My guest column in Time magazine: What Gen Y Really Wants

, ,

With 85 million baby boomers and 50 million Gen Xers, there is already a yawning generation gap among American workers–particularly in their ideas of work-life balance. For baby boomers, it’s the juggling act between job and family. For Gen X, it means moving in and out of the workforce to accommodate kids and outside interests. Now along come the 76 million members of Generation Y. For these new 20-something workers, the line between work and home doesn’t really exist. They just want to spend their time in meaningful and useful ways, no matter where they are.

The first challenge for the companies that want to hire the best young workers is getting them in the door. They are in high demand–the baby boomers are retiring, and many Gen X workers are opting out of long hours–and they have high expectations for personal growth, even in entry-level jobs. More than half of Generation Y’s new graduates move back to their parents’ homes after collecting their degrees, and that cushion of support gives them the time to pick the job they really want. Taking time off to travel used to be a resume red flag; today it’s a learning experience. And entrepreneurship now functions as a safety net for this generation. They grew up on the Internet, and they know how to launch a viable online business. Facebook, for example, began in a college dorm room.

Read the rest of this article at

16 replies
  1. Ivan Yong
    Ivan Yong says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Despite the cultural gaps between Asia and US, the trend is picking up in Asia as well.

    I have lived in Malaysia, Singapore and now Hong Kong and I am beginning to sense the General Y trend here as well.

    It used to be that every graduate would aim to work for a multinational for the prestige or to climb the corporate ladder.

    Now most of my circle of friends are saying ‘Ditch the ladder, I am taking the career elevator ! ” Basically, to lead the life which a rewarding career will bring much earlier in life.

  2. Sam Davdson
    Sam Davdson says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your next-to-last paragraph. I study and write about 20- and 30-somethings looking for meaning in life. A lot of them have found (and could find) it if their employer offered opportunities for service.

  3. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Great column. I would sum up the question you posed – What Gen Y Workers Really Want – this simple way: They want everything. They really do. They want to have a rewarding career, have a full life with real relationships, have the flexibility to pursue their own interests, have it all. I hope tons of employers read your column and really address the issue you closed with – that we are the bosses of the future. If they don’t offer us what we want, we’re figuring out how to get it on our own, where it is – whether at an other company or working for ourselves.

    * * * * * *

    Hi, Tiffany. First, let me just say that I like your blog. And even though a lot of people will be annoyed by your comment, they should take a look at your blog:

    Second,  I think it’s really important for all of us to figure out what we don’t want as a way to learn more about ourselves. No one wants everything. For example, unlike baby boomers, generation Y does not want two high-powered careers and kids in day care all day. And unlike generation X, generation Y doesn’t want the opportunity to be left alone to figure things out for themselves.

    One of my favorite parts of steering my life and my career has been to look around and figure out what will not work for me. I don’t want everything. I want what’s right for me. The hardest thing in the world is to figure out what that is.


  4. Daniel Dessinger
    Daniel Dessinger says:


    I don’t really despise Gen Y, just so you know. I officially belong to Gen Y, despite the fact that I always associated myself with Gen X.

    I don’t really regret my career moves. Things are going really well in most departments, actually (and that’s not politically correct speak). Hope all goes well with you and yours.

  5. Jeff F
    Jeff F says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Just to get the stats out of the way, I am your typical Gen Y’er, Masters Degree in I.T. from a nationally recognized university in the US, 25 year old male living in the Northeastern US. I’ve read your column for the past several months since I was recently fired from my first post-college job (long story short: I was the ambitious Gen Y’er in a sea of complacent baby boomers), and there is one point that I keep hearing from the news, and other blogs that I so commonly scratch my head on: “The Great Job Market”

    For the past 2 1/2 months, I have been out job searching, thankfully with a wealth of inside contacts, all the while using Monster/Dice/etc. I’ve been told by some HR departments that I have “too much experience,” and by others who ask me right off the bat in a first interview what my salary requirements are. It makes me stammer because they haven’t asked me what my drive is, why I want to work for them, where I see myself in five years, etc. Telling companies “I don’t really care about the salary as long as it doesn’t put me in the poor house, and you give me interesting and fulfilling work” has absolutely fallen on deaf ears. I have some interviews coming up, and some in the bank waiting on a further round of discussions, but so far I have to yet to hear the clammering of companies for competent Gen Y’ers who are ready to do a great day’s work.

