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Tag: Generation Y

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

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.

Understanding Gen Y: Part 1

I recently came across an article written by a young man who identified himself as Gen Y (those born between the mid-1980s and 2000).  His article reflected on the life of his mother who had served her main profession and few employers continuously and steadfastly throughout her adult life towards the aim of enjoying a comfortable retirement.  As that time loomed near she had not achieved the financial security she needed for retirement.  Even a delayed retirement would provide her little more than a basic existence and the prospect of dependence on others as her health declined over time.

The writer vowed that he would never live his life in selfless service to employers to face the same late life insecurity as his mother.  His article provoked outraged criticism from many readers.  Comments saluted the mother as dedicated and selfless while he was branded ‘typical Gen Y’: entitled, ungrateful, insensitive and selfish.  Respondents compared their own parents who, like the writer’s mother, worked long and hard to provide for them but unlike the writer, they were proud of their parents who earned their pensions and they saluted their dedication.

The emotion of the responses seemed out of proportion to the sentiments expressed in the article.  For instance he was accused of having a sense of entitlement, yet nowhere did he write that he expected more than his mother.  He simply stated he wanted make different choices to his mother so he would have the opportunity to achieve a better outcome.  A look at the profile photos of the respondents suggests reactions could have had something to do with their ages and their own prospects for retirement in the years ahead.

Like this writer, I do not think we should call a system (economic, social or otherwise) that asks for compromises to be made during our working lives in exchange for freedom in future years, but then that freedom is unavailable, a success. Far from disrespectful, he was distressed that his mother’s financial situation did not do justice to the care she took of others during her working life.

What was typical of this writer as a member of Generation Y was his attitude that the system needs to be better. He reached out on social media so he and others can do something about it.  They think this way because we taught it to them.

As Gen X (those born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s) parents, we have sought to do what our parents before us have done: give our children a better life than the one we had.  With experiences of relationship breakdowns, mortgage stress, complying with society’s expectations at the expense of our own fulfilment, job insecurity and social inequality guiding our parenting approach, we taught our children to never settle for less than they deserve.  We have given them the expectations of respect, equality, choice and that they can be anything they choose to be.  We denied them little and protected them from harm that often existed only in our minds.  “Why don’t you look it up yourself?” we would say when they asked us a question and we saw an opportunity to develop their independence.  We drove them from activity to activity week after week, and that was worth it because these activities developed their confidence and their collaboration skills.  Their sense of responsibility to the planet and to the disadvantaged is a credit to us because we told them it was important to care about people more than title, money and power.

And now they are in the workforce, and Gen Y – with the values we instilled in them – and the workplace are out of sync.


Since the modern workplace developed in the 1950s, a clash between the establishment and the new generation has always been the case.  Boomers in the 1960s fought workplaces fraught with inequality and patriarchy.  Gen X in the 1980s fought being ‘treated like a number’ and demanded recognition and career opportunity.  The difference with the entry of Gen Y into the workforce is the previous generations are working longer; they are staying rather than making way for the new generation.

It is far too easy to dismiss Gen Y as a self-absorbed generation that understand technology better than people.  To them, we the older generation can seem not self-absorbed enough – complying with employers for their benefit at our own expense – without fighting to change it.

Gen Y are an educated, caring, confident, connected, inquisitive, socially-minded, innovative and entrepreneurial generation.  Organisations need to harness these attributes not beat young workers into our old thinking that time served equals achievement.  It will not be enough to accommodate them; we need to actively engage with them.  We should learn how we can keep up with an automated, technology-driven and hyper-connected world.  As the world ages, Gen Y will not just be the talent that powers the organisation, they will also be the customers.

As parents we told them not to settle for something they felt was not right, and there is much about work that is not right.  Like them we should also feel outraged when after a long working life we are faced with the fear that our savings will not be enough. Like them we should assume that this is something we should do differently.  As managers we should not even have the time to be complaining about Gen Y.  The time should be spent developing a workforce model that better serves the organisation in the new world, and provides better prospects for financial security in retirement.

The workforce talent quest (why Gen Y don’t want to be ‘retained’)

Most employers agree: retaining talent is at the top of their list of HR priorities.

Talent retention is part of the traditional HR approach to people management: ‘resources’ that can be ‘gained, trained, maintained and retained’.  Having established the organisational hierarchy and work flow, the cog that fits in that wheel is able to be determined.  The cog vacancy requirements are documented in the position description and the lengthy process to find the right cog can begin.  Although you cannot always expect a perfect fit, you can ensure the cog is malleable enough to adjust itself, perhaps with a little leadership lubricant as required.  More significant building up of the gaps or filing down of the rough spots may require some training, a process that is more likely to be made available to the cog as long as everyone can see that the right shape, size, fit and movements can be eventually achieved (being able-bodied, with English as the first language, and not too young and not too old are generally good indicators that the cog has potential so they are often more likely to be hired).

