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Peaceful Revolution: What Gen Y Really Wants -- And Why We Should Care

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While conducting research on the work-life balance outlooks of crème de la crème Gen Y-ers (highly educated young people around the world, what we like to call Gen Y-Fi), we asked forty American college students and young professionals what kind of benefits they were looking for from potential employers. By far the most common response was simply "health insurance." When we asked a similar cohort of Gen Y Europeans the same question they came up with a whole score of desirable work-live benefits: flexible working hours, in-house child care facilities, freedom to work from home or a different country even, respect for family life...the list went on. Why were responses from America's college-educated youngsters so uniform and unimaginative, while their European counterparts could shoot off an entire wish-list?

A recent survey of graduating college seniors by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) sheds some light on the matter. The NACE survey reports that out of fifteen possible job attributes, the top three chosen by American students were: opportunity for advancement, job security, and a good insurance package. Assuming young grads would choose attributes stressing flexibility and creativity (especially since work-life balance has become a "mantra for characterizing Generation Y"), researchers were perplexed that Gen Yers were so zealous about job security. The NACE report concludes that Gen Yers are looking for a company that provides steady salary increases along with life-long benefits -- think General Motors circa 1950. Unfortunately, that kind of employer no longer exists, as the current economic recession has made abundantly clear.

What, then, is a modern employer to do? In the short run, especially in this economic climate, offering a steady paycheck is probably enough to keep most employees happy -- or at least keep them trickling into the office every morning. But let's not be so short-sighted: our information age economy doesn't need drones, it needs innovative, savvy young people in order to grow and get us out of the rut we're in. If companies want to find loyal, dedicated employees from the Gen Y-Fi crop (and, let's face it: we're the next generation of workers, so there really isn't much choice but to deal with us), it is in their best interest to insist that the government prioritize national health care and social security. Europeans are guaranteed these basic securities already -- which is why European young people are better prepared to articulate what individual employers can really offer in order to make the most out of Gen Y-Fi's talents: freedom and flexibility.

Because, though American Gen Yers say they want security most of all, our interviews have convinced us that freedom and flexibility are more important to incoming workers than such answers intimate. In fact, when we asked American students and young professionals more in-depth questions about their dream jobs and the best and worst aspects of their current positions, they gushed about their longing for balance, increased independence and meaningful work.

Martin, a talented young engineer working in New York City, said that if he were promoted to his boss' job tomorrow, he would quit: "My boss never sees his kid...I would never want that for my family." Martin told us he doesn't like staying late at the office just because his colleagues do. He takes pride in being a fast worker, insisting that there's a lot of time-wasting facetime. And though he likes the financial security being an engineer affords him, he said he would gladly take a lower salary for more vacation days.

Speaking of vacation, Jack, 22, an economic research analyst in New York City, seriously claimed to be considering quitting his job -- in order to get time off! That may seem like an unlikely card to play when jobs are being lost right and left, but the sentiment is potent none the less. Jack dreams of branching out on his own, doing something "entrepreneurial" that will allow him to exercise more creative freedom. Then there's Sally, 23, who currently works as a dance instructor in New York City and is hoping to find a future job where she can work with something she truly believes in and share "mutual goals" with her colleagues and employers. Rachel, 22, a recent college graduate from New Jersey, fiercely asserted that she doesn't know a lot of people "who are into that 9 to 5 kind of thing" and advises that "if corporations were more flexible about how people can work, where people can work, the hours that people can work, they're going to get a better pool of applicants."

As opposed to what many in the older generation might think, and what thoughts the above quotes may have inspired, Gen Yers may be entitled but they are not lazy. In the NACE survey, for example, a "casual atmosphere (non-competitive environment)" was ranked very low (10th) among desirable job attributes. In fact, we consistently heard, from Americans and Europeans alike, that hard-working, driven colleagues were sought after and that Gen Yers want work they can be passionate about. Once they're invested, Gen Yers will work, hard.

The wise employers, the ones who see possibility for change and innovation where others only see an abysmal Dow, will give the (young) people what they want -- the ability to grow, to be given difficult, meaningful tasks and to be entrusted to do them where and when they want. But in order for employees and employers to be able to think beyond the very basics, such as health care and social security, we must realize that certain protections should be provided no matter the employer. The Obama administration needs to step up and deliver New Deal 2.0, and quick.

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.