Understanding Gen Y Part 2: why employers need to learn to love them

by Isabel Wu

Businesses globally are unprepared to face the challenges of the changing business environment, as they struggle to manage the demands of Millennial (also known as Gen Y) employees and adapt to disruptions in labour markets.

This was the finding from a Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey released earlier in 2014.

Gen Y are frequently made out to be lazy and entitled.   An article from the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, a few months ago, “What your boss really wants to say to you”, included a quote from one employer that typifies the sentiments shared by many, ““The younger generation seem to want the boss’s job and pay but they don’t want to work for it,”

The attitude that Gen Y are people whose ‘demands’ should be ‘managed’ seems to be contributing to the lack of preparation for changing business environments rather than being part of it.  Given the things business should be focusing on, it seems remarkable that incessant Gen Y bashing continues.

The things that Gen Y are accused of are not new; workplaces have always had to deal with these issues.  There have always been those who thought there was a fast ride to the top.  Nepotism, cronyism and old boys networks provide many with their sense of entitlement.  Everyone knows that the phrase ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ refers to advantages paid for reasons that are not ability and hard work.

Anyone who has spent any time in employment, particularly the corporate environment can pinpoint lazy pretenders who have mastered the art of slipping away when anything becomes too demanding.  They will be able to recall long-winded and tedious discussions about nothing more than golfing handicaps or who else has noticed the great legs on the new girl in marketing.  Those take credit for someone else’s work are no more or less lazy or entitled than the expectations the Gen Y are accused of having.

Of course Gen Y as a group are different to previous generations.  They have been brought up differently – every parent has their list of things their parents did that they would never do to their children.  Gen Y grew up in a world of technology, terrorism, 24-7 news; their grandparents aspired to the quarter acre block, their parents committed to lifetime mortgages, today both are out of reach for many.  Why would we expect they should join the workforce with the same understanding as previous generations?

The key to businesses being prepared for the challenges of the changing business environment is not in meeting the demands of Gen Y; it is in using Gen Y’s perspective of the world to fast track their capabilities for the business environment as it changes.

For instance, ‘work’ for older generations is likely to incorporate notions of service and subordination (to the company), hierarchy and divisions, succession and approval (reward and recognition).  ‘Work’ for Gen Y tends to include an expectation that they are part of a team that is there to contribute to the organisation’s objectives – which the older generation usually assumes is the role of the CEO.

For Gen Y, social currency is what matters.  This includes a team environment that collaborates, discusses and works together to solve problems.  Rather than viewing their supervisors as people moving towards the management ‘them’, Gen Y see their role is to support their supervisors – as long as they have built a good relationship with them. Social currency means being able to engage with the organisation’s story.  This is very clearly seen in Gen Y’s attitude to brands.  They are at the same time cynical about marketing but highly engaged with a brand’s values whose stories they relate to.

There are two examples to illustrate this.  Jeans brand, Levi’s, international ‘Make Our Mark’ campaign calls out to the artist inside us.  The company used #MakeOurMark and other hashtags to invite the public to contribute their artistic expressions to a living online ‘wall’.

McDonald’s, on the other hand, tried to hijack people’s values to promote their brand through a Twitter campaign #McDStories.  The aim was for the hashtag to inspire heart-warming stories about Happy Meals.  The campaign succeeded in engagement with horror stories about the company immediately filling the twitterverse.  Although the campaign was pulled within two hours, the momentum – and terrible stories – carried on for weeks.

So organisations should not see Gen Y as a problem to be solved, rather by understanding Gen Y’s perspective they may be helping their organisations to evolve in line with the changing needs of the business.  It does not mean Gen Y have all the answers.  Keeping in mind that the jobs young people used to fill while they were at school are not as available – because of automation, and often because their parents are still holding them – their first ‘real’ job is also often their first job.

The most common, and easily fixed, mistake employers make is sitting all employees down in an induction program that was written following a format as old as the company itself.  It would be sensible to develop an induction program for those – like Gen Y – that have little or no recent work experience and deliver it in a format – such as a podcast – that reflects how they are used to consuming information.

Gen Y have now been in the workforce for a decade or more.  It is time for us to get over the stereotyping and do what we should be doing: making sure the workplace is keeping up with change.

Four ways to get the best from Gen Y

  1. Develop an organisation where context is clearly defined.  Gen Y do not care about skills they way you do – they have all used Youtube to learn a skill.  They care less about your knowledge – information has always been at their fingertips.  Also they have grown up in a world knowledge and skills can be outdated in fewer years than it takes to complete a degree.  If recognition and authority is based on skills and knowledge alone in your organisation, they will expect to move quickly.Gen Y do care about wisdom and experience.  They want to be guided through real life.  Show them how skills and knowledge work in context so they learn it is not what you know or what you can do, it is how you use what you know or what you can do.
  2. It’s all about values.  Gen Y use the word ‘values’ in the same way we used the word ‘career’.  It drives their decisions about where they work, what they do, what they aim for, and what they are prepared to do to get there.  It is the importance of values to Gen Y that they will prefer lifestyle and flexibility over money and promotion, and choose an employer for what it cares about over the job it offers.  They work on the basic assumption that things can be fixed with enough people who care coming together to make it happen.
  3. Replace formal goal-setting with regular coaching.  You will get better performance from Gen Y by supporting them in the here and now.  Think about gamification which rewards incremental gain not goal achievement.  The thing that makes Gen Y easy to manage is they are practically hard-wired for change and continuous learning (such as the way they barely seem to notice when functionality changes on their iPhones while we complain with every upgrade).
  4. Gen Y are not impatient and insensitive so much as they are often poor at soft skills such as prioritising, managing relationships, workplace etiquette, teamwork, planning and managing distractions.  These are all trainable skills that somehow, in the way they are being schooled, they are underdeveloped.  They have a great capacity for feedback and work better with regular input and the opportunity to reflect on their achievements and improvements.

So with Gen Y in the workplace in increasing numbers and starting to reach management levels, looking down our noses at all their shortcomings is a cop out.  We have done a great job with them as parents, now our role is to coach them in their development at work.

Remember when we began our careers, as a whole we were more qualified than the generation before us.  They called us upstarts who needed to experience ‘real life’ before we earned the right to contribute.

It was true then as it is now that organisations will benefit from investing time in early career development as well as changing practices to encourage greater input.