Why Gen Y Facebook users keep career info out

January 13, 2012: 9:32 AM ET

Two-thirds of Facebook users between 18 and 29 do not include a single employer's name on their profiles, thwarting several big companies' efforts to use the network as a recruiting tool.

By Vickie Elmer, contributor

FORTUNE -- If you didn't think your job said all that much about who you are or who you want to be, would you put it on your Facebook profile? As many members of Generation Y struggle to develop their professional careers, most do not feel ready to share their current employer's name with their legions of Facebook friends.

Two-thirds of those ages 18 to 29 do not list their employer's name on their Facebook profiles, and those who do share that information are more likely to work for the U.S. Army than AT&T (T) or Apple (AAPL), according to a recent study of Facebook profiles by Millennial Branding and Identified.com. By comparison, 20% of the 4 million profiles examined in the study did not include a school.

This reluctance to share professional information among the younger set might spring from a sense that their jobs don't measure up, that they haven't really established solid careers yet, or perhaps they've not yet bought into the evolution of Facebook as a job search and professional tool.

"A lot of them cannot even get a professional type job…. If they're a manager, it's at Abercrombie and Fitch," says Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and a Gen Y workplace expert. "It's not a career-type role."

Servers, CEOs, and lifeguards

When young users do identify their job on Facebook, common titles include server, intern, sales associate, or cashier, though "owner" was among the top five titles, according to the study. Slightly more 18 to 29-year olds said that they were working as lifeguards and receptionists than as chief executives on Facebook, according to the Millennial Branding - Identified research.

These 20-somethings are "experimenting with what interests them when they graduate," says Schawbel, who argues that Facebook users don't want to be identified with their current jobs just yet.

If Facebook is all about expressing crafting your social identity online, where you are employed just might not rate for all younger workers.

"Gen Ys want their jobs to feel like an extension of who they are. If it's not a good extension of who you are, you're not going to include it in a profile," says Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career and works as a paid LinkedIn spokeswoman. "There's a lot of pressure to make your Facebook life look cool," says Pollak, whether it's a great vacation or a great promotion.

No love for the Fortune 500?

Among those who identified an employer at all, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy were the top two cited. Wal-Mart (WMT), Starbucks (SBUX), and Target (TGT) were the top companies, but only about 7% said that they work for a Fortune 500 company.

While one-third of Gen Y listed an employer, half of their Baby Boomer parents show where they work on their Facebook profiles, according to Identified data, and some 53% of Generation X profiles show their employer.

A reluctance to report employment history could be critical as big companies begin to ramp up their hiring and try to recruit college seniors and recent graduates. In fact, many companies have begun to use Facebook to engage prospective workers. In a recent survey by Jobvite, 48% of job seekers said that they had conducted at least one social job-hunting activity on Facebook in the last year, compared to 26% for LinkedIn (LNKD). And 16% said they had received a job referral from a Facebook friend.

To be sure, the number of Gen Y workers who list employers on Facebook is on the rise. And when the founders of Identified were launching their recruiting database firm in 2010, they found that about 20% or profiles contained professional information. By November 2011, it had grown to more than a third. Identified's president and co-founder Brendan Wallace expects that half of Gen Y Facebook users will show their employment information a year from now, as the social network continues to expand its privacy settings.

A (slowly) changing tide

Heather Huhman, who is a Gen Y'er herself at 28, also sees more young people turning to Facebook for their career, just because of the network's sheer number of users -- some 800 million. "It's too big to ignore…. Facebook is the next place that you need to be building your career and personal brand," says Huhman, who is the author of several books on career issues.

For its part, Identified is among those trying to seize the potential recruiting opportunity that Facebook offers, especially for employers looking for 20-something knowledge workers. Wallace estimates that Facebook has 76 million U.S. users under 30 years old, versus 5.5 million on LinkedIn. Facebook was, after all, established as a network for college students, and many still want to use it for their social life. "Inadvertently sharing things -- pictures and videos -- that could affect their success at work," says Schawbel.

Younger workers are also starting to think of Facebook as a tool for business and career success. "The information on Facebook is becoming more and more synonymous with LinkedIn for this generation. If you're a barista, you're not going to create a profile on LinkedIn," Wallace says. Actually, a LinkedIn search turns up more than 13,100 people with "barista" currently in their title; some of those baristas also list professional or intern positions.

More than eight in 10 Gen Y workers have at least one work friend on Facebook; half have "friended" more than five colleagues. On average, they have "friended" 16 people in various jobs, past and present. While they're mixing work colleagues in, a number that's dwarfed by friends they met in high school or college or elsewhere. Their average "friend" count is 696, according to Millennial Branding.

On the whole, Pollak sees a big difference in how Gen Y and their parents use Facebook. "Baby Boomers are often less savvy about the overall image that they're projecting, and who's going to be looking at their profiles," she says. "Most Gen Ys are …much savvier about their Facebook settings. They know their bosses are looking, recruiters are looking, universities recruitment officers are on Facebook."

Whatever it is, the younger set's going to use Facebook strategically, and that goes double for potential bosses and recruiters: They'll show you who they are on their own terms.

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