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Crossing Generational Lines at Work
2008 Office 2.0 Conference: As young meets old, and new meets traditional, business needs to keep an open mind.
Posted Sep 5, 2008
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SAN FRANCISCO — Daniel Brusilovsky just started his junior year of high school three weeks ago. This summer, he didn’t go to summer camp or play computer games in his room -- that is, unless you’d call creating the Teens for Tech online media community a computer game. Brusilovsky skipped school today and was joined by older Gen Yer John Vasellina, and Dorianne Cotter-Lockard, an independent consultant, in a panel discussion: "Entering and Leaving the Workforce." Enterprises used to worry about multicultural differences, then sexual orientation differences; now, the pressure is bringing together Generation Y, or the “digital native,” and the older generations, or the “digital immigrant.”

Starting his own Web-based company that hires strictly those under the age of 21 (and preferably those under 18), Brusilovsky laughingly remarked that one of his generation’s greatest competitive advantages is cost of labor. “We still eat our parents’ food, drink their water. It’s the good life.” The challenge, however, is that finding teenagers with such a high level of expertise in any one field -- in his case, computer programming -- proves to be a challenge of its own.

More seriously, he acknowledged Generation Y’s ravenous appetite for social networking. “We kill social networks,” he stated. While word-of-mouth is a preferred recommendation channel for any generation, among the Yers it’s especially powerful, creating a domino effect that essentially drove incredible adoption of applications like Facebook. While he described his generation as a horde of bees, an audience member chose to offer up another analogy. “From a technology standpoint,” he said, “I’d compare you more to cockroaches. You’re everywhere, you consume everything, and there’s no stopping you,” a statement, he admitted, was a backhanded compliment.

According to Cotter-Lockard, in six years Generation Y will comprise 40 percent of the workforce. Businesses that continue to operate on the old model -- where Web sites, for example, lack aesthetic appeal and the use of new mediums like video and podcasts -- and not accept new ways of thinking, will ultimately fail. Companies, she said, have to “change the concept of the corporation as a fortress that has walls around it,” and instead, think of it as “semi-permeable.” In this environment, people are constantly coming and going. “It’s an ebb and flow, rather than an on and off ramp,” she said. Even older generations would like to explore the type of employment flexibility technology provides, like working from home.

Vasellina is responsible for the education and development of incoming Gen Y employees at pharmaceutical company Genentech. The affinity group for Gen Y employees simply didn’t exist before Vasellina came along. Soon, the resource became not only a place for Gen Yers to communicate, but a way for managers to learn about how to connect with this group of employees. “Some jobs are well-engineered, some are socio-technical. [Gen Y] wants to do it, but we want to do it with the least resistance,” he said. The success of the program is evident in the company’s 90 percent retention rate year-over-year since its inception three years ago. “People,” he said, “ultimately want to connect.”

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