The economy and health reform may have prompted the youngest workers at U.S. companies to take a deeper interest in workplace benefits, according to online research conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Unum.

For example, the percentage of workers age 18 to 32 that said they are extremely or very familiar with retirement accounts jumped from 31% in 2008 to 43% in 2010.

"Members of this generation are entering the workforce and building careers during a time of economic uncertainty and intense debate over health care reform," says Barbara Nash, vice president of corporate research for Unum. "They're clearly taking an increased interest in how they can build and protect their financial lives."

Benefits professionals should take note of the research findings, given that Generation Y workers make up about 75 million of the U.S. population, which is nearly the size of the baby boomer generation of 80 million.

"This generation of workers is a large and influential group coming of age at a time when the benefits landscape is changing quickly," Nash says. "Understanding what drives their decision-making and how we can meet their benefits needs on their terms is critical."

The data reflect the results of two online surveys conducted in 2008 and 2010. The 2008 survey involved 357 Generation Y respondents (aged 18 to 32) employed full- or part-time, while the 2010 poll interviewed 387 Gen Y workers.

Other key findings include:

* The percentage of young workers who reported they are extremely or very familiar with disability insurance increased from 16% in 2008 to 24% in 2010.

* More young employees are also visiting insurance company websites to learn about benefits providers, with 32% doing so in 2008, compared to 44% in 2010.

* The percentage of Gen Y workers who answered they are extremely or very familiar with life insurance increased from 31% in 2008 to 44% in 2010.

* Young workers are also logging on to consumer advice websites, with 21% doing so in 2008, compared to 27% in 2010. Meanwhile, the number who participated in online forums or blogs increased from 7% in 2008 to 12% in 2010.

* Between 2008 and 2010, the percentage of young workers who noted they rely on their parents for benefits information fell from 60% in 2008 to 42% in 2010.

* The percentage who cite friends as a resource for benefits guidance also dropped, from 30% in 2008 to 21% in 2010.

* The scope of a provider's benefits is an increasingly important element for Generation Y when they're choosing a carrier. In 2010, 55% said scope was an important selection factor, up from 44% in 2008.

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