    Do you think that HR/hiring managers have not caught on to what the Gen Y’er really is about? Or is it just that those Gen Y’ers are not approaching companies in the best way to get noticed? Besides a compelling cover letter, a great resume (allow me to toot my own horn), and the ambition to take on any technical task that is the living and breathing embodiment of what a Gen Y’er looks for in a job, what’s the trick? Or is it more of an attitude change that has yet to completely take place in corporate America?

  6. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    You’re exactly right – maybe the best way to say what I was getting is: we want all the good stuff. And what that is exactly depends on the person, but I do think it’s very different for Gen Y from what the average worker of the past wanted. Maybe that’s not because it wasn’t desirable, but it just didn’t seem possible before. But now, perhaps people like you with your message and your mission will help us achieve those good things and more. It seems very possible. Thanks for leading the way!

  7. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    Great article, Penelope. I appreciate any time someone can clearly articulate what we’re looking for without making us look like a bunch of spoiled brats.

  8. Tim
    Tim says:


    Your comment about being “…the ambitious Gen Y'er in a sea of complacent baby boomers,” struck a chord. One of the biggest reasons new employees don’t work out is, not because of a lack of talent, but a failure to fit in with the culture of the company and/or department. Your comment reveals a lot about how you felt about them–and I don’t think it was lost on them.
    It’s not surprising the job didn’t work out. Remember, they saw something in you when they hired you. They wanted you to succeed.

    Before your boss or fellow employees will ever buy into your ideas, you have to prove a lot to them. Once they know you are someone who consistently delivers and who has a great attitude, they may not seem so complacent to you anymore. They should be much more willing to listen to what you have to say.

    But how you say something is just as important as what you say. Two and half months is not very long to prove yourself to people who have invested a lot of time and sweat into their jobs/careers at the company.

    Much of this is taken from a response I posted over at
    So I apologize in advance to those of you who read (Tiffany from had a fantastic post there as well under “Tech-savvy youth can't beat efficient elders – or can they?”).

    What to think about in your next job:

    How does your company/department communicate?
    How does your boss like to receive ideas?
    What is his work style? How does he like to be approached?
    Learn the soft skills! It's not all about work – €“it's
    about relationships!

    This isn't about kissing ass.
    It's about learning how to get your message across,
    your ideas appreciated and how to best work with
    your boss.

    The little things are important.

    Each boss has their own style of management. Your passion
    and ideas, etc. may be great, but you have to fit it into
    your supervisor's style. This whole company culture stuff
    is a pain, but if you want to succeed, it's vital to learn.

    I've seen good employees do down because they
    didn't pay attention to how to talk to the boss and/or figure out
    what's important to him.

    Watch him (or her). Watch how he interacts with
    others. What works, what doesn't. Learn from this!

    Don't be someone else, but learn how your
    style can work with his/her style.

    It’s a pain that all new employees have to go through.
    It’s not all about the work – it's about building relationships within the office/company, too.

    I’m not trying to scold you or your generation.
    Far from it. This is just some advice I’m passing on. As is said above, I’ve seen some good employees fail for no other reason than they ignored the culture of the company.

    Good luck in your job search!


  9. Tim
    Tim says:

    Hi Jeff,

    One more thing…I shouldn’t have assumed you were only in your job for 2 and half months. It appears that’s how long, but I could have jumped to a conclusion there. My point is that sometimes it takes longer than we’d like for the boss/department to take us as seriously as we’d like to be taken. But the more you invest in them–work and good attitude–the sooner they’ll trust you.


