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Gen Y at Work +Full coverage

Attracting the twentysomething worker (cont.)

By Nadira A. Hira, Fortune writer-reporter

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The creature in the wild: Sheryl Walker, assurance associate, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Growing up, Sheryl Walker says, she could do no wrong. The youngest child of Jamaican immigrants in New Jersey, she majored in accounting because she knew it would make her parents happy: "They're big on saying their children are 'a doctor,' 'a lawyer' -'a something.'"

And now that the 24-year-old is "a something," she continues to make them happy. By living at home. "I don't have any plans to leave," she says, laughing. "My father told me if I did, he would be very upset. And I at least pay a bill, out of courtesy." The electric bill, that is. Considering the cost of living in the New York area, that's quite a bargain. "I think parents want to feel needed," she says, "and it's like, because I'm so independent, they get excited when I ask for a favor."

From the moment Gen Yers were born, long before technology or world events affected their lives, they were dealing with a phenomenon previously unknown to man: the baby-boomer parent. Raised by "traditionalists" after World War II, the boomers, once they had children of their own, did exactly the opposite of what their parents had done, cooing and coddling like crazy.

Couple all that affection with the affluence of the '80s and '90s, throw in working parents' guilt, and boomers' children not only got what they wanted but also became the center of their parents' lives. Self-esteem was in, spanking was out, and coaching - be it for a soccer team or a kindergarten interview - was everywhere.

Affirmation continued as they grew, and when they spoke up, their opinions were not only entertained but celebrated. Overscheduled grade-schoolers became overcommitted teens, with the emphasis on achieving. The goal was to get into a great college, which would lead to a great career and a great life.

But there was a hitch. Upon graduation, it turned out that a lot of Gen Yers hadn't learned much about struggle or sacrifice. As the first of them began to graduate from college in the late 1990s, the average educational debt soared to over $19,000 for new grads, and many Yers went to the only place they knew they'd be safe: home.

Lots haven't left. A survey of college graduates from 2000 to 2006 by Experience Inc. found that 58 percent of those polled had moved home after school and that 32 percent stayed more than a year. Even among those who've managed to stay away, Pew found that 73 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds have received financial assistance from their parents in the past year, and 64 percent have even gotten help with errands.

It's what Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls "emerging adulthood" in his 2004 book of the same name. "People think very differently about their 20s now," the Clark University research professor says. "It's so volatile and so unfettered and so very unstructured. Nothing has ever existed like it before." For example, in 1960 the median age at marriage was 20 for women and 23 for men. Today it's 26 for women and 28 for men. In sociological terms that's a revolution.

And though Gen Yers will eventually have to grow up - like all of us, they'll lose their parents, face layoffs and suffer insane bosses - they are stretching the transition to adulthood well into their 20s. "If we don't like a job, we quit," says Jason Ryan Dorsey, the 28-year-old author of 2007's "My Reality Check Bounced!," "because the worst thing that can happen is that we move back home. There's no stigma, and many of us grew up with both parents working, so our moms would love nothing more than to cook our favorite meatloaf." It's a position borne out by the numbers; 73 percent of Pew's respondents said they see their parents at least once a week, and half do so daily, a fact that, however sweet, sort of makes you want to download "Rebel Without a Cause."

With this level of parental involvement, it's a miracle that Gen Yers can do anything on their own. "It's difficult to start making decisions when you haven't been making decisions your whole life," says Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist and president of consulting firm Joining Forces. He points to one of his recent projects at a software development company. His client, which had one health-care plan, was acquired by a bigger firm that offered five more.

"The twentysomething software developers were up in arms about having to choose," Marks says. "That was their No. 1 issue - not 'Will I lose my job?' or 'Will there be a culture clash?' but this -because they were just so put off that they were put in what they viewed as a very stressful situation." One can't help but wonder how stressed they'd be with no health insurance at all.

But even for the Gen Yers who try in earnest to succeed, Marks says, the way they've been raised can still be detrimental: "They've been made to feel so special, and that is totally counter to the whole concept of corporations."

