Articles > The Challenges of Managing Gen Y.

The Challenges of Managing Gen Y.
Globe & Mail, March 11, 2005

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.

A friend’s 21 year old daughter recently accepted a part-time job on the understanding that she would only work on weekends. When she arrived for her first day of work, her boss said “I’ll need you to work Thursday and Friday nights”. When the young women protested, mentioning the agreement, her boss said “We never discussed any thing like that.” The young woman quit, saying “I really don’t appreciate you talking to me that way and questioning my honesty.”

If you are a person of a certain age - say 30 or over - you probably are thinking: Wow. When I was her age I never would have expected to be treated with dignity, nor would I have expressed my right to be treated respectfully so assertively.

Move over, Generation X. A whole new generation is entering the workplace. Demographers call them Gen Y – the so-called “echo generation”, sometimes known as Millennials, born to boomer parents in the 1980s,. But if you Google Gen Y you’ll find them labeled with many more - and not necessarily complimentary - monikers which reveal how they are perceived by older people.

Time magazine calls them “the twixter generation” - betwixt and between childhood and adulthood. Others have dubbed them the “what’s in it for me generation,”; “the never-ending adolescence generation” and “the generation that won’t grow up”.

And everywhere, managers and HR professionals are puzzling about how to handle them. With massive skills shortages on the horizon as the huge baby boomer generation heads towards retirement, attracting and retaining this new cohort will become a critical issue in the years ahead.

Every generation sees the world differently. Their attitudes and expectations are influenced by what was extant during formative years and when they entered the workplace. The post-war baby boom generation (broadly speaking, the group born between 1945 and 1965) grew up in a period of rapid economic expansion and entered a workplace hungry for their talent.

The generation that followed them, dubbed Generation X, found the going much harder. They watched their parents suffering from overwork and loss of job security. Then they entered a workplace torn by recessions and restructuring. When they looked above them, they saw few opportunities for advancement. The boomers had all the best jobs, and they weren’t about to go anywhere. So why kill themselves working long hours when they were never going to achieve the same rewards? It’s not surprising that Gen-Xers got a reputation as edgy, scrappy, resentful and cynical

I have worked extensively with young professionals in a variety of sectors over the past fifteen years. This gave me an upfront look at people at the outset of their careers. In my first two books (published in 1997 and 1999) I described these Gen X young professionals as cynical, cocky and a source of considerable consternation to their boomer bosses who found them a challenge to manage, and typically described them as unwilling to put in their time and wanting everything handled to them on a platter

Now comes Gen Y. Over the last few years I have noticed a sea change in the attitudes and collective personality of the young professionals I encounter. They are still a challenge to manage but actually, dare I say it, this is a true echo generation: Their values actually echo those of their parents and bosses – not so much the values the boomers held in growing up, but those they hold now. Like their parents they value comfort and the good life, and strive to balance work and personal life.

If I had to describe this new generation in one word it would be “nice”. This is the first generation that on the whole has not rebelled against their parents’ or society’s values, or against a work world they saw as withholding opportunities.

Managing Gen Y

Nice or not, Gen Ys are still a challenge to manage. Like the young woman who quit her job because she didn’t like the way she was spoken to, they expect to be treated with kindness and respect. Blame it on their boomer parents.

Gen Ys were raised by guilty, work-obsessed helicopter parents who made their kids’ feelings and success their hobby, worshipped at the altar of “promoting self-esteem” and tried to make up for the lack of time spent with them by lavishing them with travel experiences, clothes, and electronic toys.

As kids, Gen Ys were told they were brilliant because they could program the VCR. They were given the vote on everything - vacation choice, the colour of the family car. It’s not surprising they believe their feelings matter, that they should feel good about their work, and should be able express themselves.

People used to think about work only when it felt bad, if they thought about it at all. Now, as a result of heightened work consciousness, this generation asks “Does this feel good?” They use a finely nuanced vocabulary to describe their work and are more thoughtful about their careers and work. And when they are not happy, much to management’s regret, they are vocal about.

Managers will need to find new ways of influencing their young workers as they will vote with their feet if they are not treated well and given stimulating opportunities. They are less responsive to traditional rewards such as promotions unless those rewards are part of a bigger package. Some tips on managing and retaining Gen Ys:

Don’t expect them to express ambition…at least not the way you used to. Having grown up in abundance, they are not hungry. They haven’t had to fight their way into good jobs like their Gen X predecessors. And they are not so ambitious for the big jobs and advancement if it comes in the way of their personal lives.

Provide a great workplace which promotes balance. Like Gen Xers and boomers, Gen Ys want work-life balance but they mean something different. Their older counterparts mean time for self and family. Although Gen Ys also want time, they see less of a line between their work and personal life. Work is about having personally rewarding experiences - whether that means learning new skills which is very important to them, opportunities to travel, having great relationships with team members who can also be friends or work which serves as a vehicle for self development.

Don’t be scared of them (even if you’re scared of your kid): Typically Gen Ys appear poised and self-confident. After all, they were protected from ever having bad feelings about themselves by parents and teachers allergic to the idea of little Johnny ever feeling like he was a failure. Their self-assurance can grate with managers and supervisors.

But beneath the poised confident exterior, is a mass of doubts about work. With so many options available to this generation -- work locally or abroad, go back to school, teach English in Asia -- they can be easily be paralyzed by choices. As a result, the most common question I hear from young workers embarking on a career is “How do I know this is right for me?” Park your personal feelings. Don’t project if you are fed up with your own kid because she can’t commit to a career choice or is still living at home.

Don’t assume they are adversarial, or don’t respect you. Actually they like and are comfortable with adults and see them as their friends. “My parents are my best friends” is a comment I hear frequently, especially from young women. But they do expect to be treated as equals. Indeed, it may this poise that makes managers feel their staff are so tough to influence.

Avoid anything which smacks of authority or paternalism. They are fiercely democratic with no sense of authority. They called their teachers and parents’ friends by their first names. They had access to any information they wanted on the internet. This lack of temerity can lead them to be seen as cocky by their superiors Don’t put limits on what they can and can’t do. Give them the slack to manage their work.

Treat them with sensitivity: These middle class kids have been told their feelings are important, their boundaries should be respected, and that they should honor what they are feeling. They are optimistic. Unlike Xers, who were the first North American generation to think they would do worse economically than their parents, they believe they will do better. They are entering a workplace when everyone is talking about the war for talent and attraction and retention. They understand their value and expect you to understand it as well.

Communicate in a vivid and compelling way to capture their jaded attention. Words like “good” won’t cut it…after all they’ve been raised on a steady diet of “amazing” and “awesome.”

Provide a compelling value proposition. Take a cue from this one recruiting manager who sold a young worker on taking a job with his company by writing down on the interviewee’s resume the accomplishments and skills he would have after 12 months.

Give them tons of feedback. Be specific and explicit. They’ve been micro-managed from birth- abstractions don’t cut it. If you liked something they did, explain why.

Provide stimulating and novel learning experiences. They are motivated by personal development and want to be stretched. A recent study by Carleton University business professor Sean Finn found that Gen Ys, in contrast to older workers, had greater desires for self-enhancement and hedonism in their work. They also cited more values related to being stimulated and opportunities for self-direction.

Understand their collegiality: Create strong supportive team environments. Because they have stronger allegiances to each other than their employer, if someone is treated badly, they all react to it.

Don’t expect them to be like you when you were in their age. Never, and I mean never, start a sentence with “when I was your age”. Ditto, by the way, for your kids….unless, of course, you want to tick them off!