It’s a long list to describe Generation Y with a commonly unfavorable preconception. This youngest generation at the work place (born after 1980, also called Millennials) is said to be: lazy, impatient, needy, entitled, taking up too much of my time, expecting work to be fun, seeking instant gratifications, hop from company to company, want promotions right away, give their opinion all the time and so on. But is it really that easy to characterize a new generation?
Generational clash has changed
Clashes between generations were always present to some degree: Young people want to prove themselves, probe the boundaries and seek opportunity. The older are in power, hold the wealth, make the decisions and are typically reluctant to change and letting go of their well-established and comfortable status quo.
However, something significant has changed: Where in the past three generations used to live at the same time, we now see that four generations are working together simultaneously. A conflict that used to predominate the homes is now also present in the workplace (as a result of several factors that include demographic change, geo-economical impact, longer life expectancy and increasing retirement age).
While in our personal lives we may be able to avoid or by-pass some areas of generational friction these same ways may not be possible in the workplace. Here you have to get along and collaborate with your co-workers. This is challenging not only for the multi-generational workforce but also for the managers facing the new need to mitigate generational conflicts, integrate the staff, and provide a constructive and collaborative work environment.
Why managers struggle with the mysterious Generation Y
For managers it is important to take a close look at GenY, since GenY outnumbers the significantly smaller GenX (born 1965 to 1980) and is the largest workforce generation. The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) retire from the regular workforce leaving a gap. Nonetheless, given the typical career progression, higher management positions are still firmly held by Baby Boomers or their preceding Pre-Boomer generation (born before 1946) – the generations farthest apart from GenY.
Ignoring the differences between generations or addressing them in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner backfires. It also misses to leverage particular traits of the young generation that become critical for an organization to sustain in the face of change coming at ever faster pace and with increasing complexity (see my earlier blog: ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?).
It is Generation Y that people seem to have the hardest time wrapping their heads around. Simply pigeon-holing GenY does not do them justice and doesn’t help understanding and managing them either.
‘Kids’ entering the workplace?
It is even a common misconception that GenY have not yet arrived at the workplace and that they are ‘kids’ just coming out of school or college. If you consider the demographics, however, the early GenY’ers are 30 years old now, so they are hardly ‘kids’ anymore. They come well educated and already gained some experience at the workplace for several years now. They are not ‘out there’ anymore but ‘in here’ now!
Instant gratification and fast promotions?
It is true that GenY seeks fun (who doesn’t?) and grew up with high-end video games in which the players typically rack up points in fast progression opening up new levels or challenges to continue the game. But that’s only one side of the coin. It also forms a mindset to figure things out, address challenges with optimism in a playful way, master technology, compete in ever-changing surrounding as well as hooking up with a network of friends to play and succeed together – don’t be fooled, these are the critical basic skills in the world we live and do business in!
Look at GenY’s parents that determined the up-bringing: The generation of Baby Boomer parents indulged in perks and benefits like only few before them; the succeeding GenX only saw these goodies going away when they started entering the workforce. Fortunes were racked up or inherited by Baby Boomers.
GenY kids often grew up in a world of abundance; nothing was too good for them or out of reach – and sponsored freely by the parents with enough cash in their pockets to offer their kids any imaginable aspect of a ‘better life’.
Instead of flipping burgers during summer holidays to earn their own money, many GenY kids had spare time on their hand to learn and have fun while ‘helicopter parents’ took (and continue to) care for their well-being and even professional advancement as adults. Who would say ‘No’ if you are young and your parents offered to pay for your car, your shopping dreams or set you up for a prosperous and promising career?
This way many Baby Boomer parents did their part to breed a generational culture of entitlement or at least high expectations while reinforcing the message “You can do anything and succeed!” – It does not seem fair to hold this upbringing against their kids.
