The older I get the more “why this generation is so different from that generation” articles grate on me.
Case in point: this Harvard Business Review article on “Generation Y in Workforce.”
If you replace every mention of text messaging with e-mail and replace Josh’s ideas with the idea of building a web site in the first place, this article have run in the mid-90s as an article about Gen X in the work place. The sales exec at the end would be saying Josh didn’t do anything to disprove Gen X’s image as a bunch of slackers more interested in being “free agents” than dedicated salary men.
It could have come out in the 70s as an article on Boomers in the work force and been about how Josh thought they weren’t investing enough in television. The complaint could have been “they’re a bunch of hippies who want to start their own companies in garages and wear jeans every day.”
Every generation looks at the next generation and worries. This isn’t new. I shudder to think of what WWI vets thought of the kids of the 20s. Yikes.
Some people get new technology and business innovation, and some don’t. I think this is more of a cultural disconnect than generational one. Serious technophiles who blog and podcast, Twitter and Torrent seem just as likely to be tech or creative professionals in their 40s or 50s as they are to be teenagers or high schoolers. You know who the first people I knew were to get into Napster? High School teachers. Boomers. Because they had access to high speed internet at work and all of us students still had dial-up at home. Ten years later, I still know people my age and younger who don’t download music, don’t own computers, and/or don’t use text messaging.
I think younger people are more likely to be more tech savvy than our older counter parts, due to having more exposure to computers at school growing up, it doesn’t make us into radically different aliens (like Rushkoff argued in Children of Chaos). Gen Y, Gen X, and the Boomers also have, I think, very similar tastes in music, movies, cars, fashion, etc. What most people perceive as generational differences are usual accidents of culture – when some very traditional rural Christian parent’s kid turns out to be a goth. The parent doesn’t not get her kid because she’s old. She doesn’t get her kid because she’s a traditional rural Christian and her kid is a goth.
Better advice for Gen X and Boomer managers trying to learn how to manage Gen Yers in a corporate environment: think about what it was like to be their age.
Non-generational things to keep in mind, coming from a Gen Y guy who’s been out of college for about 5 years now and is maybe just maybe starting to figure out how this whole “work” thing works:
No one took “Office Politics 101” in college
No one (except maybe a few business majors) took “Corporate Policies and Procedures 101” either
Young workers spent the past 4+ years in college seriously exercising their brains, and now they’re doing menial office tasks that people without degrees can do just as well.
In other words: they don’t have a clue about how corporate culture works, and they’re bored out of their minds.
Here are some things that may be unique to the current generation, not because of some deeply ingrained difference in paradigms but because the economy sucks:
Even in the relative hay days of 2005-2006, mass layoffs were common place.
Young people consider themselves to be walking targets during a layoff because they lack experience and seniority.
Tuition was more expensive relative to wages and inflation when Gen Y was in college than any time in history
Thanks to price inflation and stagnant wage growth, entry level jobs pay less now than they have since before the labor movement.
In other words, young workers don’t have any job security and don’t make much money. They make less money than their managers did when they were starting out, and have more student loan debt.
So they’re bored, underpaid, don’t have a clue how the corporate environment works, and know they could be let go without notice at any minute.
And managers wonder why “young people these days” don’t have any company loyalty?
It seems like workers and companies are at a stale-mate right now: companies want committed, hard working employees and with good attitudes. Employees want their work to be valued and want some measure of stability Employers can’t offer this sort of stability to their employees (not as long as they have to make job cuts to satisfy their shareholders), so morale suffers. This isn’t some generational paradigm shift, it’s economics. This isn’t to say that the economy didn’t suck at other times – but I don’t think there was the sort of economic nihilism in the past. People have been saying “all jobs are temp jobs” for a long time, but ours is the first generation to be entering the work force with this mantra already a given.
The creepy corporate paternalism from Enterprise sounds worse than the “get tough on ’em” attitude from General Tool & Supply. But neither one sounds optimal. As a “Gen Y” worker myself, here’s what I would tell managers:
Mentor employees and advise them on career paths within the company, giving them an idea on when and how they will be able to be more involved with key decisions, make more money, and do more interesting work. It sucks to feel like you’re at a dead-end, or just stumbling around in the dark.
Give honest feedback about their work. The generic “Great job! You’re the best” example from the Harvard case is actually a morale killer. If everything you do is received with the same fake praise the praise is meaningless. It leads to either laziness (“why bother doing a good job if even bad work is praised?”) or paranoia (maybe all my work is terrible and they’re just being polite”).
Don’t ask for input if you know in advance you’re not going to use it. Managers do this with the best intentions – to make people feel like they’re involved. But this phoniness is transparent and it makes employees feel like their input isn’t valued ever. If their input isn’t wanted or needed, don’t ask.
Don’t be dismissive of ideas (like Sarah in the story above). Take time to explain what’s wrong with an idea. If similar ideas have failed in the past, explain it. Show that you’re not dismissing an idea because you don’t value the employees input, but because there’s a legitimate reason not to use the idea.
Advice for young workers (what I’ve learned):
Company loyalty is rewarded more than competence or effectiveness. This may sound unfair, but think about this from the company/manager’s point of view: why bother training you, promoting you, etc. if they don’t think you’ll stick around? (I agree: companies should make you WANT to stick around – but if you don’t act like you do they aren’t going to bother promoting you)
If you’re not getting mentorship, you’ve got to seek someone out
Never go over your bosses head unless you’re reporting your boss for serious misconduct
You know you have great ideas and that you’re creative, competent, and have a lot to offer the company. They don’t know that. They hired you because they thought you were minimally competent to perform the duties at hand. If you want to do more, you’ll have to prove yourself. And that takes time.
No matter how great your idea for changing how things work is, it probably has problems and there’s always a chance it will fail miserably. People fear change because change IS dangerous. Trying to fix things can make things much worse.
Because of this, experienced managers are usually in charge of making these decisions. Trying to make a decision that’s “outside your pay grade” so to speak could make you look creative and ambitious, but it will probably just makes you look pushy, impatient, and/or arrogant.
Get involved in things outside of work to help satisfy your creative and intellectual instincts. It could be awhile before you get to do the sorts of things you want to do at work.
Don’t be a complainer/whiner.
Don’t talk about how much money you make, and don’t complain about not being paid enough.
So old timers: tell me why I’m wrong.