Youthful take on business

Oct 30, 2011 1:00 PM ET
Soufiane, Boston senior and College MAP program manager, posting with a sign advertising the program

Youthful take on business

By Yvonne Abraham, October 30, 2011

Narcissistic. Entitled. Demanding. Praise-addicted.

Americans in their 20s — part of the generation that goes by Millennials, Gen Y, Echo Boomers, and other unwieldy appellations — have a lousy image.

Middle-class kids raised by boomers determined to spare the rod and build self-esteem, Millennials are supposed to be especially insufferable in the workplace. After all, these brats spent entire childhoods scoring trophies just for showing up. Or so a torrent of writing about their generation would have you believe.

But business types tell a different story.

“Younger employees are changing corporate behavior,’’ says J.D. Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, whose members employ 220,000. “They’re pushing companies to do more philanthropy and be more green.’’

Rather than wiling away days on Facebook and marching into corner offices to demand raises every five minutes, younger workers - armed with that extra self-confidence - are pushing companies to do more good in the community. Young job-seekers lucky enough to be in demand are choosing employers based partly on whether they’re good citizens.

“I chose to work here because I can have an impact,’’ says Kyle Engbers, a 24-year-old project engineer at Consigli Construction. He says the company shares his commitment to leaving a smaller footprint, from building green buildings to conserving power on sites.

Frank Mahoney, managing partner of Ernst & Young in Boston, says that many young applicants seem more interested in the company’s community work than in salary and benefits. The company has stepped up its good works, partly as a recruiting advantage.

“Students today have very high expectations of our firm,’’ he says.

Mahoney’s Gen Y employees - more than half of his workforce - have also helped change the way Ernst & Young does good: “We used to think, ‘How much do we donate to the community?’ ’’ he says. “This generation wants to make an active difference.’’

That means programs like College Mentoring for Access and Persistence, in which employees tutor students at Madison Park High School at least once a month, helping them improve their chances of going to college.

“I love doing what I was trained for,’’ said Soufiane Younoussi Boukary, 30, an accountant who heads the program in Boston. “But if I didn’t have that component of getting out and doing other things, I don’t think I would have chosen to be here.’’

Where do these stereotype-busting impulses come from?

Jason Jay, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has some thoughts. He says Sloan has seen a “massive growth’’ in students interested in learning about how corporations can improve the environment and community. He thinks because this generation is so digitally connected it’s more aware of what’s going wrong in the world. They’ve also grown up doing community service, partly because it’s now so hard to get into fancy colleges without it. The service that begins as a resume-builder becomes a habit.

Lastly, the financial crisis has turned some aspiring corporate titans off careers in investment banking and speculation.

“In the last three or four years, we’ve seen people come into our sustainability program who were in finance and say, ‘I saw a bunch of morally bankrupt stuff I didn’t like, so I want to pursue a career that means something,’ ’’ he says.

But before we get all hearts and flowers and Gen-Y-saves-the-world, a couple of things to note. Not all twenty-somethings are corporate Mother Teresas. And there is more than altruism at work in companies that respond to their pressure: Going green can save money, and community work can provide a serious PR bump.

Still, there is more to like about these up-and-comers than their grouchy elders generally let on. The kids are all right.

Click here to read the original article in the Boston Globe.