(Instead, it provokes the questions why Baby Boomers, in particular, seem to have such a hard time letting go to let their kids live their own lives without excessive parental hand-holding? – But that is a topic for another time…)
GenY is prepared, assertive and speaks up. They know what they want and how to get it. Don’t underestimate them as customers either, since GenY is a serious economic power and probably even more so than any previous young generation in history!
Lazy, impatient and needy?
Let me share with you my first-hand experience with GenY at the workplace. I gain my insight as the founder and chair of a generation-oriented employee resource group (ERG) which gives me ample opportunities to work closely with GenY’ers on various projects. It made me probe my own biases and assumptions based on practical work experience (which, by the way, I don’t always see reflected in articles written about GenY).
What I learned is quite different from most preconceptions: The GenY’ers work hard and with ambition, they are not a bit lazy.
When we coin GenY ‘needy’ or ‘taking up too much of my time’ we are actually ignoring that they want to contribute to a meaningful cause in the most effective way. What they are asking is to understand the ‘why’ before going to work. This questions and challenges the status quo in a constructive manner – which is good! If we cannot answer their question satisfactory or insist that we already know the best way ‘how-to’ then it is us (the non-GenY’ers) standing in the way of innovation and change. As a general truth it is not their questions that can be compromising but rather our answers.
Some tasks require not only book-smarts but also experience (including managing people) that many GenY’ers cannot have made at this time in their careers. Therefore, they can be over-confident and over-estimate their abilities and effectiveness; support them and offer them learning experiences as a reality-check and growth opportunity.
Empower GenY to put their specific inherent qualities to best use given that they tend to be natural networkers and solvers of complex problems, they user modern technology effectively and approach different ethnicities and cultures with an embracing ‘color-blindness’. – Are these not exactly the qualities that we need in the world we live and work in today and tomorrow?
If you plan to start an ERG that addresses generational differences, you can find great research for free: Next-generation ERG learn from U.S. Army recruitment!
Engagement and empowerment drives loyalty
A short while back I wrote in this forum about How to retain talent under the new workplace paradigm? It comes down to approaching the workforce differently by offering flexible career paths, support staff to remain employable and accommodate benefits to their needs instead of hiding behind archaic one-size-fits-all models.
As managers we need to consider GenY’s particular needs and expectations to attract, engage and retain them. We need to leverage their unique talents and skills for the better of the company while helping them to development and grow. Empowerment includes guidance and creating opportunities for GenY to make mistakes, learn and get active ‘their way’ in areas that wakes their interest and that are meaningful to them as well as to your organization. – Then relax, sit back and see beautiful surprises unfold!
Leverage employee resource groups (ERG) as an opportunity
Some managers may ask on how to get started, what could be a first step to engage and leverage GenY? One way of doing it is by founding an inclusive ERG to focus and organize your emerging workforce.
As an example, I founded the Next Generation at the Workplace (coined ‘NxGen’) ERG that has already changed the company’s perception of employee engagement, increased ERG credibility and raised the business value seen in ERGs among managers. Our NxGen approach is to address opportunities in business-relevant projects with measurable results for the business (such as return-of-investment, ROI). Our projects often focus on relevant topics are outside our immediate field of work but are always sponsored by an executive to ensure governance and strategic alignment. These projects provide an excellent and safe training ground for up-and-coming leaders. NxGen supports the organization directly through the project’s immediate deliverables as well as indirectly by establishing a free and hands-on management development program that comes with networking, coaching, and skill development already built-in. Everyone wins!
No matter if you have a dedicated ERG or not, don’t discount GenY based on labels. Dig deeper to find the treasures that this generation has to offer. Your organization’s future relies on them!
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NxGen was nationally recognized as a ‘cutting-edge’ approach to employee resource groups by the Network and Affinity Leadership Congress 2010 (NALC), a national conference focused on training ERG leaders to align with the business goals of their organizations.
Please leave a comment and, if you are interested in ERG topics, feel free to join our ERG Leaders group on LinkedIn.com to discuss, share and learn!