Employers, Don't Get Trapped in Wayback Machine

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Benjamin Braddock, who walked away from a career in plastics and a fling with Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” could be the grandfather of high school students who graduated in the spring of 2012.

Born in 1994, these entrants to today’s workforce and college campuses come with a different set of cultural touchstones and references.

For this crop of Generation Y, chronic fatigue syndrome has always been officially recognized with clinical guidelines, point-and-shoot cameras are retro, and Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons”—not J.R. Ewing of the 1980s-era show “Dallas”—is the most shot-at man on American TV.

These and other revelations that appear on the latest Mindset List are enough to give employers pause as they reach out to this demographic of employees and job candidates.

Tom McBride, a professor of English and Keefer Professor of Humanities at Wisconsin’s Beloit College, and Ron Nief, emeritus director of public affairs at Beloit, created the Mindset List in 1998 as a droll way to warn faculty members against using dated references with their young students.

As Nief phrased it, they wanted instructors “to beware of hardening of the references.”

“If they were going to go into the classroom and build their [instruction] around the Cold War or Watergate or [the 1994 movie] ‘Pulp Fiction’ or the Beatles, they were going to have to explain themselves,” he told SHRM Online.

Reference Check for Employers, Too

This is the 15th year for the annual list that continues to grab attention.

Its popularity has generated a Facebook page that receives more than 1 million visits annually, two websites, a webcast and the book The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Texts, What Ten Generations of Americans Think is Normal (Wiley and Sons, 2011).

And it serves as a reminder that what employers and older workers consider common cultural references, experiences or shared history may signal a trip in the Wayback Machine to their younger workers.

Even a reference to the Wayback Machine likely has different meanings. For members of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon generation, it’s a nod to time-traveling dog Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, while for the cybergeneration it brings to mind a website that looks at what websites dating to 1996 once looked like.

Digital Natives

Technology continues to play a large role in the point of reference for these Millennials whose lives have been measured in bits, bytes and bauds and for whom cyberspace has always existed, according to Nief.

They watch TV on everything but a television. They view shows on smaller and smaller screens even as their parents take pride in large, flat-screen TVs. They turn increasingly to YouTube for their news, and their growing use of the iPod has made radio “almost irrelevant,” he said.

“The year they were born—1984—Time magazine did a cover story called ‘Welcome to Cyberspace,’ ” he pointed out in a podcast. “Cyberspace kind of ruled their lives. … It just changed the way they think and the way they communicate.”

They are a generation, McBride said, of “digital natives.”

This means employers need to recognize that there are certain low-tech issues with this demographic that should not be ignored, he told SHRM Online. Don’t assume, for example, that because they can repair an iPod they can write a report or memo. These are skills they will need to learn.

And because their preferred mode of communication is electronic, they are less astute at body and facial language cues, he said. Managers would be wise to take that into consideration during job interviews and other areas at work involving face-to-face communication.

McBride added that instead of asking “How can I make communication more efficient?,” HR professionals should be asking “What types of communication in this office absolutely must depend on face-to-face encounters?”

Changed World

These young people were 6 or 7 years old when planes hijacked by terrorists struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. They were freshmen when the Great Recession hit in 2008, impacting their view of their future.

“This is a generation … acutely aware of real doubts and anxieties about the status of the United States,” McBride said during the podcast. “They grew up in a time when there’s been concern about China supplanting the U.S. as the leading economic power [and] where there’s been sort of endless war in Iraq.”

The Great Recession has had a huge impact, creating in them a sense of anxiety and doubt about their future and the future of the country.

Among their concerns as they start college: whether there will be a job for them, whether college is worth it, whether the student loans are worth it, and whether there’s going to be any Social Security for them or Medicare for them.

Nief noted these are students who are “almost certain to come on the job with debt.”

They are “very much aware their brothers and sisters had to move back home after college” because of the rough economy, he added.

Since these individuals’ births 18 years ago, the U.S. has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16-cent rise in the price of a first-class postage stamp, according to the Mindset List.

Even the allusion to postage might be a throwback. Writing and mailing a letter that requires a stamp is a foreign concept to this demographic, according to Nief.

“We’ve lost the ability to write letters, or to respect good penmanship, because the computer has taken over our lives,” he said. “It’s hard to get away from the technology issue.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. To view the original article, please click here.