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Gen Y-ers: Smacked with reality

MIAMI - It was only five years ago that Miami accounting-firm director Richard Berkowitz thought he had a problem during tax season relating to his younger workers. "When I told them it was mandatory they come in on the weekend, they looked at me like I was out of my mind."

MIAMI - It was only five years ago that Miami accounting-firm director Richard Berkowitz thought he had a problem during tax season relating to his younger workers. "When I told them it was mandatory they come in on the weekend, they looked at me like I was out of my mind."

Today, his younger workers are easier to manage. The recession has brought a shocking reality to the Generation Y professionals who stumped baby boomers when they entered the workforce with their desire for work-life balance over the corner office.

Stunned by a barrage of pink slips instead of promotions, Generation Y - people between age 18 and 30 - has swallowed a piece of humble pie. Those who still have jobs are adopting new workplace attitudes and making themselves more valuable.

They still want a chance at career development, but they are no longer demanding that it happen on the fast track.

"This is the generation that dreamed they wanted to be CEO of a public company, but didn't have an idea what to do to get there," Berkowitz said. "What's happened is that realization set in. They've discovered you have to be on the ground and working hard to accomplish great things."

In some ways, this coddled, tech-savvy generation, also known as the millennials, is best positioned to prosper postrecession: They never really trusted corporate America. They know how to scour the Internet for opportunities. They grew up innately adapting to change and embracing fast-paced innovation. With high self-confidence, they are approaching their plight with optimism.

"They are seeing this as a reevaluation period," said Tamara Bell, editor in chief and president of Y Gen Out Loud, a news platform for political and public policy conversations. "They will tell you, 'We can do this. We can make the change necessary to get the engine going.' They see it as an opportunity to change what they were doing and learn something new, instead of being in complete panic mode."

By all measures, the newest members of the workforce are bearing the full effect of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. The recession brutalized their income, savings, and career-ladder potential.

About 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have been underemployed or out of work during the recession, the highest share among the age group in more than three decades, according to a Pew Research Center study released in February. Even more, the unemployment rate for Gen Y remains much higher than the national rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the overall national unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in June, the latest figures available for making that comparison, for Gen Y it was 15.3 percent.

Because of these stark numbers, many of them realize that they cannot make demands for raises, promotions, time off, training, and the hottest technologies during a recession.

Cesar Alvarez, executive chairman of Miami law firm Greenberg Traurig L.L.P., which also has an office in Philadelphia, said he thought the recession was the wake-up call for these workers, much like other generations had defining events that changed their behavior.

"I think their concept of the ultimate safety net has shattered," he said. "I'm seeing them much more engaged. I think this was a tipping point that helped the new generation suit up for the game."

To be sure, the legal sector underscores the new world at work. Only a few years before the Wall Street meltdown, law firms had lured young legal grads with salaries as high as $160,000. Then came the recession, and these young lawyers were told to hit the bricks as firms slammed them with layoffs, pay cuts, and withdrawals of job offers.

As of last month, there were 17,200 fewer legal-sector jobs in the United States than there were in July 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Before the recession, senior partners regularly complained about their young lawyers who wanted to work less and get paid more. Now, Alvarez explains, the young lawyers do not necessarily want to work more hours, but they are putting in the effort and bringing the technology to get the job done in less time.

"They are changing the business model," he said.

Christina Totfalusi Blake, a 29-year-old lawyer, feels lucky to have a job, particularly one that provides the attributes most Gen Y workers value: meaningful work, opportunities for learning, good quality of life, and likable colleagues.

Blake joined Kelley, Kronenberg, Gilmartin, Fichtel, Wander, Bamdas, Eskaylo & Dunbrack P.A., of Miami Lakes, after working solo in Orlando for two years. She views her workplace as a social hub where collaboration has value.

"There's an open-door policy, so I can chat with other attorneys," she said. "For me, brainstorming, having senior associates to bounce ideas off, is huge. It's something I can't put a value on."

But Blake still wants the high salary and work-life balance. "Young attorneys are taking lower-paying jobs for the same long hours. But our hopes are still there, in light of our student loans and high debt, that compensation will go back up."

Some seek those same goals by working for themselves.

For some millennials, there is little to lose in becoming an entrepreneur: no mortgages, no families, and not a whole lot of obligations. They often start businesses on a shoestring budget or look to their parents for start-up capital.

Sonny Palta, 23, has started two businesses and cofounded two others, including Green Monkey yoga centers in Miami. He would not consider working for an employer, nor would many of his peers. "We look at it as unbearable. Work without passion is nothing to me. I'd rather do something I love for bare bones and hope I hit that one idea that makes it big."

Almost five years ago, the consulting firm Deloitte turned to Stan Smith when it became alarmed by the high turnover of young employees. Smith studied this group for the firm and went on to publish his first book, Decoding Generational Differences: Fact, Fiction . . . or Should We Just Get Back to Work?

"They are compliant for now. Yet if you dig beneath the surface, their underlying values are still there," Smith said. "They want flexibility. They want work-life balance. But for now, they are just not as vocal about how they want it served up."

At Berkowitz, Dick, Pollack & Brant Certified Public Accountants & Consultants L.L.P., Rachel Merritt, 23, clearly is her accounting firm's future. After only a year, she has contributed key analysis for a major litigation case in her department.

Data-digging took late nights, and Merritt was recognized for it. She said she was motivated because "I have the opportunity to work with people many levels above me who explain the bigger picture."

She has seen friends jump at any job they could get and go in lacking motivation, she said. "They might work the hours I do, but they won't do it with a smile on their face."

Berkowitz says he has learned something important about Gen Y workers: "They aren't going to walk in and become great. You have to teach them how to be great professionals."