Jessica Bialecki ’08 is no stranger to community service. At Yale, she co-coordinated Dwight Hall’s Executive Committee, led the Best Buddies program and organized last year’s Habitat for Humanity Challenge. On Class Day, she won the prestigious Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize for Public Service.

So it came as little surprise to anyone, including then-Dean Peter Salovey, who presented her with the prize last May, what Bialecki decided to do after graduation: She would go to New Orleans and teach first grade as part of the Teach for America corps.

Now Ms. Bialecki, as the six- and seven-year-olds in room 507 call her, couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve never felt more committed to something in my life,” says Bialecki, who took a break from planning Wednesday’s phonics lesson (the syllable “-le”) to speak on the phone.

But committed or not, her next job will be far outside the realm of public education. In a year and a half, she will leave New Orleans and Sarah T. Reed Elementary for Washington, D.C. and McKinsey & Company.

At least, that’s the plan for now.

Bialecki is emblematic of middle- and upper-middle class 20-somethings around the country, especially those at schools like Yale. She’s emblematic in that her plan is to have more than one plan. She is not sure where she will be “five years down the road.”

Today’s youth, Generation Y — born roughly between 1978 and 2001 — have a brand new set of expectations for the workplace. When it comes to careers, they are nothing like their parents. They don’t want to be.

Instead, says author and Generation Y theorist Lindsey Pollak ’96, Gen Y is in no rush to settle down in a nine-to-five job and, for the most part, has no intention of climbing the corporate ladder — in the traditional sense at least.

“There’s no such thing as a straight ladder anymore,” she says.

Baby Boomers and Gen Y-ers agree: 20-somethings like Bialecki are experimenting more, demanding more and outright rejecting the definition of success that their parents put before them.

Even McKinsey, Bialecki says, is a “stepping stone” toward that elusive ultimate career — one that just as easily could be on Capitol Hill as back in the Big Easy.

The odyssey — and its demands

In between adolescence and adulthood, there is a period of odyssey.

During this period, “20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends, and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks in Oct. 2007.

Meanwhile, their parents — and really, the majority of the Baby Boomers — worry.

The verdict on Gen Y is not all positive, Pollak says.

“The number one word that you probably hear,” she says, carefully limiting her observations to the middle- and upper-middle-class socioeconomic strata, “is ‘entitled.’ They feel like they should get promoted immediately. They’ll come in the first day and ask for vacation time. They want instant feedback, which many people blame on videogames.”

Baby boomers believe that Gen Y has been “coddled,” she says, because they are constantly told they can do anything they put their minds to. So from the beginning, they demand top positions.

But perhaps even more problematic is that today’s 20-somethings are viewed as disloyal in that they rarely intend to remain with a company for 30 years like their parents did, Pollak says. The perception is that “they don’t want to pay their dues in the workplace,” she says.

On blogs and in columns, Gen Y is often called “Gen Whine,” and older generations frequently question whether their demands are unrealistic — and unfair.

“They’re young, smart, brash,” declared a 2005 USA Today article announcing the arrival of Gen Y in the workforce. “They may wear flip-flips to the office or listen to iPods at their desk. They want to work, but they don’t want work to be their life.”

There is some truth in that, current Yale seniors say. But Caroline Savello ’09 thinks 20-somethings will gladly endure long hours, provided that their work is appreciated.

“It’s not that we work any less than our parents may have, but we have different expectations of the comforts such hard work should guarantee,” says Savello, who will work for Boston Consulting Group after graduation.

Amy Rothchild ’09 agrees: “A lot of the seniors I know are prepared to work long hours for not much pay.”

As for the iPod comment? That strikes Rothchild as a bit “sensationalist.”

“My first thought is that it doesn’t seem too egregious, or indicative of poor work ethic,” she said.

But, Rothchild adds, “That might be a very Gen Y thing of me to say.”

‘The Unique Taste of Millions’

What makes Gen Y uniquely “entitled” may also make them uniquely productive, especially in the corporate world. Pollak says today’s 20-somethings not only value individual uniqueness to a larger extent than did previous generations, but also that their distinct characteristics in the office (the ability to multitask, for example) make them — collectively — unique workers.

“It’s not that you don’t want to work hard,” says Wendy Schmidt ’77, a partner at consulting firm Deloitte, “But that you want to work differently with more flexibility.”

Savello, who is co-president of the Women’s Leadership Initiative, which frequently leads discussions on work/life balance, agrees that 20-somethings have a particular conception of flexibility that extends beyond maternity and paternity options to everyday lifestyle issues as well.

For example, she says, “Can I take a break on a busy day for the gym?”

Schmidt’s firm, Deloitte, has spent the last several years conducting extensive research on what current 20-somethings want from their jobs. The firm published a book, “Mass Career Customization,” an attempt to reconcile the demands of the workplace with those of a non-traditional workforce. Above all, Deloitte’s research found, Gen Y demands four things: recognition and respect; responsibility and autonomy; meaningful work; and flexibility and choice.

