Monday, May 2, 2011

How to Deal With Generation Y

I’m not sure this message will reach the intended audience—I don’t know if there are a ton of Baby Boomers out there who read this site, but here goes.

I watch 60 minutes fairly religiously. This doesn’t mean that I watch the religious pieces like the recent, far-too-long segment on the Greek Orthodox church, but rather that I watch the show weekly and Tivo through to the topics that interest me. This also includes watching “60 Minutes on CNBC,” a nice little compilation of popular stories the show has run on a similarly popular topic over the past few years. One recent episode was on the changing workplace environment, and one segment that really stood out to me was the piece about how Baby Boomers can motivate so-called “Generation Y” employees. I immediately thought, “Hey, I was a Generation Y employee! How could I be motivated?”

According to the report, Baby Boomers think that Generation Y employees have a sense of entitlement, and a fear of hard work. They think we want to goof off all day, and expect a trophy for showing up to work. They decry a lack of loyalty to the organization, and, by extension, their colleagues.

A lot of this perception stems from a lack of communication on both sides of the table. I’m not going to say that my generation is perfect: there are plenty of horrible people tossed in with so-called “superstars.” But hopefully this piece will give older generations a feel as to where my generation is coming from.

Generation Y has different priorities than other generations. For years, it was beat into earlier generations that the “American Dream” was to get a high-paying, stable, secure job, marry the high school sweetheart, buy a house, start a family, work 30-40 years, and enjoy a 10-20 year retirement. Gen Yers question this whole process. After seeing years of layoffs, divorces, pay cuts, and a housing market crash, we have all already done a lot of soul-searching as to what we really want out of life. Sure, there are still people that buy the house and start the family, but in large part they want to spend their leisure time with that family instead of putting in “face time” at work. As long as they have “enough” money, Gen Yers don’t really care all that much about that 5% pay increase, unless it’s doing something that they really want to do. Additionally, we value time with friends and family more than the promise of that potential “promotion” at work, because, let’s face it, we’re probably not planning on sticking around too long anyway (more on that later), and spending that time with family and friends will make us much happier in the long run.

Generation Y is (generally) more efficient than earlier generations, even when multitasking. We grew up alongside the internet, for good or ill. Though this has lead to an outbreak of instant messaging and facebooking on company time, it also means that we know how to use google, twitter, and other internet tools to “crowdsource” solutions to problems much more quickly than our older counterparts. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, as there will be the tech-literate Baby Boomer that knows the ins-and-outs of google, or the clueless Gen Yer who has focused mostly on off-line pursuits who can’t find reliable information quickly, but by-and-large, I’ve found this to be true. We’re problem solvers, and the inefficiency of previous research methods is just another “game” to us. Because we can take advantage of pretty much every spare moment (like when documents are printing or large PDFs are loading), we can also hold gchat conversations or look at our favorite blogs during otherwise unproductive time. The end result is a worker who can get the job done in a shorter amount of time while considering more options—or as law firms prefer to call them, “low billers.”

Gen Yers are more results-driven than process-driven. If you tell us to do something, we generally want to get it done as quickly as possible so that we can move on to the next thing. We don't like dragging things out to fill some arbitrary measure of time that somebody else comes up with. If we can finish something in an hour, and there's no more work to do, what's the point of sticking around? What it comes down to is a sense of the value of time—we don't want to waste any time sitting around, doing nothing when we could be pursuing whatever makes us truly happy. Maybe it's an increased sense of the fragility of life, or maybe it's just common sense, but at the end of the day, we're happy to finish what needs to be done, just don't hold it against us if we can do it more quickly than others.

The famous “Sense of Entitlement” is often misunderstood. Gen Y is often told to “take ownership of the business” or “think like a partner.” I’ll be the first to admit that some people in my generation may take this a bit too far, and there are some arrogant idiots that think “think like a partner” means “act like the most obnoxious ass you see here.” But for a lot of us, it means trying to improve otherwise outdated, inefficient practices within a company with fresh, new ideas. A lot of times, older people take offense to such measures without seriously considering the ideas, or trying to explain that there are good reasons why these ideas don’t work practically, although I will also admit Gen Y has been known to push back a bit on this last point, as we assume that our ideas would work “if only people would try them.” Rightly or wrongly, when Gen Yers feel like their ideas aren’t even being listened to, they grow frustrated and look for other areas where they have more input in the direction of the organization. Before you go starting some “initiative” among the younger folks in your office to “hear them out” and see what “ideas they have for the long run,” know that Gen Yers can generally smell B.S. from a mile away, and won’t participate if they don’t think there will be real results that come out of it. I’ve found that the best way to show people that you’re listening is to actually implement some of the better ideas, but that’s just me.

