Coddled, confident and cocky:
The challenges of managing Gen Y
need to find new ways to influence these young workers
because they will vote with their feet if they are not treated well
By BARBARA MOSES
Globe & Mail: Friday,
March 11, 2005 Page C1
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 woman protested, mentioning the agreement, her boss said, "We
never discussed anything like that."
And with 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, you are probably 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.
But that's the way of a new generation entering the workplace.
Demographers call them Gen Y -- the so-called echo generation, sometimes known
as Millennials, born to boomer parents since the 1980s.
If you Google a search on Gen Y, you'll find them labelled with many more -- and
not necessarily complimentary -- monikers.
And these monikers tell a lot about 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."
No matter how they are labelled, managers and human resources professionals
everywhere are puzzling about how to handle them.
With massive skills shortages on the horizon as the huge baby boomer generation
heads toward retirement, the attraction and retention of this new cohort has
become a critical issue.
Every generation sees the world differently. Attitudes and expectations are
influenced by what was extant during their formative years and when they entered
Over the past few years, I have noticed a sea change in the attitudes and
collective personality of the newest generation of young professionals I
Dare I say it: This is a true echo generation, whose values actually echo those
of their parents and bosses -- not so much the values the boomers held 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 postwar generation that, on the whole, has not rebelled
against their parents' or society's values, nor against a work environment they
view as withholding opportunities.
Whether nice or not, Gen Yers 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 Yers were raised by guilty, work-obsessed, hovering parents who made their
kids' feelings and success their hobby.
They worshipped at the altar of promoting self-esteem and tried to make up for
the lack of time spent with their kids by lavishing them with travel
experiences, clothes and electronic toys.
As kids, Gen Yers were told they were brilliant because they could program the
VCR. They were given the vote on almost everything, from where to go on vacation
to the colour of the family car. It's not surprising they believe their feelings
matter, that they should feel good about their work and that they should be able
People used to think about work only when it felt bad, if they thought about it
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 these young workers because
they will vote with their feet if they are not treated well and given
They are less responsive to traditional rewards, such as promotions, unless
those rewards are part of a bigger package.
Here are some tips on managing and retaining Gen
- Don't expect them to express ambition, at least
not the way their parents did.
Having grown up in abundance, they are not hungry. They haven't had to fight
their way into good jobs. And they are not so ambitious to get the big jobs
and advancement if it interferes with their personal lives.
- Provide a great workplace that promotes
Gen Yers want a different work-life balance. To their older counterparts,
it meant time for self and family.
To Gen Yers, it means work must offer fun and rewarding experiences. They see
less of a line between work and personal lives.
When they're at work, they want that time to also be personally rewarding,
whether that means learning new skills, making work a vehicle for
self-development, having opportunities to travel or developing great
relationships with team members who can also be friends.
- Don't be scared of them (even if you're scared of
your own kid).
Typically Gen Yers appear poised and self-confident.
After all, they were protected from having bad feelings about themselves by
parents and teachers allergic to the idea of little Johnny ever feeling as if
he was a failure. Their self-assurance can grate on managers and supervisors.
But beneath their poised, confident exterior, there often lies a mass of
doubts about work.
With so many options available to this generation -- work locally or abroad,
go back to school, teach English internationally -- they can 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?"
They want to be reassured about their career choices, so provide them with
plenty of advice and tips on specifics related to career management, defining
what they want to do, networking and finding a mentor.
And park your personal feelings. Don't project if you are fed up with your own
kid because he or she can't commit to a career choice or is still living at
- Don't assume they are adversarial or don't
Actually, they like and are comfortable with adults and even see them as their
But they do expect to be treated as equals. Indeed, it may be their poise that
makes managers feel these young staffers are so tough to influence.
Avoid anything that smacks of authority or paternalism.
Gen Yers are fiercely democratic and have 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.
Their lack of temerity can cause 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
- Treat them with sensitivity.
These coddled kids have been told their feelings are important, their
boundaries should be respected and that they should honour what they are
feeling. They are optimistic.
They are entering a workplace where 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. with Gen Yers. After all, they've been raised
on a steady diet of "amazing" and "awesome." And get to the point quickly --
the digital world has given them a short attention span.
- Provide a compelling value proposition.
Take a cue from one recruiting manager.
He sold a young worker on a job at his company by taking the interviewee's
résumé and scribbling on it the accomplishments and skills the worker would be
able to boast about having after working at the company for a year.
- Give them tons of feedback.
Be specific and explicit. They've been programmed to expect immediate feedback
from computer games, homework signed off by teachers and parents, and test
marks posted on the Internet.
They are not prepared to deal with feedback that is delayed or unlabelled as
feedback. Abstractions don't cut it with this generation. If you like
something they did, explain why.
- Provide stimulating and novel learning
Gen Yers are motivated by personal development and want to be stretched.
A recent study by Sean Finn, a business professor at Carleton University,
found that Gen Yers have greater desires for self-enhancement and hedonism in
their work than do older workers.
They also cited more values related to being stimulated and opportunities for
self-direction than their older counterparts.
- Understand their collegiality.
Create strong, supportive team environments. Because Gen Yers have stronger
allegiances to each other than to their employer, they all react if someone is
treated badly around them.
- Don't expect them to be like you when you were
Never, and I mean never, start a sentence with "when I was your age" --
unless, of course, you want to annoy them.
Barbara Moses, PhD, is an organizational career management consultant,
speaker and author of What Next: The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your