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What Emerging Adults Want In a Job: 9 Key Requirements

​​Lauren Graves’ career reads like a page from the emerging adult playbook. She became an HR director at 27, but she took a circuitous route to get there. Like many emerging adults (EAs), she zigzagged her way through the job market, exploring her options and capitalizing on opportunities.

“Each time I changed jobs, it was because I wanted to leverage the skills and experience that I had acquired,” Graves said. “I need to be continually challenging myself and moving outside my comfort zone. Otherwise I get bored.”

Titles have mattered less to her than the job itself. She’s worked as a legislative aide, legal assistant and hospital social worker. She’s had four contract positions and three consulting gigs. Within HR, she’s worked as a recruiter, benefits analyst, generalist and director.

Welcome to the World of Emerging Adulthood

Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D., coined the term “emerging adulthood” to identify a new life stage that he described as “the long, winding road to adulthood.” Beginning in their late teens and extending deep into their 20s, EAs embark on an extended period of exploration and experimentation that often includes a “prolonged and erratic transition to stable work,” said Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

This new life stage transcends any specific generation. Millennials represent the current generational cohort. When they’re ready to take on greater responsibility and make longer-term commitments, Generation Z will take their place. To enga​ge EAs throughout this transitional stage, it helps to know who they are and what they’re looking for.

Arnett’s research shows that typical emerging adults will change jobs seven times by their late 20s in an effort to figure out what they like, what they’re good at, and where they can fit in and stand out. To recruit and retain these candidates, it’s critical to understand the following nine key requirements they seek as they launch and advance their careers:

1. Provide continuous learning.

School may be over, but EAs want the learning to continue. Jann Iaco, a training specialist with Crate & Barrel in Northbrook, Ill., views continuous learning as key for engagement. She prizes affinity learning, which she defined as “engaging someone in a learning environment by including them in a conversation and allowing them to succeed or fail.”

One proven approach is to create space within an organization where employees can play with ideas, try on different roles and develop new capacities, says Pamela Meyer, Ph.D., author of From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement.

“It’s actually the playspace that enables us to find out what kind of people we really are,” said Meyer, director of the Center to Advance Education for Adults at DePaul University in Chicago. She said playspaces are not job-specific, and that HR can take the lead in creating learning opportunities as the company’s “permission-giver.”

2. Help build career capital.

Career capital is the accumulation of skills, knowledge and experience people use to gain leverage in the job market. Rotational assignments, team projects, continuing education and professional training are building blocks of career capital.

When Liz Traines first joined Accenture in Chicago, she signed up for a three-year rotational assignment that allowed her to work in every part of the corporate finance group. It taught her how to adapt to new situations and people, and how to solve a variety of financial problems.

She then expanded her capital by creating an in-house program called Live Healthy!, which focused on motivating co-workers to eat healthy and exercise while traveling. That experience whetted her appetite for entrepreneurship and laid the foundation for the holistic health coaching practice she started after leaving Accenture.

Sometimes EAs can build career capital by reaching beyond their employer. Lauren Graves joined the Savannah Area Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and immersed herself in business and training opportunities. It wasn’t long before she was elected president of the membership committee.

“SHRM membership provided an environment for me to cultivate relationships with business partners, colleagues, potential employers and HR mentors,” said Graves, now a recruiter with the Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, Ga.

3. Help EAs make a difference.

EAs want to work for companies that care about their employees and communities. Company-sponsored events and activities can help achieve that goal while simultaneously helping them build skills and relationships.

When WebFX, an Internet marketing company in California, joined with Pencils of Promise-- a New York-based organization that builds schools in communities in need--to raise money for a school in Guatemala, employees banded together. When they reached their $25,000 goal, there was a lot of jubilation and high-fives, especially among the company’s EAs.

PayPal’s Battle Hacks gives its most talented developers 24 hours to assemble teams and create something that helps solve a social problem. One battle hacker created an app connecting potential pet parents with dogs available for adoption, and which allows donors to use PayPal to contribute money for vet services.

Knowing about an organization’s history, values and mission humanizes it and strengthens emotional connections. HR can communicate that mission to EAs and others by learning to tell the organization’s story in a compelling fashion.

“Stories connect us,” said Jill Pollack, founder and director of StoryStudio Words for Work, a business-writing training organization in Chicago. “They are how we learn, how we persuade and how we break down barriers,” she said.

“In a storytelling workshop, something magical happens. As we share personal and professional stories, a disconnected group of colleagues transforms into a cohesive unit, all because they have learned the right language to reach past workplace jargon and [to] use real language to connect with each other and with the mission at hand,” Pollack said.

4. Provide constant feedback.

When Toronto-based Rogers Communications decided to evolve their call center into a coaching culture, they tagged Silvia Lulka, director of talent acquisition, to spearhead the initiative. Her mandate was to use coaching to improve the quality of the customer and employee experience and reduce employee attrition.

Her team created a methodology integrating neuroscience, positive psychology and coaching into call center language that employees could relate better to. They purposefully shifted the model to create more positive reinforcement and recognition, and used internal social media websites to celebrate success and encourage peer-to-peer leadership recognition.

“The highest return on investment is to eliminate the negatives,” said Don Rheem, CEO of, an employee engagement consulting firm in Washington, D.C. “There’s no such thing as constructive criticism. If you change the frame to constructive feedback, you can still hold people accountable without resorting to negativity.”

