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Generations at Work: Meet the 20-somethings

As our regular readers know, Changing Times offers information, insight and practical advice – inspired by conversations with our clients.

For 2012, we are planning a special series with a theme: Generations at Work

  • What do you need to know to prosper in your work life during your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and into your 60s and beyond?
  • And how can we work well across all those age groups to build successful organizations – and to make the most of our resources?  In today’s challenging financial times, that’s more important than ever.

We’ll talk about everything from first jobs and Facebook to final chapters in the workforce.

And we’ll look at the chemistry of today’s organizations – for example, what happens when the generations of “Father Knows Best” and “The Simpsons” collaborate.

Consider this an interactive adventure: Please share your reactions and experiences.   Whatever your age, tell us how you see your generation at work – and your advice for forging strong teams of all ages –

Beginning with the 20-somethings

A funny thing has happened over the past several years.

I found myself in a new kind of consulting job. My kids and their classmates, my nieces and my nephews, the children of my friends … they were all asking the same questions:  How to find a job? How to network?  How to handle the new universe of life at work?

As my son graduated from college last spring, the parents of his group of friends gathered for a brunch and gave them our best advice.  Here are some of my favorites:


  • Make friends with HR.
  • When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.
  • Keep a clean change of clothes at work.
  • The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow…do good anyway.

So what can we tell them?  What do they need to know in their first work adventures? And what advice can we offer to the folks who work with them?

Whether you call them Generation Y or Millennials, 20-somethings bring a new set of values and experiences to the world of work.

Let us introduce you

If you read books like “Millennials in the Workplace” by Neil Howe and Reena Nadler or a recent report on millennials from the Pew Research Center, you will hear 20-somethings described this way:

  • Confident Remember they are the children of baby-boom parents who’ve told them they were great since toddlerhood.
  • Team-oriented. From school team projects to scheduled sports and social lives, millennials have grown up multi-tasking and working with others.
  • Tech-savvy. Life before computers seems prehistoric. They have mastered new technologies at every turn and are fearless about new ones.
  • Socially connected. They can’t remember life before email, Facebook and texting – and have global social communities that no previous generation could have imagined.  They are comparing notes about work around a virtual water cooler.
  • Racially and ethnically diverse. More travel, study and jobs abroad, Skype, those social networks, friends and families with connections across the globe – all this has made them comfortable in diverse environments.
  • OK with uncertainty.  From the terrorism of 9-11 to the economic downturn, they have grown up in unstable times. Young people their age have gone to war. They have seen friends and parents laid off.  They know they have a better chance of seeing a UFO than a pension check.

Finding a first job

At the same time, uncertainty about finding a first job —well, that is not something they are OK with.  They want jobs – preferably meaningful jobs – in the worst job market in decades.

So when 20-somethings ask for my job-hunt advice, I talk about:

Focus. Some young people know they want to be a CPA just like Mom or an architect just like Dad. But most don’t have a clear picture of how they can fit their skills and interests into the jobs out there. When young people ask me for advice, we use the Myers-Briggs type indicator and Strong Interest Inventory to get more clarity.

Networking. This is old advice -- but with new weight today as job applications move online and hundreds of resumes pour into HR inboxes. How can yours stand out? Who do you know at that company? Who do you know who is friends with someone there? Whose parents have a connection? Is there someone at church or the gym?  I urge young people to join organizations and set up interviews -- to ask for information.   How did you choose this line of work?  What sorts of people does the organization work for?  What kinds of work experiences do you consider most valuable?  Is there anyone else you suggest I talk to?  A young woman I know used a spreadsheet to track contacts made, jobs applied for, when to check back.  She reached out fearlessly to any older adult to whom she was referred. It worked: Having a conversation with someone in a coffee shop, she was overheard and approached about a possibility that turned into a dream job!


And keep networking: Few young people I know are in their dream jobs. So staying connected to colleagues, mentors and friends is essential.  In her book “Brazen Careerist: the New Rules for Success,” Penelope Trunk has a chapter title that says it all: “Hunting for a job is not a task – it’s a lifestyle.”

