Here’s a statistic from the U.S. Department of Labor that might shock you.
By 2015 — that’s next year — the majority of the United States work force will be in their 20s.
In other words, get in the back seat of the car, baby boomers. You’re no longer driving the American work force. For business owners, understanding who is now behind the wheel will go a long way toward determining their future success.
“Company executives have been so preoccupied with the recession and driven by quarterly reports that they have failed to plan for work force development,” said Sarah Sladek, the chief executive officer of XYZ University, a Minnesota-based consulting company that researches generational and marketplace trends.
“Many companies — even entire industries — are already in danger of ‘aging out’ because they haven’t been able to appeal to younger generations,” she added.
What motivates a baby boomer is quite different than that of someone in Generation Y.
Here’s how Sladek described the two generations:
Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. They are loyal and work-centric. This generation has lived through many changes, and often equates salaries and long hours with success and commitment to the workplace. The job comes first and they value face time in the office. High levels of responsibility, perks, and challenges motivates this generation. Next year, these 50- to 68-year-olds will occupy 30 percent of the work force.
Ahead of them will be Generation Y, which consists of those born between 1982 and 1995. Also known as the millennials, these 19- to 32-year-olds will represent 39 percent of the work force next year. They have grown up with computers, laptops and smart phones as their toys. This generation has never known anything but a hi-tech world.
“They put access to technology on the same level as oxygen and freedom,” Sladek said.
Powerful, but pampered
It is Generation Y’s fearless nature toward technology that is opening doors for them. They don’t flinch when it comes to change; they simply deal with it with little second thought. They thrive in the fast lane with their ability to multi-task.
Yet, while this group is creative, optimistic and achievement-oriented, woe to the employer who forgets about their need to be praised.
“We all love praise, but this is the generation of children that were playing soccer and tee-ball where everyone got a reward because parents wanted to make the children feel confident. They need immediate feedback. They need to externally be told they are doing a great job,” said Cynthia Spiers, vice president of student affairs at Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio.
At the same time, most of Generation Y harbors no ties to the mother ship. While they’ll work hard for their employer, only one-third of Generation Y members say their current job is their career, and nearly 60 percent have switched careers already. By the time they retire, some labor experts say they will have worked for 16 or more companies, meaning they average three to four years on the job before moving along.
“The current generation delays to commit to a company until they truly learn what the company, the job and their boss is about,” said Jack Staugler, director of human resources for Cooper Farms, one of the largest family-owned turkey processing companies in the United States with four locations in West Central Ohio.
That’s not a bad thing when both the company and the workers believe they are the right fit for each other.
“I’ve seen many talented young people who have embraced what they do and want to do it to the best of their ability,” Staugler said. “They want to learn as many jobs as they can, as quick as they can and can’t wait to try the next new thing.”
Haves and have nots
For many of the 80 million members of Generation Y, though, it has been a rough entry into the work force.
Much of that is a result of the Great Recession, which hit in December 2007. Even in its aftermath, it continues to force companies to run leaner, smarter and considerably faster as they redefine how they do business. New technologies and new efficiencies now see a single worker doing the jobs once performed by multiple employees. It has created the “haves” and the “have nots” of Generation Y, a dividing line that sharply separates one’s ability to be hired by the type of education they posses.
The “have nots” will continue to struggle to find jobs throughout this decade.
Gen Y’ers who have graduated from college or trade schools with specialized degrees such as engineering or welding will find themselves in great demand.
Crown Equipment, a maker of forklifts and one of the largest employers in West Central Ohio, looks for such traits when hiring.
“We’ve got a reputation for pushing boundaries in technology and innovation. This can be very appealing to all potential employment candidates, and this is especially true with those individuals who have grown up with technology and embrace it,” said Peter Falk, director of human resources for Crown Equipment.
Such companies will be the ones that continue to secure the most talented work forces in the future, Sladek said.
“Generation Y wants an employer to engage their minds and hearts,” Sladek said. “They want to know they belong, that they have a sense of ownership. They don’t want to be told what to do; they want to have a dialogue.”
Changing of the guard
This shift in work force demographics is coming at a time when 75 percent of employed Americans are looking for jobs, Sladek’s research showed.
While companies currently hold the upper hand when it comes to hiring, Sladek predicts that soon will change. She notes that employers are entering a period that will see them in a heated battle for talent. If a company is to be a destination site for talented workers, she said it cannot ignore the needs, desires and attitudes of Generation Y.
Bonnie Leonhardt, a professor and baby boomer at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, believes Generation Y has learned from baby boomers.
“As a boomer, I think our work ethic — or workaholic ways, depending on the age of the observer — is our exceptional trait,” said Leonhardt. “I think Gen X saw the dark side of that growing up with overworked parents. I think boomers also don’t realize that as the constant majority, we may have become lazy about communicating outside of our group. Gen X adjusted to us, but this new generation is going to present challenges.”
Despite these challenges, Leonhardt says she is optimistic about the contribution Generation Y will make in the future as it works to balance job and home life.
“I think they are more tolerant, open, and not as interested in presenting a front as earlier generations,” Leonhardt said. “If they do succeed in bringing more work-life balance to the work place — and I think the jury is still out on that one — I think they will have made a real contribution.”