Courtship

The creature in the wild: Katie Connolly, associate attorney, Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson

Unlike most new attorneys, Katie Connolly took a pay cut for her second job. Why? The 28-year-old graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School liked that it wasn't the attorneys but the staff at Halleland, a 53-attorney firm in Minneapolis, who had windows (since they were more often at their desks) and that everyone dressed casually. Her decision paid off. At her old firm she spent all her time researching at her desk; at Halleland she has already tried her first case.

"Lots of firms say, 'Oh, we're 150 years old,'" she says, "and they do things like they did 150 years ago. That's not attractive to me. I want to do good work, not just slog through for years till I get my Persian rug and my 50-gallon fish tank."

What, then, is a Fortune 500 company to do?

Gen Yers still respond most of all to money. There's no fooling them about it; they're so connected that it's not unusual for them to know what every major company in a given field is offering. And they don't want to be given short shrift - hence the frightening tales of 22-year-olds making six-figure salary requests for their first jobs. One could chalk that up to their materialism and party-people mentality, but author Erickson has a different take. "They have to get some money flowing because they have a lot of debt to pay," she says.

To get noticed by Gen Yers, a company also has to have what they call a "vision." They aren't impressed by mission statements, but they are looking for attributes that indicate shared values: affinity groups, flat hierarchies, divestment from the more notorious dictatorial regimes.

At Halleland, which was founded in 1996 by defectors from a larger firm, offices are all the same size, new associates are encouraged to pass work up the chain and senior partners send out e-mails congratulating junior staffers on career milestones. In 11 years Halleland has lost just five associates to other outfits.

It hasn't hurt that the firm emphasizes work-life balance. While Gen Yers will work a 60-hour week if they have to - and might even do so happily if they're paid enough to make the most of their precious downtime - they don't want that to be a way of life.

Some firms where long hours are the norm have found ways to compensate. At Skadden Arps, new employees are reimbursed up to $3,000 for home-office equipment and $1,000 every year after. And the firm's gyms are a big hit with Gen Yers. "You'd be amazed, when people come by to interview or check out the firm, what a warm response the fitness center gets," says Wallace Schwartz, who leads the firm's New York office.

Watching public accounting firms scout for talent is especially instructive, since they have had to staff up after Sarbanes-Oxley. At Ernst & Young, recruiters hand out flash drives instead of brochures, send text messages to schedule meetings with candidates, and give interns videocameras to create vlogs for the firm's Web site. They also launched the first corporate-sponsored recruiting page on Facebook to meet Gen Yers on their own turf.

"That was a difficult sell," says Dan Black, who heads E&Y's college recruiting for the U.S. and Canada, "to be in a medium where you don't have control and people can post some not-so-nice things and you're going to leave it up there, which we do." It was so far ahead of its time that even the kids got thrown off. At one point Black wanted to quote some vivid comments a junior staffer had posted on the page. He left him a voicemail asking for a call back. The next thing Black knew, the posts had all vanished. "He thought he was in trouble!" Black says, howling. "So they're learning how to work with us too."

But as any worthy suitor knows, in the end the key to courtship lies at home - in wooing Mom and Dad. For Merrill Lynch (Charts, Fortune 500), getting young people to commit wasn't much trouble before. "In the past, if we gave you an offer, you accepted," says Liz Wamai, who heads diversity for Merrill's institutional business.

"It was Merrill Lynch. Now it's sell, sell, sell." The company holds a parents' day for interns' families to tour the trading floor. But it's involving parents in recruiting that's been a real shift. Subha Barry, global head of diversity, recalls running into a colleague having lunch with a potential summer recruit and someone she didn't know. It turned out to be the boy's mother.

"If somebody would have said to me, 'You're interviewing for a job somewhere, and you're going to bring your mother to the closing, decision-making lunch,' I would've said, 'You've got to be crazy,'" she says, wagging a finger. "But I tell you, his mother was sold. And that boy will end up at Merrill next summer. I can guarantee that."