  10. Jeff F
    Jeff F says:

    Hi Tim,

    It was 10 and a half months I was in the job, I’ve been out of work for 2 1/2. :) But not to nit pick.

    I totally agree with all your points, and of course it is a lot of more soft skills than hard when it comes to dealing with coworkers.

    My post was more of a venting of frustration. A lot of wasted talent on people who are just coming out of school and might not be as adept in all those soft skills techniques, but need to be coddled a bit, and I definitely think that is one thing I missed at my former job.

    There needs to be more emphasis on mentoring and soft-skills development. My honesty in my feelings about my job to both HR and my immediate manager were what, frankly, came back to my bite me in the ass. As sad as it sounds, I will likely keep more of those emotions to myself and keep my mouth shut when it comes to frustration, because as I commonly heard at my previous job from my superiors, “Is it done yet?” without a second thought to the soft-skills needed to handle today’s Gen Y’ers.

  11. Tim
    Tim says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I agree!–more companies should provide mentors for new employees. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that most companies are so lean that mentor programs, while a great idea, are a strain on employees who are already putting in a ton of hours.

    Oddly, I bet “seasoned” employees who do choose to mentor new workers will find greater overall satisfaction in their job–and become even more productive.

    Just watch the winners in the company. Learn from them–don’t copy them–but learn how and why they are successful–let’s call it Stealth Mentoring!

    Then think about that and how you can then use your style to achieve success.

    Keep hanging in there. No company is perfect–remember they are managed by humans–but you’ll find a good match sooner or later (hopefully sooner!).


  12. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    If you young folks don’t mind a persona non grata Baby Boomers weighing in, I find that at a fundamental level everyone pretty much ends up wanting the same things out of work: decent pay, interesting work, opportunities to learn,good colleagues, and enough free time to enjoy life. (Trust me: the 100-hour-a-week, break-the-rungs-behind-me-wile-I-climb-the-corporate-ladder folks may make the headlines, but they’re still the exception, not the rule.) What’s really changing the rules for Gen-Y are globalization and technology.These may result in some opportunities waving bye-bye, but they will sure open up a whole lot more.Yes, Gen-Y will be able to remake the workplace, but it’s also being remade for them.

    Just my two cents, and, in my day, two cents realy meant something. Why, you could buy a Squirrel Nut. Make that two Squirrel Nuts…

    As for mentoring, one of the great career satisfactions I’ve had is the ability to act as a mentor. If your company doesn’t have formal mentoring – and I suspect most don’t – new employees should figure out who might be willing and able to take them under their wing. Most people, I suspect, will be flattered to be approached by a younger colleague.

  13. Richard
    Richard says:

    Jeff (and other Gen Y'ers)

    +1 to Tim's response.

    It sounds like you learned a lesson from your previous experience. I had a similar lesson when I turned 30, I'm 32 now. After that experience my views on the workplace changed. My takeaway from that experience was that:

    You need to respect your job and workplace. Leave the brazen attitude at home.

    Managers don't care about your feelings or frustrations. A good manager/leader will listen to your needs but at the end of the day, they need a job done, that's what you get paid for. They don't care how much talent you have, they need results. This saying was ingrained to me from a former manager "hard work is always appreciated but results matter".

    I applaud your efforts for wanting to develop your soft skills; I realized this in my late 20's. My suggestion is to start with "How to win friends and influence people" by Dale Carnegie. I also recommend the popular books by John Maxwell.

    Take the initiative on finding a mentor. Don't limit yourself to mentors in the workplace. Seek successful people in your community and industry.

    Be patient, your career is a marathon, not a sprint.

  14. debtkid
    debtkid says:

    Hah! Talk about hitting the nail on the hammer! I think this whole post is me in a nutshell. I’m 24 and a small business owner.

    This was the line that really got me though,

    “For these new 20-something workers, the line between work and home doesn't really exist.”

    Tell me about it! I’m living in my office (literally) right now to deal with my debt issues. Great stuff.


Comments are closed.