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Success Defined By Generational Values

This spring, about 1.65 million young men and women graduated from American colleges and universities. That’s a staggering number. Much has been written, and rightly so, about the difficulties facing the Generation Y (also known as Millennials) graduates as they enter a troubled world.

This spring, about 1.65 million young men and women graduated from American colleges and universities. That’s a staggering number.

Much has been written, and rightly so, about the difficulties facing the Generation Y (also known as Millennials) graduates as they enter a troubled world.

Compared with other recent American generations, this year’s grads seem to have been dealt a particularly tough hand. These graduates will be entering a grudging and highly competitive job market in an economy still sputtering toward a meaningful rebound.

But with great challenge comes great opportunity.

Back in March, TheNew York Times published a story headlined, “More College Graduates Take Public Service Jobs.” The article refers to “a cohort of young (people) who ended up doing good because the economy did them wrong.”

As job hunts became tough after the crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested that more young people considered public service. Exactly how big that shift was is now becoming clear: In 2009 alone, 16 percent more young college graduates worked for the federal government than in the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups.

Specifically, applications for AmeriCorps positions nearly tripled from 2008 to 2010, to  258,829. The number of applicants to the Teach for America program increased by 32% to 46,359.

The New York Times article referred to Millennials as people who were “recalibrating” their ambitions and their goals.

The article surmises that Millennials are unusually big-hearted, partly because of the community service requirements they had in school and partly because of recent economic decline. Research has always indicated that this generation is more interested in making a difference than making a dollar; they would rather serve a greater purpose than to help a company make more widgets.

In any case, what’s happening in the job market is an excellent example of how generations are formed. It’s not an exact science, but we can’t deny that as a rule, we establish our values and interests based on what’s happening in the world during our youth.

Baby Boomers were raised in an era of prosperity. They were encouraged to pursue the American Dream, which consisted of a great education or great job and resulted in the title of CEO, the corner office, and a hefty salary with an annual raise.

Generation Xers were raised in an era of social change. They were raised to be self-sufficient, raising themselves amidst skyrocketing divorce rates, two-parent working households, and 30 years of massive layoffs in corporate America. As a result, they strived to find jobs that offered work-life balance so they didn’t have to sacrifice time spent with loved ones or enjoying life.

Generation Y started out as the most supervised generation in history, shuttled off to playdates and daycare and soccer practices from an early age. They have always been rewarded for participation and not achievement. They have observed or experienced major crises ranging from terrorism, September 11, school shootings, and the worst economic decline in 70 years. As a result, they seek meaningful work.

What we experience in our youth defines our values; it even defines the way we define success. Each generation defines success so differently, it’s often the cause of conflict in the workplace. On the other hand, it’s also the path to greater opportunity.

Boomers love the rat race and built many of America’s successful enterprises with their own blood, sweat, and tears. In contrast, Generation Y wants to help the human race and will serve America’s people with their compassion, creativity, and innovation.

We need what every generation has to offer to be our best selves, workplaces, communities, and country. That’s the challenge–and the opportunity–of being in a multi-generational workforce.

(P.S. If you want to know more about what’s happening in the workplace, check out HR magazine’s May cover story, Mixing It Up. A colleague of mine, Amy Hirsh Robinson, is quoted in the article. The article delves into the attitudes, conflicts, issues, and choices that arise with four generations in the workplace.)

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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