Articles > Gen Y-ers, boomers only sort of different

Gen Y-ers, boomers only sort of different
Globe & Mail, November 17, 2006

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

When it comes to work motivation, much has been made in the past decade about how the newest generation of workers is so different from its boomer counterparts. I confess that I, myself, have written many columns and delivered several speeches describing those differences -- in particular, their desire for work/life balance.

It's true that Generation Y workers are different -- but only to a degree, and not in as many ways as people think.

I recently conducted research that examines the motivations of about 3,500 people. It shows that twentysomethings are no more likely to express lifestyle concerns than workers in their 40s and 50s. In every age group, about the same number of people cite work/life balance as one of their key work motivators.

Though they are separated by age and experience, there's not much difference today between boomers' and Gen Y-ers' outlooks on work/life.

What's different is that, at a comparable age, the boomer generation was more driven by desires for career advancement, and less preoccupied with lifestyle issues.

At the outset of my career in the early eighties, I worked as a career counsellor for an energy company. When asked about their goals, almost everyone would say: "I want my boss's job." In those days, even if you weren't ambitious, you pretended to be.

So, when boomer bosses bemoan their young staff's desires for work/life balance, what they are really saying is: "I wasn't like that when I was that age. If my employers asked me do something, I didn't complain or second-guess their right to make this request."

In other words, boomers are evaluating Gen Y-ers' behaviour through the prism of their own experiences.

It's true that when boomers entered the work force, they were more ambitious to advance and, therefore, more responsive to organizational demands. But it's also true that organizational demands were considerably less onerous.

Boomers ascended the corporate ladder at a time when they could still work a congenial 40-hour week and get home in time to play parent or go for a run. The occasional crisis might make heavier demands but, for the most part, they could leave work at the office and not be constantly vigilant about protecting the boundaries of their personal lives.

Now, career advancement comes at a much higher price. And many Gen Y workers are unwilling to pay it.

Boomers, in the meantime, have come under ever-escalating work demands, and so they, too, question the effort-reward equation. Just like Gen Y-ers, they want work that is interesting and challenging but still allows time for a life.

In other words, their motivations are identical. The real difference -- and the main reason why boomer bosses complain about younger employees' apparent lack of work ethic -- is in their behaviour: Gen Y-ers are more likely to express such desires, and act on them.

Sure, boomers resent excessive workloads, but most will conform to organizational demands. When asked to work late, they tell themselves: "I may not want to miss my kids' soccer game because of a late meeting, but I have to."

Gen Y-ers feels no such compulsion. As one 28-year-old said to me in a workshop: "I don't get it. If I've put in the hard day I've been paid for, when it's 5:30, it's my time, and I'm out of there. That's my right."

Young workers are not cowed by authority, nor do they believe in their boss's right to ask them to do things that don't feel good. Their temerity throws many senior managers into a tailspin.

This should not really come as a surprise to any boomer managers who have kids of their own. Gen Y-ers have grown up calling their teachers and their parents' friends by their first names. They are used to adoring, overprotective parents who eagerly sought out their feelings and opinions, micromanaged every aspect of their lives and considered saying "no" to a request as one step short of child abuse.

This is a generation that has never experienced deprivation. They have come to expect comfort as their birthright from indulgent parents. Of course, they think they have as much to say as anyone else, that their feelings count, and that there is no reason to be automatically respectful of authority.

Many also see themselves as the abandoned kids of career-obsessed parents. They saw their parents worship at the corporate altar, only to be sacrificed on it. They have heard parents endlessly complain about what a jerk their boss or client is, and deride their ridiculous work overload. They have seen the price their parents paid for slavishly pursuing career goals. It's not surprising they are ambivalent about work.

As one 29-year-old, a high performer who is considered to have great potential, said: "My generation has been called Generation Why, as in why bother. It captures me perfectly. I want all the things that the big job brings with it. But everyone who gets ahead here works 80 hours a week. Do I want to climb the ladder? Definitely. But do I want to be on my BlackBerry at 11:30 to get it? I don't think so."

One key aspect of Gen Y-ers' focus on lifestyle is the strength of their attachments and affinities outside the workplace, including greater allegiances to friends associated with their subculture -- whether organized around ethnic background, lifestyle preferences or musical and fashion tastes. In defining their identities, this is as important to them, if not more so, than where they happen to work at the moment. They don't park these identities at the corporate door.

Whenever I do workshops with young people, I notice that they walk in, look around to see who is sitting where, and then sit down with their friends. Even if one table has 12 people crowded around it and another is filled with empty spaces, it's impossible to get them to move. Older workers will take whatever chair is available, and will move if asked to.

It's not that boomers are less collegial. It's just that they don't sort people by personal affinities other than job function and level. Even if they no longer believe in loyalty, they are likelier to identify with an organization's goals and have at least a qualified allegiance to them.

For twentysomethings, the unwritten contract with their employer is understood at the most visceral level to be: "I rent you my skills, I don't sell you my soul. In return for my contributions, I expect something back in addition to my paycheque -- interesting development, and a work life that doesn't encroach on my personal life."

Clearly, managing this new generation presents its challenges. Boomers must recognize that young workers want many of the same things as they do -- it's just that they're more assertive about getting it. Young workers also bring more diverse tastes, values and preferences into the workplace. As a result, they are less easily moulded to corporate cultural norms.

Rather than trying to shape people to existing corporate structures, organizations will need to develop greater flexibility to adapt to this generation's values and expectations.

Gen Y-ers may not believe in corporate loyalty, but organizations can leverage their strong peer attachments by fostering identification with colleagues who share similar interests. Consider, for example, the difference between the company seasonal party where top brass stand up and intone about year-end results and company goals, and enabling staff to create their own celebrations in line with personal preferences.

At the same time, organizations need to renew their commitment to work/life balance. Although this is a desire for everyone, Gen-Y workers will vote with their feet if they don't get it.