How Different Generations of Americans Try to Find Work

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Do millenials approach the job hunt differently than their older counterparts in Gen X or the Baby Boom generation? It turns out that they do, sometimes in surprising ways. For one thing, despite the fact that millennials are highly likely to be underemployed or just plain unemployed, they are more optimistic than older generations about their prospects for finding work. Nearly 9 in 10 millennial job seekers (88%) describes themselves as optimistic about finding a new job, compared to 81% of Gen X and 73% of Boomers.

That’s just one of the differences among generations we found in a new study called “The Multi-Generational Job Search,” by my company and We surveyed 5,268 American job seekers, including 742 members of Gen Y (18- to 29-year-olds), 1,676 Gen Xers (30-47) and 2,850 Baby Boomers (48-67) to see how the various generations went about job hunting differently.

In many ways, the job hunt is the same no matter what your age. All generations spend an average of between 5 and 20 hours per week searching for jobs. The study shows that all generations largely focus their job search energy online instead of offline, which is a big difference from a decade ago when people couldn’t rely on social networks to connect with recruiters. Despite the rise of social networking, the vast majority of all generations relies on job boards as a primary resource — Baby Boomers especially (87 percent), but a high percentage of younger job seekers as well (77 percent of Gen Y). People still value job boards because they raise awareness for open positions and because it’s easy to submit a resume through them.

(MORE: Just How Underemployed Is Gen Y?)

Similarities aside, there are several notable differences in how Americans in varying age demographics approach a job search. Here is what we found:

Generation Y. Relative to older generations, Gen Y is the most optimistic about the future and is willing to do whatever it takes to build a career, including going back to school, starting a business or moving back in with their parents. Despite a tough jobs market and the strong likelihood that they have student loan debt, 88 percent of millennial job seekers say they are optimistic about finding a new job. After all, they do have their whole working lives ahead of them. The fact that, overall, members of Gen Y are finding work faster than older generations surveyed may also have something to do with their optimism. The jobs millennials are getting may not be ideal — lots in retail and categories that don’t require a college degree — but at least the job hunt isn’t being dragged out forever.

Nearly half of Gen Y has considered going back to school instead of continuing their job search (35% of Gen X and 23% of Boomers), and nearly one-third are being forced to move back in with their parents (31% of Gen Y, 24% of Gen X and 13% of Boomers). One more difference about millennials is that, naturally enough for a generation that came of age with Twitter and Facebook, they’re more likely to use social media in the course of the job hunt. Before interviewing, Gen Y members are more likely to follow and interact with the company’s social media profiles over older generations (24% of Gen Y, vs. 19% of Gen X and 16% of Boomers).

(MORE: Outwitting the Recruiting Black Hole)

Generation X. Workers raised on Nirvana and John Hughes movies are likely to be parents with kids in the house today, and they value job security and have suffered more stress and frustration due to unemployment relative to other generations. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of Gen Xers say they are stressed due to unemployment, compared to only 61 percent of millennials who feel the same way. Many in Gen X have families they have to feed and provide for, as well as mortgages and other responsibilities, so unemployment has a major impact on their daily emotional state. For this reason, as well as others, Gen X is more focused on job security over a higher salary and workplace flexibility.

Baby Boomers. Interestingly enough, the children of the ’60s are using social networks, especially LinkedIn, more than other generations for their job search — 29 percent, compared to 23 percent of Gen Y and 27 percent of Gen X. Also somewhat surprising, the Boomers are the most likely to conduct an online job search, though the vast majority of all job seekers do so — 96 percent of Boomers, compared to 92 percent and 95 percent of Gen Y and Gen X, respectively. Boomers, it seems, may be slightly more likely to search online for jobs because they’ve been unemployed longer, and the kinds of jobs they tend to seek (corporate, well-paid) are found at job boards and other online sources. Baby Boomers also take more pains to prepare for job interviews than the younger generations: 85 percent of Boomers take the time to view the company’s website before interviewing, and 64 percent search for news related to the company beforehand, compared to 78% and 58% for Gen X and 71% and 53% for Gen Y. Again, the need for better preparation may be related to the kinds of jobs Boomers are applying for, in which a solid understanding and interest in the business is required before being hired.

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Much, much less surprising survey results point out that Boomers are less likely to consider going back to school as an alternative to finding a job (they’re too old to bother), and that Boomers are more likely to say they’ve suffered from age discrimination.

Dan Schawbel is a Gen Y career expert and the founder of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting company. He is also the #1 international bestselling author of Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future and was named to the Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30 list in 2010. He speaks on topics such as Gen Y workforce management to companies such as IBM, CitiGroup and NBC Universal.