For more advice on the job hunt, check out these tips from a recent New York Times column: “Ten things job applicants should know” by an entrepreneur who owns five businesses in Chicago.

One of its best suggestions: Stay in touch even if you don’t get a job, especially if you are a finalist. “There is a good chance that the new hire won’t work out or that another position will open up.”

So you have a job…

If they have a job at all in this challenging economy, the millennials I know are thrilled.

Even if it’s not their ideal job, they are intent on making the most of it.

If they are highly educated and employed in transitional jobs – nannies, bike shops, farm hands, restaurant work – they are still grateful.

If they have made a beeline to grad school, even big degrees that take a long time – like Ph.D.s – they are probably working part-time as they earn new credentials and hope for better times.

What have they learned on the job? What advice do 20-somethings in the work force have for fellow 20-somethings just getting started?

  • Ask questions. As the vice president of local architecture firm likes to say to young colleagues, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Most supervisors appreciate the opportunity to keep you on track. Penelope Trunk says: “Be a sponge.”
  • Just say yes. Whether it’s a new project, extra training, a volunteer initiative at your office, raise your hand for the experience and to advertise your commitment. “No job is too small or insignificant for you to complete,” one millennial friend told me.   “If you do things well and on time, recognition will come for the tasks you complete.”
  • Ignore complainers. Another young friend told me he was surprised by older coworkers’ complacency and complaints. “I asked for any responsibilities or opportunities my supervisors would afford to me…and I worked much harder than many in my department. And when new promotions came available, in less than two years, I received one of the spots.”
  • Learn from less-than-perfect experiences. “I would argue holding a job -- one which forces you to adapt to a management style you don't like or work you don't particularly care for -- could help sharpen your notion of an ideal career path,” one 25-year-old told me. “I would venture to say you cannot become a well-rounded employee without the experience of working in less-than-ideal circumstances.”


  • Share your outside-work accomplishments, too. A 25-year-old who started a popular series of spelling bees in bars found a connection with Louisville’s Idea Festival – and a reputation as a great project manager with a sense of humor.

What is the top advice from their bosses – and older folks in the workforce?

  • Cultivate relationships you can learn from – and be inspired by.  It might be a supervisor/mentor but it could also be colleague who works well with a wide variety of people – or seems to wind up assigned to every interesting project.
  • Core skills make a difference in everyday work life.  Being a good listener and a clear writer, having a positive attitude and working hard will make you a standout. A recent New York Times magazine article, “The Character Test,” described key traits correlate with success, including grit, zest and curiosity.

The great hockey player Wayne Gretsky once said, “You don’t skate to where the puck is. You skate to where the puck is going to be.”  That’s where you want your thinking to be, too – looking forward.

Working with 20-somethings


The best teams capitalize on the strengths of diverse members – so recognize that their characteristic traits add value.

  • Gen Ys bring enthusiasm and special skills to cross-generational teams -- and they are comfortable juggling projects. The multi-tasking that stymies some people in workplaces? It’s business-as-usual.
  • Capitalize on their technology know-how, both with projects you assign them and “reverse mentoring” that lets them shine helping other less tech-savvy staff members.
  • Give clear feedback.  Be specific about goals – short term and longer term.
  • Understand that they want to enjoy work – but that won’t keep them from working hard.

One 20-something summed it up well.  “My experience might not be much, but my capacity to learn is great!”

I asked him how he thought his life would change in the next three to five years.

“Dramatically.  I’ll be in a new job in a different city.”  He has no idea where.

My 20s decade was so different: I’m finding the experience of working with young people a great way to pay it forward. Let me challenge you to do the same.

Next up: The Thirties

I’d like to hear from folks in this age group – and people who work with them.   If you are a 30-something, what has defined your work life so far? What have you learned? What are you headed? Do you face special challenges at work – or balancing work with the rest of your life? Email me at

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