Having gone through such effort to create the well-oiled machine, management needs to generate the highest possible returns and this means keeping people in the position for which they have been selected and moulded for as long as possible.  The cost of cog replacement is estimated to be around 1.5 times the employee’s annual salary.  Significant management efforts go to motivating employees to remain as shiny, new cogs.  Little cogs are encouraged to want to learn how to become bigger cogs, or to move to another part of the machine.  Even if they never get there, at least aiming and hoping, is a strong incentive to stay.

But this is ‘talent’ of the old model.  It is not just that the industrial model no longer fits the rapidly changing world in which organisations operate and compete.  It also no longer fits the people who will fill these jobs.  With the ‘Gen Y’ worker now between the ages of 18 and 30, they currently make up approximately 20% of the workforce.  Within ten years this generation, often considered by employers to be uncommitted, entitled, ungrateful, lazy and impatient, will account for close to 75% of the workforce.

Figures often quote Gen Y workers to have an estimated 5 careers and 20 employers in their lifetimes, and so the race is on for employers to find the best of the best and keep them.  This however is just not how Gen Y works, and the problem is not just attitude it’s structural.

The Baby Boomer generation, having survived depression and war were grateful for a job for life.  Mutual employer-employee loyalty was expected and given.  Retiring with a gold watch was more enticing than a new job.  Generation X that followed, living in the post-Vietnam war years and with memories of the Cold War, recognised that they were here for a good time not a long time.  They divorced and remarried at unprecedented rates and learn to enjoy the spoils of an increasingly materialistic lifestyle.  They learned to ‘look after number one’ and ‘greed was good’.  Their loyalty was to their careers.

Generation Y have grown up in an insecure world.  They not only learn of the terrible conflicts from wars and ideologies but they do so in real-time, the internet giving them instantaneous access to not just reports of disasters, wars and revolutions but delivering these in images and first hand accounts spread through social media.  They see thousands of displaced people whether from natural or man-made disasters, they see natural resources exploited to the point of exhaustion, and a world heading towards an environmental disaster.  Closer to home, they are as likely as not to have experienced their parents’ divorce and would have first hand experience of someone who has been made redundant and or suffering unemployment.  They were told that education was the key to a secure future, and the most educated generation ever is a victim to post-secondary degree inflation.

What Gen Y want is meaning.  They feel a greater responsibility than one to the employer they work for.  They have a responsibility to the environment, to social causes, to their peers who are co-survivors.  They have also been brought up by parents who considered them their peers; they were the centre of the household, consulted for their opinions and supported at a very close level.  They were told that they could do anything.

Gen Y were also brought up with the internet.   They cannot remember a time without email and mobile phones – both of these now old school anyway.  They don’t think knowledge is power because with their smartphones and mobile devices knowledge is everywhere and it is everyone’s.

To Gen Y their first loyalty is to their lifestyle.  There is no such thing as work/life balance, it’s life/life balance.  Personal goals mesh with professional goals.  They simply do not understand a workplace that will not allow them a six month leave of absence to build a school in India or save the elephants in Africa.

Being both highly (if not hyper-) encouraged and protected from birth, they prefer to work as part of a team, to be self-directed, to be allowed to innovate and to take risks.  Work that offers them freedom their preferred environment, will see Gen Y will work hard and drive towards their goals.  They are also used to taking their friends everywhere and being only a status post away.  Working in an office, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 just because, simply doesn’t make sense to them.

The statistic that Gen Y will have 20 jobs in their lifetime only reflects the jobs of those Gen Y who look for and stay in full-time jobs, and these will be the minority.  An oDesk survey found that close to 60% of Gen Y consider themselves to be ‘entrepreneurial’ meaning having an opportunity-seeking mindset, rather than business ownership.   Gen Y have learned that the internet democratises work.  Anyone can build a business, it may be an eBay store or a single idea that might become another Facebook, or it may be joining in on someone else’s crowd sourced idea or investment.   They can do this at the same time as they hold a regular job – found online of course – or find a gig through Elance or 99designs or any number of marketplaces.  They can have upwards of 100 jobs in their lifetime, which suits Gen Y perfectly because they can come into a job at exactly the right time and only work on their specialist area.  There will be tertiary-educated Gen Yers who will never experience a permanent, full time job.

In light of the changing demographics in the workforce, a radical shift in thinking to the ‘talent retention’ problem is needed.  It’s a catch-22 situation, the machine needs people to stay yet it is the machine that people – especially Gen Y – leave.  Employers need to start thinking of their workers as permanent but their employment as stints, much like universities see their alumni students.  They need to de-construct work so that ‘talent’ is no longer defined as those that fit the box, the cogs.  Instead talent should be what is actually means, ‘innate ability or skill’.  To Gen Y who have grown up mixing and partnering with people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, appearances and able-bodiedness, they are used to the talent fitting the situation, not the situation deciding the talent.

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