Recession changed Generation Y’s work ethic

It was only five years ago that Miami accounting firm director Richard Berkowitz thought he had a problem during tax season relating to his younger workers. “When I told them it was mandatory they come in on the weekend, they looked at me like I was out of my mind.”

Today, his younger workers are much easier to manage. The recession has brought a shocking reality to the Generation Y professionals who stumped baby boomers when they first entered the workforce with their desire for work/life balance over the corner office.

Stunned by a barrage of pink slips instead of promotions, Generation Y — people ages 18 to 30 — has swallowed a piece of humble pie. Those who still have jobs are adopting new workplace attitudes and making themselves more valuable.

They still want a chance at career development, but they are no longer demanding that it happen on the fast track.


“This is the generation that dreamed they wanted to be CEO of a public company but didn’t have an idea what to do to get there,” Berkowitz said. “What’s happened is that realization set in. They’ve discovered you have to be on the ground and working hard to accomplish great things.”

In some ways, this coddled, tech-savvy generation, also known as the millennials, is best positioned to prosper post-recession: They never really trusted corporate America. They know how to scour the Internet for opportunities. They grew up innately adapting to change and embracing fast-paced innovation. As a group with high self-confidence, they are approaching their plight with optimism.

“They are seeing this as a re-evaluation period,” said Tamara Bell, editor-in-chief and president of Y Gen Out Loud, a news platform for political and public policy conversations. “They will tell you, ‘We can do this. We can make the change necessary to get the engine going.’ They see it as an opportunity to change what they were doing and learn something new instead of being in complete panic mode.”

By all measures, the newest members of the workforce are bearing the full effect of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. The recession brutalized their income, savings and career-ladder potential.

About 37% of 18- to 29-year-olds have been underemployed or out of work during the recession, the highest share among the age group in more than three decades, according to a Pew Research Center study released in February. And the unemployment rate for Gen Y remains much higher than the national rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In June — the latest figures available for making this comparison — the unemployment rate was 9.5% for the nation overall. For Gen Y it was 15.3%.

Because of these stark numbers, many younger workers realize that they can’t make demands for raises, promotions, time off, training and the hottest technologies during a recession.

Cesar Alvarez, executive chairman of law firm Greenberg Traurig, thinks the recession was the wake-up call for this group of workers, much like other generations had defining events that changed their behavior.

“I think their concept of the ultimate safety net has shattered,” Alvarez said. “I’m seeing them much more engaged. I think this was a tipping point that helped the new generation suit up for the game.”


To be sure, the legal sector underscores the new world at work. Only a few years before the Wall Street meltdown, law firms pulled in young legal grads with salaries as high as $160,000. Then came the recession, and these young lawyers were told to hit the bricks as firms slammed them with layoffs, pay cuts and withdrawals of job offers.

As of last month, there were 17,200 fewer legal jobs in the U.S. than in July 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Before the recession, senior partners regularly complained about their young lawyers who wanted to work less and get paid more. Now, Alvarez says, the young lawyers don’t necessarily want to work more hours, but they are putting in the effort and bringing the technology to get the job done in less time.

“They are changing the business model,” he said.


Their workplace priorities have changed, too. In the past, they wanted to work for companies that incorporated community involvement and charitable giving. Now they value organizations that are financially strong above all else, said Jaret Davis, administrative shareholder at Greenberg Traurig.

He used to get questions about the timing of pay raises and promotions. Now, Davis said, the questions he gets from young recruits are, “How is the firm doing financially? Will it be around? Will my job be around?”

Christina Totfalusi Blake, a 29-year-old attorney, feels lucky to have a job, particularly one that provides the attributes most Gen Y workers value: meaningful work, opportunities for learning, quality of life and likeable colleagues.

Blake joined a firm in Miami Lakes, Fla., after working solo in Orlando for two years. She views her workplace as a social hub where collaboration has value.


“There’s an open-door policy so I can chat with other attorneys,” she said. “For me, brainstorming, having senior associates to bounce ideas off is huge. It’s something I can’t put a value on.”

But Blake still wants the high salary and work-life balance. “Young attorneys are taking lower-paying jobs for the same long hours. But our hopes are still there, in light of our student loans and high debt, that compensation will go back up.”

Some pursue those goals by working for themselves.

Many have little to lose by becoming an entrepreneur: no mortgages, no families and not a whole lot of obligations. They often start businesses on a shoestring budget or look to their parents for start-up capital.


Sonny Palta, 23, has started two businesses alone and co-founded two others, including Green Monkey yoga centers in Miami. He won’t even consider working for an employer, nor would many of his peers, he says. “We look at it as unbearable. Work without passion is nothing to me. I’d rather do something I love for bare bones and hope I hit that one idea that makes it big.”

Almost five years ago, the consulting firm Deloitte became alarmed by the high turnover of its youngest employees. Stan Smith studied this group for the firm and went on to write a book, “Decoding Generational Differences: Fact, Fiction … or Should We Just Get Back to Work?”

Smith, now an independent consultant, said the recession has made Generation Y workers more concerned about their future, more compliant with employers’ demands. But he believes the attitude change is temporary.

“They are compliant for now. Yet if you dig beneath the surface, their underlying values are still there,” Smith said. “They want flexibility. They want work-life balance. But for now, they are just not as vocal about how they want it served up.”


This is where employers need to be cautious, said Bell of Y Gen Out Loud. “They will go into a job to the pay bills, but really are looking for something fulfilling. If they can’t find it in the job they take, they will stay until the economy turns, but at some point they are out the door.”

Bell said the best way to keep young workers is to make them part of a team. “They want to know their contribution is valued and they are sitting at the table with everyone else.”

Michelle Zubizarreta manages an ad agency whose workforce skews heavy toward millennials. She has done exactly what Bell suggests: given her young staffers a seat at the table. “They are motivated by having their ideas heard and feeling like they count. I will call them into a new business pitch, saying, ‘We’ve got to talk to the young consumer. Talk to me about how to do it.’ ”

As the recession created the need for new revenue streams, Zubi Advertising turned to its tech-savvy, multitasking, Gen Y staff for creative input. Zubizarreta gave her young workers the green light to use Facebook to do consumer surveys. She also created innovation groups, setting up teams to develop ad-related iPhone apps and come up with other money-making ideas.


She said her young workers seemed enthused. “I tell them they’re going to work hard, but they will have fun.”

Goodman writes for the Miami Herald/McClatchy.