That desire for flexibility, Schmidt says, is in large part attributable to Gen Y’s comfort with technology, including social networking and interactive media.

“You guys are the first generation to grow up with computers and the Internet as part of your lives,” she says. “I think that’s a really good thing in terms of how you approach problem solving.”

But because Gen Y is so adept with technology — in fact, Pollak says, they are the first generation that is more tech-savvy than their parents and grandparents — Schmidt says they are sometimes difficult to manage and have little patience for the mundane.

“I don’t see your generation as being as deferential to leadership as my generation was,” she says. “You challenge more. You’re not inclined to follow leaders just because they’re leaders.”

Raymond Pacia ’07, a Gen Y-er who has already risen to the position of senior analyst at New York law firm Kobre & Kim, says his generation seeks “rapid, merit-based” promotion rather than promotion based solely on experience.

“More than their predecessors, members of our generation seem averse to workplaces where stifling hierarchies exist only for their own sake,” says Pacia, a former managing editor of the News.

ladder becomes a lattice

Flexibility is perhaps also why two-year programs like Teach for America are increasingly popular among Gen Y. Fifty-two Yalies were admitted to TFA last year, and dozens have already been awarded acceptance to the 2009 corps.

Corporate America appears to have noticed this, too. Two-year entry-level programs as well as rotational programs are springing up throughout the private sector, at McKinsey and Deloitte as well as at PricewaterhouseCoopers and a smattering of other firms.

In fact, Pollak, whose close research of Gen Y has led to several career advice books as well as a regularly updated blog, spends much of her time advising corporate firms about what to expect from and how to attract and retain today’s 20-somethings. When retention is a problem, her first piece of advice is usually to “create a two-year program.”

Young people, she says, like to have an end in sight. Even those headed to graduate or professional school are often willing to put their plans on hold for two years. (The average age of matriculation into medical school in 2008, for example, was 24, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.)

Gen Y also likes to have options, which is where the rotational programs, allowing employees to get experience in a variety of company departments, come in. Pollak says the Internet shoe retailer has an “amazing model” in which it pays employees to leave if they are unsatisfied at the end of a four-week training session. And Fox News moves new employees around until they find positions that suit them, she says.

Deloitte also attracts Gen Y by promoting corporate social responsibility and activism; employees can use a certain number of work hours toward community service.

“We need to rethink what training is necessary for Generation Y, because what used to be common sense isn’t common sense anymore,” Pollak says.

During her job search last semester, Sara Greenburg ’09 says she noticed recruiters pitching their businesses as “spring boards” — useful regardless of what she chooses to do later on in life.

The best recruiters, she says, focused on how “interesting” the job is and what she would learn from it, not just how it could improve her chances of getting an even better one.

The distinction is key. At Deloitte, Schmidt says, the career ladder has become a career “lattice,” which promotes sideways and diagonal movement in addition to traditional promotion.

“To me, enjoying what you do is more important than doing something to get somewhere else,” Greenburg says.

Generation O?

“Generation O is that college kid at the White House gate early Wednesday morning,” a New York Times reporter wrote the week of President Barack Obama’s election, “lifting his shirt to reveal ‘Obama’ painted in red on his chest.”

Generation O, in other words, is Generation Y.

Obama’s message of change, change and more change that dominated his bully pulpit and sought to usher in his “new generation of politics” seemed well aligned with the prevailing spirit of many Gen Y-ers. Hundreds of Yalies, for example, mobilized for the Democratic candidate over the past year and a half, a handful of whom took the fall semester off to work on the campaign full time. On Election Day, between 21.6 and 23.9 million 18- to 29-year-old voters went to the polls nationwide, the most since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972, according to the Center for Information Research of Civic Learning and Engagement. About two-thirds of them voted for Obama.

The activism of young people, Greenburg says, shows that despite the demands for promotion and desire for flexibility, most Gen Y-ers ultimately have the same goal in mind: to make a difference. And according to Yale seniors, the lack of urgency, the willingness to experiment — the celebration of the odyssey — is simply a means to that end. What is most important, they say, is finding a passion.

Pollak agrees: “I’m optimistic for this generation.”

Of course, the definition of “making a difference” varies tremendously across the board. Some eventually enter medical or legal fields; others hope to run a lucrative bank or hedge fund.

Still others, like Bialecki, want their impact to be felt in a classroom.

In spite of her impending 180-degree move from an urban elementary school to a cushy D.C. office, Bialecki says she finds it difficult to imagine her ultimate career straying far from public education, whether as a teacher, a policy-maker or a government official.

“Once you experience something like teaching full time in one of these schools,” she says, “there’s almost no way you can turn your back on that mission.”

Who knows? In five years, maybe 10, Ms. Bialecki — or perhaps Senator Bialecki — may once again make those first graders her mission.