Meet your average twentysomething professional — a member of the “Net Generation” raised, educated, and socialized in a world of digital communications. The Net Generation, also called the N-Gen, consists of people born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. As pointed out in Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill, 1997), N-Geners are the first to be "bathed in bits" — a generation of people who differ from their baby boomer parents in the way they play, learn, communicate, spend their time, and even think. Now, N-Geners have begun to enter the job market — and, true to predictions, they work differently as well.
These workers can't imagine a world without Google or mobile phones. They grew up surrounded by PCs in their homes and classrooms; spent their high school years using email, the Web, and message boards; and were quick to adopt mobile phones, instant messaging, and, to a lesser extent, PDAs. Unlike their forebears, who have had to adapt to instant messaging and the iPod, N-Geners regard these technologies as part of their birthright.
Professionally, they embrace a new work ethic that's influenced by the speed at which information and decisions move. They also demonstrate intellectual, temporal, locational, and occupational freedom; openness to new ideas, information and knowledge sharing; authenticity and the quest for the validity of information; and the desire for work that's both challenging and fun.
The concept of this work ethic can be best understood through a set of new, nontraditional attributes. These N-Gen norms — speed, freedom, openness, authenticity, and playfulness — can also form the basis for a revitalized and innovative work culture. The work ethic that results from these norms can guide competitive advantage through the effectively recruited, engaged, and retained Net Generation employee. This isn't to suggest that an "engage them and they will build it" approach guarantees business success; indeed, balancing N-Gen norms with those of older generations will be a constant challenge.
Planning, decision making, delegating, and transferring information according to corporate etiquette are time-intensive activities around which many companies structure their work. For a generation used to the quick flow of information, the long work processes older generations have adopted are abhorrent.
Protocol is a particularly important challenge in this regard. It limits access to new ideas that may come from lower levels of the company. It also thwarts the Net Generation's expectation of direct, peer-to-peer communication through email and IM. In the end, companies must strike a balance between speed and protocol.
In addition to rapid communication, younger workers accelerated career advancement. Organizations that fail to demonstrate the potential for employees to rise will be less desirable to future N-Gen leaders.
All generations value freedom. What's different is the degree to which N-Geners have grown up with it in intellectual, locational, vocational, and temporal contexts. When work activities require employees to be in the office from 9 to 5, N-Geners' demands for flexible work schedules and environments can be problematic. But a lot jobs require teamwork, client or supplier contact, shift work, or just being available and on call.
Companies able to adapt to these new demands will serve as a catalyst for innovation, helping to maximize N-Geners' output and speed. From that point, effective strategies can be instituted to attract, engage, and retain the Net Generation.
As N-Geners strive for the flexibility of lifetime employability, they realize that success lies in who and what you know. Accordingly, they rely on employee webs (E-webs): digitally enabled networks that connect to peers and friends; suppliers of information and products; larger communities; and the shareholders and competitors of employers. Whereas a traditional paper-based address book can get full, an email contact list can expand infinitely.
N-Geners gravitate toward companies that will help them build resumés embodying the new work ethic norms of speed, freedom, playfulness, openness, and authenticity. Companies, for their part, must engineer a new kind of relationship with these employees to help build competitive advantage. Key to the emergent relationship is that it's reciprocal from the start. Treating N-Gen employees and entry-level staff as mere drones undervalues what they can bring to the corporation. They have more experience with the information age than many other employees in the company. Building a new employee relationship requires a steadfast commitment to move from a command-and-control model to one of engagement and collaboration.
These workers are a tremendous source of competitive and innovative advantage — not only for the quality of work they can turn out, but also for the links they're able to provide to the next generation of consumers, shareholders, community members, and competitors. To thrive in the 21st century, businesses will want to keep this new breed of Web-savvy employees happy — and productive — on the job.