How does a business tune in to young adults entering the job market who grew up with ATMs, AOL, MTV, SUVs, VCRs, DVDs, PCs and TCBYs?
How does a company instill a work ethic in young adults who love to spend money but never had to get off the couch to change a TV channel?
That's the work force challenge confronting the business community, one now largely controlled by Baby Boomers. Generation X, those kids from the late 1960s and 1970s now pushing into their 30s, seemed different enough from their parents. But Generation Y, those born mostly in the 1980s and early '90s, may as well have landed here from Mars.
Well, show us to your leader. Companies that can tap the elusive Generation Y market and hire its best and brightest are in for some sweet economic times. And communities that can make themselves magnets for educated young workers, just as Boomers begin to retire in droves, are far more likely to prosper.
"They grew up with cell phones, pagers, laptops and bottled water in a world of AIDs, crack and terrorist attacks," Generation Y expert Eric Chester told an annual "best practices" workplace conference Friday in Tampa. "They never knew Jaws, Jordache or who shot J.R. They have no memory of the Reagan era, the Challenger explosion or Black Monday in 1987. To them, Michael Jackson has always been white."
In a Boomer-dominated audience, including parents of Generation Y kids, it was a good reminder that the world increasingly does not revolve around us 40- and 50-somethings. Young folks with tattoos and body piercings dense enough to resemble a walking tackle box are pouring into the work force.
Don't confuse Chester's standup comedy routine with a flip outlook about the next wave of U.S. workers. Generation X, the birth dearth generation, is 40-million in size. But Generation Y - also dubbed Echo Boomers, Boomlets, Millennials, Nexters, the Net Generation - is a whopping 68-million strong. By sheer numbers, it will influence the workplace and regional economies more dramatically than the Xers that came before.
Chester, a former teacher turned Generation Y observer, calls them Generation Why. As in why do they have to listen to their business elders? Based in Lakewood, Col., Chester has counseled such clients as American Express, Dairy Queen, Little Caesars and Discover Financial Services.
When Boomers (such as Chester) grew up, work was harder to come by. Job hunters were taught to show respect and enthusiasm. No more. And that will make it tougher to hire, train and motivate Gen Y workers.
You want differences? Boomers are still analog. Gen Y grew up digital.
The challenge is not lost on J.P. Morgan Chase, a global bank with a large operational presence in Tampa. When the bank wants to attract workers, it usually runs a very traditional - might we say stuffy? - ad in the Sunday classifieds.
But as an experiment, a Tampa vice president for recruiting decided to try an ad with some edge (at least by bank standards). The ad read: J.P. Morgan Chase. It's all here. It's all good. The ad generated 300 e-mails.
So what do these Generation Ys want? Turnoffs are nasty bosses, inflexible hours and a work atmosphere that is not fun. Turn-ons include friendly co-workers, understanding bosses, personal recognition, benefits and tuition reimbursement.
Michael Vargas just turned 22 Wednesday and his co-workers threw a small party complete with an ice cream cake. An accounting student with a part-time job in the dean's office at the University of South Florida business school, Vargas appreciated the recognition.
But when it's time for a full-time position, he's looking for many of the same things we all want. Benefits. Opportunity to advance. An employer with strong ethics. A boss willing to let him try new things. A job that does not require a lot of travel. A good location is real important, he said.
Teenager Sandra Johnson loves working at Pappas Market Cafe. She likes her boss, who is flexible in letting Johnson attend her church activities. The environment is "loving and caring," she said.
But she already is contemplating another job soon for a practical reason: health benefits. When Johnson turns 19, she will no longer be covered on her parents' health plan. Her Pappas job does not come with health coverage.
Not all concerns are practical. She doesn't like to be stereotyped.
"I think older people view younger people as punks. And it's true that many do have an attitude that they don't give a rat's a-, so it's hard for younger people who don't have that attitude," she said.
Vargas and Johnson shared their thoughts on a panel of young adults at Friday's workplace conference.
Chester characterized Generation Y as a skeptical bunch who watched many of their company-dedicated parents lose their jobs to mergers and downsizings. To reinforce the point, he flashed slides of Martha Stewart (insider stock trading allegations), Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa (corked bat) and former President Bill Clinton ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky").
To gain credibility with young workers, Chester urged businesses to tell them the truth. As obvious as that sounds, it does not happen nearly as often as it should. Be sure, Chester said, to explain why certain things are done a certain way. And if there is not a good reason, encourage young employees to come up with a better way.
The good news is Generation Y is the most technology fluent, multitasking, adaptable and team-oriented group of workers in U.S. history.
They are also the most impatient, Chester maintains. We've raised 68-million "type A stress puppies," he said. "They do not want to be bored."
His philosophical recommendation? Mix it up. As a business, don't always zig. Try to zag sometimes. His practical suggestion? Old-style businesses pay the same wages to young workers whether they are busy or not. Why not pay them more when they are productive?
The ultimate business challenge, of course, is not just understanding Generation Y. It's trying to manage, for the first time, four generations of Americans who are working side by side in increasingly large numbers.
Be flexible, Chester urged - or else. "If you do what you have always done in employment, you will go out of business."
- Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 893-8405.