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The following is a guest post by Katie Finley, Marketing Intern at UP Europe.  Katie recently attended the We Own It Summit in London. 

Salon-style discussions comprised a core element of the 2013 We Own It Summit, bringing together a panel of thought leaders in the field with small groups of conference attendees.  I had the chance to join the discussion centered around Generation Y, entitled “Millennials: A Great Entrepreneurial Power Ready to be Unlocked,” led by moderator Hushpreet Dhaliwal and thought leaders Niamh Corbett, Will McQuillan, and Jen Gua.  Below, I’ve distilled a few central elements of the discussion – feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.

Is Generation Y unique?  As the first generation to be born with the Internet, they seem to have acquired a particular notoriety for their allegedly short attention spans and proclivity for instant gratification.  Despite the generation’s distinctive Internet-driven characteristics, however, it can be argued that the millennials are not unique, but simply different, as is every generation from that which precedes it; like Generation X, and the generation before them, the millennials are merely adapting to changing environmental conditions.  Beyond being an Internet-driven bunch, millennials are more racially diverse and less religious than their older counterparts.  The millennials are also becoming the most educated generation in history; they are entering the workforce later, and as a result, have a different perspective as to what they are looking for in jobs.

The prevailing economic instability has similarly impacted the millennial career progression; traditional workplace instincts are evolving along with its younger constituents, and members of Gen Y are getting jobs that are no longer remotely permanent.  Jobs decreasingly present a set career track, and many older workers lament the millennials’ penchant for juggling many different roles and perpetually having one foot already out the door.  As job security increasingly erodes, striking out on an entrepreneurial path has become relatively less risky, therefore developing a more attractive reputation, especially throughout the ambitious crop of millennials rising up through the ranks.

Does that mean the millennial generation is more entrepreneurial than previous generations?  Should stakeholders be moving to harness this unprecedented entrepreneurial ambition and creativity?  Or is Gen Y simply living in a time when entrepreneurial drive is easily empowered by the current environment, one in which it has never been simpler to rapidly set up a company from scratch?

What we’re seeing, beyond the shift from corporate work to entrepreneurship, is an arguably massive shift in values.  Millennials are the first generation that is living to work instead of working to live.  They’re less interested in their paychecks and more interested in how their jobs fit in with their purpose, and how their work interacts with their core values.  Take Google, for example.  They have top grads knocking down the door to live the Google lifestyle; in exchange for an extensive array of perks, many Google employees will receive compensation less than market value for their skills.  Yet many millennials would clearly rather have a catered lunch, a gym membership, laundry services, and a thriving company culture than a larger paycheck.

The desire to live to work and to work for a company that embodies core values points to a larger paradigm shift: a workplace centered on the self.  Millennials are joining companies whose purpose aligns with their own, and further building their own personal brands within these organizations.  This generation has arguably the largest desire to establish themselves, to articulate a personal brand, and to carry it with them through their various job functions and experiences.  While a millennial might expect to have many different jobs, they’ll carry the same set of skills, values, and sense of self to each of these experiences.

As the nature of the workforce continues to change – with millennials occupying a greater percentage of it every year – companies are learning to adapt to changing generational preferences.  Annual company feedback, for instance, is no longer en vogue; many companies are adapting to the millennials’ desire for instantaneous responses to their work.  The Gilt Group has implemented Work.com, which allows instant feedback on every task that is assigned.  Once an employee completes a task, the task assigner has the opportunity to immediately comment on the quality of the work.

 It is a very different world and a very different workplace.  It’s a world well-matched with Facebook statuses, Tweets, and every element of instant gratification that burgeons in an increasingly digital society.  This relates to concepts of social proof; online environments have made the social ranking system more evident than ever before.  Not only do millennials want to do good things – become social entrepreneurs, spend their money on environmentally conscious organizations, and buy into company cultures that align with their values – they want their peers to know they are doing it.  Digitally mediated social acceptance now permeates every aspect of millennials’ lives, especially in the workplace.  The millennials are visibly supporting companies that have a net positive impact on society, and are proud to share their socially progressive achievements.

 Is this a good thing?  Is the millennial generation a spirited group of socially conscious entrepreneurs rising through the ranks, or are they simply a band of young people with a short attention span that is translating into career flux and borderline narcissism?  How can we most effectively harness the distinctive characteristics of an entire generation?

Claire Topalian Claire Topalian
(@clairetopalian) Blog, Professional Writing, Communications and PR Specialist. I craft compelling, mission-driven content for companies and individuals that amplifies brand awareness, fosters community, and drives engagement. My experience includes work with tech startups, major corporations, and international non-profits. @clairetopalian