Incremental feedback, especially to EAs, reinforces core values and allows employees to gauge and improve their performance, he said.

“It’s natural for people to want to know how they’re doing. When you give them constructive feedback it answers those questions for them.”

5. Help EAs achieve financial independence.

The average American college graduate has more than $35,000 in student loan debt, according to Edvisors, an information source for students researching how to pay for college. Financial independence can seem like a distant dream for cash-strapped recent graduates. So when organizations tie intrinsic motivation to financial incentives, it can give rise to extraordinary accomplishments, said U.K. career coach David Shindler.

Many new graduates lack basic money management and financial problem-solving skills, he said. To address that deficit, office-supply chain Staples initiated aFinancial Wellness at Workprogram promoting financial awareness and fiscal responsibility. It includes a skill-based online financial literacy game, which the company reports helped increase employee retention by 32 percent.

At Google, strong EA performers are rewarded financially even though they may have less experience than their colleagues.

“We believe in providing exceptional rewards to exceptional people. Our pay curves are exponential. That means that you don’t get twice the bonus for doing twice as good a job; you get maybe three times the bonus, and it scales up from there,” said Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, in a recent issue of HR Magazine. “Your very best people are not two or three times better than average. They’re five or 10 or 20 times better.”

6. Listen carefully and offer leadership roles.

When 332,860 bosses, peers and subordinates were asked by Zenger Folkman what leadership skills—regardless of level—were viewed as the most important attributes for a successful leader, the top skill named was the ability to inspire and motivate others.

One of the best ways to motivate and inspire EAs is to listen to them and provide them the opportunity to shine among their colleagues.

Steve Browne, executive director of HR for Cincinnati-based LaRosa’s Inc. and a SHRM board member, said the most important role every HR professional can play on a daily basis is that of a counselor. By listening to employee stories in a nonjudgmental way, he said, an HR professional can better understand who an EA is and align that person’s interests, abilities and values with organizational objectives.

Rotational assignments, stretch goals, and cross-generational and bi-directional mentoring can work in tandem to help develop leadership capabilities among EAs, he said.

At Pittsburgh-based Robert Morris University, many EA students work full time while completing their undergraduate educations. So the school focuses attention on team projects that allow EAs to take on leadership roles that aren’t available to them in their workplaces.

7. Help EAs find mentors.

Samantha Allweiss, age 27, said she’s truly benefitted from having a mentor since she graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in clinical social work. She’s currently a caseworker at RefugeeOne, where she manages her own caseload of clients and conducts task supervision with new interns. She also teaches an introductory social work course at Northeastern University in Chicago.

Allweiss credits her mentor (who was also her internship supervisor) for entrusting her with this important mix of responsibilities.

“I find my mentor extremely supportive and focused on my personal growth,” she said. “She doesn't micromanage me, and she trusts my judgment with clients, but she’ll be there for guidance whenever I need her.”

A quality one-on-one relationship with an experienced mentor represents the ideal situation, but that mentoring approach is becoming increasingly rare. Newer models include reverse, peer, group and e-mentoring. In addition, more companies see mentoring as a mindset in which “mentoring moments” are built into the fabric of everyday conversations and interactions.

8. Help EAs do their own thing.

Millennials (current EAs) and members of Generation Z (emerging EAs) frequently express interest in self-employment. Many say they plan to have their own businesses in three to five years.

An entrepreneurial mindset can be invaluable in a workplace setting. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers who identify and exploit opportunities, are solution-oriented, and see opportunities where others only see problems. Companies such as Apple and LinkedIn give their employees time off for side projects that often become a training ground for new ideas.

At Adaptive Path, a product design firm in San Francisco, employees are given contractual ownership over any ideas they develop on the job as a way to spur creativity and encourage ownership.

Blogs and video blogs, or vlogs, are popular side projects that EAs often use for self-expression and career development. They provide a vehicle to share information, build a brand, express a unique point of view and generate passive income. They also allow EAs to stretch their creative muscles and learn to “think like a boss” without actually having to be one.

9. Provide work/life balance.

Balancing work time with play time shows up as a top priority for workers in a number of surveys. At LaRosa’s, Browne’s HR staff can set their own hours (within reason) and work from home, which he said reduces attrition by increasing employee satisfaction.

“When you remove the obstacles to success, EAs will amaze you with what they accomplish,” he said.

Traines said she’s proud of how she stood up for herself when she felt like she was burning out from years of 80-hour workweeks. When she was given permission to work fewer hours, the quality of her work improved and she received an unexpected promotion.

“It’s better to let go of the idea of perfect, which doesn’t exist, and embrace resilience, learning and experience,” she said.

Playful perks can separate hardworking performers from slackers. The former use perks as a refreshing temporary distraction; the latter group views perks as the main attraction. Ditto for “pet projects” and volunteer activities, which can either enhance performance or sidetrack people who’d rather be working on their pet projects than doing their job.

Shindler succinctly captured the essence of the challenge of working with this group: “Most EAs want meaning, interesting work, autonomy, to learn and to be treated as unique individuals.” EAs are frequently admirably idealistic and optimistic, which helps make these goals possible.

As the HR profession evolves, opportunities arise for HR professionals to embrace new roles and responsibilities, especially when working with EAs. Coaching, mentoring and advising are invaluable skills that can be used to help provide EAs with a safe, supportive environment in which to grow and grow up.

Arlene S. Hirsch is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago, where she specializes in working with emerging adults and their families. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is


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