Globe & Mail, March 28, 2008
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.
They're brash. They're pampered. They're self-absorbed. They're high-maintenance. They're obsessed with work-life balance. They have no loyalty.
Who are they? Generation Y, of course. At least, those are the constant refrains we hear about them. But I, for one, am tired of listening to these oversimplifications, at best, and misstatements, at worse, about an entire
group of people.
Every generation has a conceit that other generations are significantly different from theirs. And to listen to the chatter from human resource experts, managers and older working colleagues, you could well conclude that Gen Y represents a whole new species.
Testimony to the hysteria: the gazillion articles, books and conferences that have been devoted to understanding and attracting Gen Y workers - that group born starting in the early 1980s who are also known as millennials, echo boomers and many other buzz terms.
But for all the attention, the tenor of the advice might as well be about how to look after your new washing machine: The recommendations are about as nuanced as those found in an appliance manual:
How to attract them?
Use cool electronic media.
How to keep them?
Use cool electronic media.
How to hold their attention?
Use cool electronic media.
How to motivate them?
Be nice. Oh, and use cool electronic media.
Such thinking about Gen Y is incorrect because it is based on a flawed understanding of the role that being part of a generation has in shaping people's behaviour, in general, and the attributes of Gen Y, in particular.
So all Gen Yers are depicted as impatient, self-involved multitaskers, whose sense of entitlement comes from indulgent helicopter parents who made their kids' feelings their hobby. And that is causing much hand-wringing among boomer and Gen-X bosses, who can't figure out how to attract and engage them.
But it is foolhardy, perhaps even dangerous, to believe that you can fairly and accurately profile a vast cohort of people and then, based on that description, prescribe how they should be managed.
After all, two siblings who are the product of similar familial genes and dynamics will have marked personality differences. Why, then, should we expect people who share nothing more than being born around the same time to be equally similar?
Sometimes, I also can't help but think that all this "please understand me because I am a member of generation whatever" is, itself, just self-absorbed navel-gazing.
At a recent generation-themed conference I spoke at, attendees actually wore name tags colour-coded by generation. However, the participants were not swayed by all the Ys are like this and Xs like that conversation. Indeed, at the end of the first day, many said they were "generationed out."
They also resented being labelled: The Gen Yers disliked being depicted as self-absorbed and unreliable just as much as the boomers recoiled at being called inflexible and technologically inept.
Of course, labelling has its appeal. It is much easier to make sweeping generalizations than look at the complex nature of personality differences, and how they've been shaped by social class, gender, upbringing and life stage. Simply lump everyone together with a few simple descriptors and managers think they've found a tool with which to understand what their staffers want and need.
In fact, what they've really done is reduce understanding. Instead of taking the time to figure out who their young staffers really are, management just assumes that what they need is what their generation wants. Person X must need lots of stimulation not because she, herself, is bored but because she is, after all, part of Gen Y.
This kind of analysis robs us of our humanity by reducing us to a set of predictable attributes.
Take a few commonly held descriptions of Generation Y:
Myth: They multitask more than others.
Reality: They are no more likely to multitask than their older counterparts. On my on-line career self-assessment tool, people rate themselves on a dimension that I have called "pacing" - the desire and ability to juggle several things at once. (It isn't identical to what is meant by multitasking, but shares many of the same attributes.) The average score for those aged 25 to 29 is the same as it is for those 40 to 49 years old.
Myth: They are more obsessed with work/life balance.
Reality: Sure, they want it. But so does everybody else. As other scores on my career-planning tool show, work/life balance is just as important to older workers as it is to young ones. In fact, the generations also score similarly on their desires for learning, self-development and being stretched.
Myth: They are more self-absorbed.
Reality: A research team led by Kali Trzesniewski, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario examined several decades' worth of scores of thousands of students on a cluster of attributes they labelled "narcissism." They found no major changes in the scores of young people having an overinflated view of themselves over the years. In other words, Gen Yers are no more narcissistic than people who were the same age in other times.
Myth: They are more collegial.
Reality: Again, based on responses to my career-planning tool, I find only negligible differences between older and younger workers. Both groups place "working in a collegial work environment sensitive to my needs" high on their list of job satisfiers.
So are there any real differences between the generations? Of course, there are always some broad differences between generations but they are far fewer and far less significant than popularly imagined.
Our expectations about how we think people should treat us, how hard we should work for something or what we should believe in are shaped at least to some degree by the dominant social values and child-rearing philosophies of the day.
For example, unlike boomers or Gen Xers, most Gen Yers didn't rebel against their parents - with mom and dad slavishly worshipping at the altar of their children's feelings, they didn't really need to. As the kids commonly say, their parents are their best friends.
Maybe at least partly as a result of such treatment, they are more self-confident, independent and less deferential to authority - all a product of being brought up to think they are special. So, no wonder they see good work as a right, not a privilege.
They also do have less tolerance for unpleasant work environments, including micromanagement by their bosses (older managers who entered the workplace at a time when people were more intimidated by authority find their lack of timidity disconcerting, which I suspect is the real reason why managers describe Gen Yers as narcissistic).
And they will not put up with things that their older counterparts might. For example, workers of all generations might think their boss was a jerk if he or she made a request that infringed on personal time. But while older workers would probably acquiesce, younger workers are more likely to balk, telling themselves their boss has no right to treat them that way.
And in a buoyant economy, Gen Yers will vote with their feet if they do not like how they are being treated. This is the one generational difference that organizations should pay attention to: Gen Yers are more likely to act on their values, in part because they have higher expectations about how they should be treated.
Supply and demand also play a significant role in promoting worker cockiness. I have been delivering the same workshop with a different crop of twentysomething professionals for almost 20 years. Whenever the job market is hot, managers complain about young people's sense of entitlement. Hearing a constant refrain of talent wars and pending skills shortages just makes them more so.
So what are the management implications of all this?
Actually, very little in terms of treating Gen Ys differently than other workers. Gen Ys do want to be treated well - but so does everyone else. Nobody worthy of the title manager is going to treat young workers with sensitivity and everyone else poorly.
Managers would also be wise to stop their hand-wringing over generational thinking and start to pay closer attention to the unique personality characteristics and motivators of each and every one of their workers, no matter what their age.
That cool electronic media? It is how Gen Yers like to communicate, but not who they are.
And remember: the generational stuff is fleeting. These young workers will soon start families, enter the housing market, become debt slaves - and complain about the next generation of hedonistic workers.
Were it ever thus.