might take some time off, go back to school, start a business, go back into corporate America, do some nonprofit work, take a sabbatical.

There’s this sort of winding road that no longer leads in this very straight direction. I think it’s partly because of the economy that those roles don’t really exist as much anymore, and I think it’s partly because this new generation is saying, I’m not a single person with just one single career interest. I want to do lots of different things over the course of my life — and I’m going to build a career that makes sense at each stage, but maybe doesn’t look like a straight line.

What is causing this shift?
One is the upbringing within a family. The stereotype of this generation is they had helicopter parents who were hovering over them and sort of catering to their different interests. If they wanted to play soccer for a few years, and then if they wanted to do origami, and then they wanted to play the flute — they were really encouraged to pursue a lot of different interests.

College also played a role. You see a huge rise — I think an over 300 percent rise — in people with double and triple majors. The education system said, “You know, if you’re not just interested in a topic, form your own major, combine a few different things.”

And I think we’ve seen corporations that used to, if they hired you, keep you on board and be loyal to you say, “Well, if it’s cheaper, we’re going to cut staff; if it’s cheaper to outsource, we’re going to do that.”

This sort of contract that we thought existed between companies and workers is no longer there.

What does this mean for Gen Y recruitment?
The companies that are most successful right now are offering two-year associate or analyst programs or managerial rotational programs where they’re basically saying to Gen Y, “Come here, and we’ll help you keep your options open.”

There’s a phrase that Gen Y use, the FOMO factor — fear of missing out. You know, “If I take this job, will I only be able to follow this one path? I don’t want that.” So companies like the accounting firms or consulting firms are saying, “Do our program for two years, and then maybe go to business school, maybe join a line of the business, or go to one of our clients — but we’re not expecting you to stay for a long time.” That model has worked really well.

The companies that are struggling have not adapted their career path model at all to acknowledge the fact that [Gen Y] might not want to take 10 or 15 years to become a vice president. [Gen Y] might want other kinds of opportunities. Certainly there will always be people who want that particular path — that are willing to be slow and steady. But there are a lot of Gen Y that are saying, “I want to move around; I want to try lots of stuff.”

What role does social media play?
Social networks play a crucial role, because everybody has to be what Reid Hoffman [co-founder of LinkedIn] would [call] “the startup of you.” Whereas before you could do pretty well just being known in your company and doing your work, nowadays you really have to stay out there and promote yourself — your personal brand, is the term a lot of people use — because you may be on the market a lot more than you may have thought.

Essentially, it’s this added step in your career — you have to maintain a presence for yourself in the greater world. Even if you’re happily employed, that may not be the case forever. So you have to make sure that you keep up your networking connections.

How does that dynamic play into a talent manager’s job?
Culture is a huge piece of that. A lot of people don’t leave because of the job; they leave because of the manager or the culture of the organization — so keep people happy.

You know a lot of people say in their exit interviews, “You know, if you had only done this,” and the company will say, “You never told us that is what you wanted.” So I think really having a dialogue, a two-way communication with employees, saying, “What is it that you’re really looking for?” Companies used to think, “We know what’s best. We know what makes our employees happy.” That’s not really the case anymore.

How can a talent manager improve the candidate experience for Gen Y?
One of the biggest driving factors for Gen Y is that they feel passionate about the work they’re doing. They feel that it’s part of their self-expression to do the work. When companies can engage Gen Y around their passion … I think that’s a really successful way to recruit Gen Y.

Gen Y are very interested in moving forward and educating themselves, so going back to the concept of, we provide education, we want you to be the best you can be, we want to help develop you — not just to come here and do the work, but we want to help you grow as a person, as a worker, as a leader.

Gen Y is also young — they’re social, they want to work with people they like, as does everybody. There’s a myth that Gen Y all want to be on their devices and work from home. That’s absolutely not true. I thought my entire business by this point would be virtual; I thought Gen Y would want to take webinars and want to watch me on a video screen like Wolf Blitzer on CNN — absolutely not.

They want to meet people. They want to make these networking connections. Don’t ever assume that [Gen Y] want everything to be virtual. The No. 1 thing I hear from Gen Y when I talk about recruiting is, “Why do they keep emailing and texting us? I want to meet them. I want to go to events.”

So face-to-face communication is still really crucial. You know, they’ll certainly have their devices on — they’ll be texting in their pockets possibly during the event — but they don’t want everything to be completely technological.