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Remember that time you were talking to the Generation X-aged employee in your department and referred to punch cards and he or she responded with a blank stare?

“We recorded digital information on them through punch-outs,” you explained to the clueless face before you, “and then developed programs to read the data and … Oh, forget it.”

Well, imagine trying to explain to the new 23-year-old hire what that 5.25-inch slot in an old computer is for, because there’s going to be a lot of that in the next few years as the Generation Y work force hits your IT department, bringing along their unique combination of gifts and aggravations.

Generation Y, made up of those born between 1977 and 1990, goes by innumerable names—”The MyPod Generation,” for their penchant for social networking sites such as MySpace and their surgically attached iPods, “The Baby Boomlets,” referring to their status as children of the “Baby Boom” generation, and “The Boomerang Generation,” in reference to the hordes who have moved back in with their parents after living on their own for a while—that tell you a lot about what to expect.

Generation Y workers have a reputation for experiencing boredom and frustration with slow-paced environments, traditional hierarchies and even slightly outdated technologies—that is, almost everything common in most workplaces.

A common reaction of other workers to that frustration is aggravation: “Why do we need to adjust to them? They should be adjusting to us.”

While this is a fair response to an extent, there’s a lot more to the picture.

How Generation Y is different

Dr. Larry Rosen, author of the “Mental Health Technology Bible” and “TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @Work, @Home, @Play,” argues that the biggest difference between members of Generation Y and those who came before them is that they have spent their entire lives surrounded by technology.

“Technology just is for them. It’s part of every aspect of their lives, unlike a lot of the people they will be coming to work for,” he said.

The difference is more than a generational experience gap, he said: It’s a difference in personality.

“This generation is different in so many ways. They grew up in the lap of luxury, in one of the best economic times in the last 100 years, and everyone started living very luxuriously: two-plus cars, dinners out, etc. They’re also pretty opinionated about the jobs they want and the money they intend to make, and many have missed that step where they understood they needed to work their way up from the bottom,” Ruth Haag, author of the four-book “Hiring and Firing” series, told

Others argue that the different ambitions of the Generation Y work force are not as significant as understanding how those ambitions relate to what the company needs.

“Each generation that comes through the door has a different perspective, but what’s important is how you marry that perspective with what your customers are looking for,” Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh Services, a provider of talent and outsourcing services based in Philadelphia, told

With the eldest batch of Baby Boomers in retirement and the rest to soon follow, the presence of Generation Y workers is more important than ever.

“The key thing is that these Generation Y folks will be the backfill for the Baby Boomers, as folks that are now 25-30 will be the next middle managers,” Lanzalotto said.

Next Page: What will change.

Lanzalotto prescribes four steps to help companies effectively manage Generation Y workers’ technological talents and maximize their value as employees.

The first is to understand who this generation looks up to and how that relates to the misguided perception that they don’t want to work.

“Employers have to lose these perceptions that Generation Y is the slacker generation—they just have a different thought process. Their generation’s heroes were business guys who got rich fast, or appeared to, and there’s a lot of folk in the last 10 years that have made it look this easy,” Lanzalotto said.

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The second notable characteristic of the Generation Y work force is that they will switch jobs over the course of their careers more than any generation before them, holding as many as 20 jobs before they retire. The portability of retirement benefits and a lessened need to vest has contributed to this.

“It’s important to understand that there is no way these people are going to be in one job for their entire career. You’re still going to have managers that say, ‘I don’t want a guy who is going to be here for only two years and then leave,’ but more and more, this is becoming part of the parlance,” Lanzalotto said.

Dr. Rosen sums up this job-hopping a little differently.

“They view a job as just that and not a career. They feel that either the job is shaped in a way that utilized their skills and expertise, or they won’t stick around. If they don’t like what they are doing, they have a million other options because they come into the workplace so skilled. Often these are more interesting.”

Even when engaged by their jobs, they will not stay in one place for very long, often leaving to expand their experience and look for new opportunities, Rosen said. However, there is also a significant likelihood that they will come back to the company.

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Lanzalotto argues that it’s important that companies not view employee turnover as bridge-burning. “As a manager, I know if they’re good, they may leave. But, we have more boomerang employees than ever: those who leave and come back, with the added advantage that they know the culture, they know the company and they come back with a whole different perspective and institutional knowledge,” he said. “They might come back in five years with some great experience and be a real asset to your company.”

Next Page: Demand for flexibility.

A third noteworthy difference in the way that Generation Y workers relate to their jobs is a demand for flexibility unseen in previous generations.

“Twenty years ago, everyone worked in the office. Now people will expect to dictate where and how they work. They’ll ask for more work-life balance, and how much paid time off and [whether] vacation programs are in place,” Lanzalotto said.

Dr. Rosen attributes this insistence on flexibility to a focus on products, not processes.

“They don’t do progress reports,” in spite of the frustration that causes their superiors, Dr. Rosen said. “They’ll get the job done on time, but resent being reminded to. Centrally, they don’t feel they should have to conform to office processes. But, they work well on deadlines. They feel that as long as they completed their work—the product—their process isn’t what matters.”

Because of this focus on output and not method, they want different things out of their schedules, he said. “As long as they’re getting their work done on time, they don’t see why they shouldn’t have the maximum flexibility: flex time, flex hours and working from home,” he said.

A fourth characteristic of Generation Y workers, one that seems likely to significantly change their workplaces, regards communication methods: They expect an open workplace where they can have their views heard without fear of retribution.

“It used to be, if you saw the CEO walking down the hall, you sat straight up and tried to look busy. Now you’ll have people that will call the CEO if there is something they do not like. They’re not going to be afraid to voice an opinion. It’s a different mindset,” Lanzalotto said.

For example, Generation Y workers will be demanding about the technology used in the workplace. “They will not stand for substandard technology, especially when they often have a better way to do things at home, and they can bring the work in. They’ll expect computers to work a certain way because they know what’s out there. ‘Why don’t we have this?’ they’ll ask,” he said.

Rather than viewing all of these changes brought about by the next generation of workers as difficulties that must be overcome, Lanzalotto encourages the older generation to make the most of it.

“Workplace diversity is not just about culture; it’s about the way people think. If you have people pushing and shoving and moving around, you’ll only have a better company for it.”

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