Gen Yers want to take control of their own careers, and plan accordingly. I don’t think Gen Yers think about “fenceposts” any more or less than previous generations, I just think we measure progress differently. Where as previous generations measured markers like “get married, buy a house, start a family,” etc., Gen Yers are far more likely to do a self-reflection every year or two, asking themselves questions like “Is this what I really want to be doing? If not, what other opportunities are out there? How do I get involved in those?” etc. Sure, marriage, family, and home ownership can be important to Gen Yers, and there still are those of us that subscribe to the “old philosophy,” but there are plenty of people that are defining their life’s progress along a different continuum entirely. A lot of older people can’t seem to wrap their heads around this, as they see it as spitting in the face of everything that they worked for. We mean no offense—it’s just a different way to live life, unencumbered by a certain set of responsibilities.

Gen Yers are more skills-driven than “job-driven.” In the new world economy, it’s far more important to have a transferable skill-set than “a good job.” We’ve seen plenty of “good jobs” either suck big time or go away entirely in an economic downturn. Someone with skills has a wider range of employment opportunities, and can even strike out on their own if they want. The specialist, though valuable within certain niches, loses his value entirely if that sector goes bottom-up. You might think, “there’s no way that my industry could go away entirely!” I’m sure that’s what travel agents, bookstore-owners, and brick-and-mortar electronics retailers once said, and each of those industries is struggling to survive. With the rapid pace at which the world is transforming, you can never be too sure that a certain field is “implosion-proof.”

Gen Yers are taking the advice that you give us. We constantly hear things like, “on your death bed, you’re not going to wish you spent more time working.” Who is it exactly that’s saying these things? Baby Boomers! We’ve seen the day-in, day-out toil that our parents have suffered, only to come home for a few brief hours that could hopefully be spent with us. We’ve seen firsthand how irritable their corporate job could make them in off-hours, and how much happiness the “big house” really buys. We’re far more perceptive than you give us credit for, and want to avoid that “golden handcuffs” trap. The problem is, a lot of companies love the idea of the “golden handcuffs.” As a former lawyer, I can tell you that law firms love that stuff. It’s the same cycle, over-and-over again: graduate with a ton of debt, funnel in the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids with high salaries, push getting a house/marriage/starting a family so that once the debt is paid off, they have more responsibilities, they’re hooked.

So then, how should companies focus on retaining Gen Yers? It’s not a simple solution of “pay them more,” as this only gets you to retain the people that value money over time. I think it’s a combination of actively listening to their suggestions, while being open to alternative work arrangements and mindful of what they are looking for. “Oh, is that all? Maybe I should arrange for flowers and chocolates for them every day, too!” No, it’s not a one-way street. In return, tell them when there is a strict deadline or when there is a project that is “all hands on deck” for the weekend, and try to let them know as far in advance as possible that such a project will be coming up. We’re willing to work hard if we know why, and that it’s not just a fire drill conducted so that we can work all weekend to finish a report you won’t read until Wednesday. Also, consider an arrangement like Google has, where employees can work on their own projects one day a week. Though I’ve heard mixed reviews as to whether or not this actually happens at Google, some of their biggest moneymakers have come from these projects. Even if you focus it a bit more and make it within the industry that your company operates, you may find that the savings via efficiency and new product lines may benefit your business and make you look good in the process. Finally, don’t be afraid to be a bit firm with Gen Yers –we know that work has to be done, and you shouldn't let younger people walk all over you; if you do, you're probably not a good manager anyway. But don't be a hard-ass for the sake of being a hard-ass. At the end of the day, that'll just expedite somebody's departure.

Any other thoughts on how to “deal” with Generation Y? Leave them in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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