Gen Y Myths Debunked
Lazy. Selfish. Demanding. America, meet your new generation of employees. At least, that's what the media would have you believe. Generation Y, those born between 1978 and 1990, is being hailed as the most narcissistic generation to date, a group of "uber-stroked kids" who, as adults, are demanding from their employers the same supervision and self-esteem building their parents gave them.
Certainly, some of the horror stories about these young employees hold true. After all, stereotypes are born from realties. To make sweeping statements of an entire generation, however, isn't only unfair to young employees, but it's also dangerous to employers who blindly believe them. Generation Y, also known as millennials, is the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. Over the next four years, close to 10 million more Gen Yers will enter the workforce. Can you really afford to write this generation off?
We asked two generational experts to address some of the common misconceptions surrounding Generation Y. What we discovered is that some of the "negative" behaviors these young employees exhibit are actually intuitive responses to a changing economy. And if employers want to keep up, they better change, too.
Myth #1: They're disloyal.
Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking and co-author of Managing Generation Y, argues the complete opposite. "They're very loyal. It's just not the kind of blind loyalty you get in a kingdom--blind loyalty to the hierarchy." Gen Yers want to know they'll be compensated fairly for the work they put in.
Gone are the days of working for a company for 30 to 40 years. In today's environment, nobody trusts the system to take care of them long term. From the collapse of Social Security to the fall of major companies during the dot-com era and, more recently, the Enron scandal, millennials are acutely aware that nothing is a "sure thing." These events have created a generation skeptical of loyalty.
"Younger, less experienced workers are, in a strange way, more in sync with the reality of today's economy than other generations because they've never known it any other way," says Tulgan. "I think that if you don't trust the system to take care of you in the long run, you walk in the door looking to your immediate boss to take care of you in the short term."
Part of that short-term care is a fair salary and benefits. According to Tulgan, employers are reducing long-term fixed pay in favor of increasing variable performance-based pay. Part of this new compensation strategy, he says, is reducing the percentage of employee benefits. A lot of young workers feel that if an employer isn't willing to compensate them fairly, why should they feel guilty about chasing the buck to another company that will?
Rebecca Neider, 26, has been a faithful employee of Dillard's department store for more than six years. It's just recently that she's begun to question her future with the company.
After six years, she's hit the glass ceiling as far as yearly raises go. "I'm capped, so I can't do any better unless I decide to go into a completely different department," she says. "If that's not in your career path, you're screwed. They really need to re-evaluate how they do things and take care of employees who are loyal."
Neider feels she isn't asking for much, just something to let her know staying with the company will be worth it. "Just show that you care," she says.
Despite popular conception, Generation Y employees want to have a long-term relationship with a company; but they also want to trust that the company wants to have a long-term relationship with them.
"These are kids who've grown up in a period very unlike Boomers, a period where big institutions are much weaker and much less respected," says Neil Howe, an expert on generations, an author and co-founder of LifeCourse Associates. Because of this, he says, Gen Yers are looking to companies they feel will provide a safe harbor for them and encourage a more personal relationship between employee and employer.
He points to studies that show Gen Yers prefer to work at brand name companies, such as Google, Disney or Apple, because they view these companies as not only strong, but also personable. And for the first time in years, more young people are showing an interest in government and FBI positions because they feel it's an organization that will never collapse. "You also find that small businesses are very popular with millennials because they might not be as solid a company [as Google or Disney], but they'll have a very close personal relationship with the person in charge," Howe adds.
Myth #2: They don't want to pay their dues.
This myth goes hand in hand with waning loyalty, and stems from the fact that Gen Yers have a general mistrust of long-term support from a company.
"It's nonsense to think they don't want to do lots of work," says Tulgan. "In fact, I think that Gen Yers will absolutely do grunt work--they just want to know, 'OK, I did all this grunt work; what do I get?'"
This attitude can be infuriating to Boomer managers who had to spend years climbing the ladder, but today's workplace has changed. Putting your nose to the grindstone for a company no longer guarantees a secure spot in the future.
Getting the Most from Gen Y Employees
According to Tulgan, employers are less likely to award status, prestige, authority, flexibility and rewards on the basis of seniority. Instead, things that were once earned through years of "paying your dues" are more likely to be rewarded on the basis of short-term measurable goals.
"For today's young workers, if you tell them to 'climb the ladder, keep your mouth shut and wait for us to notice you,' it sounds to them like you're trying to sell them a bridge." They'll do the grunt work, says Tulgan, as long as they understand the relationship between their work and the overall mission. "They're not about to do anything in exchange for vague, long-term promises about rewards that vest in the deep, distant future."
Threats from within the company are compounded even more by outside threats, such as globalization and outsourcing. "The millennials are very aware of what the Gen Xers learned too late," says Howe. "You don't want to be in a job market where your kind of labor is considered a commodity. You won't get anything out of it."
Michael Mirando, 30, who is on the cusp between Generation X and Y, couldn't agree more. After nearly seven years with a leading microprocessor company, he's become disillusioned with corporate America. Each year he faces company-wide layoffs and internal reorganization. "I used to be really excited about my job; I'd do anything they wanted, go anywhere they asked me to," he says. "But every year it's the same thing: just sitting there, waiting for the axe to fall, wondering if it's going to be you. It takes a toll on you."
Mirando says he's glad that he's realized that now. "I'm not going to be the guy, like my co-workers, who are 45 years old, have two kids and are practically having heart attacks every year because they might not be able to support their family."
Myth #3: They need constant praise.
Generation Y has, without a doubt, grown up in a culture of praise, where just about every effort--no matter how small--is rewarded. The media, however, would have you believe these workers need a gold star simply for finding the right parking space. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for example, says employers have to dish out kudos to workers for "little more than showing up."
"That's absurd," argues Tulgan. "It's true they may have grown up needing a pat on the back every five minutes, but that doesn't mean the way you deal with that is by then pretending like that expectation is realistic."
If employers are finding themselves falling prey to such behavior, the only people they should blame are themselves. If you let an employee get away with not meeting expectations, they'll continue to do it--no matter how old they are. "If you think your young employees want a weak leader, you're missing the point," Tulgan adds.
Megan Gaines, 25, admits she's received a lot of praise throughout her career as a banquet chef, but she knows it's well deserved. "I've been praised not because I need it, but because I did a good job. I know I'm a hard worker."
Of course, it doesn't hurt to hear a little praise from the boss when that's your only barometer for measuring your worth. A lot has been said about companies going to great lengths to show their appreciation through such things as e-mail, prizes and public celebration. But is that really a bad thing? Gen Yers are now, more than any generation before, entering a massive, corporate workforce. When you're one of 4,000 employees spread across the country--and sometimes even the world--receiving a cookie-cutter "thank you" e-mail every now and then is hardly pushing the praise envelope.
The bottom line is: No matter where your employees fall on the spectrum--from needing a lot of recognition to not needing any at all--the rules of the game are changing to reflect the changing economy and workforce. You can keep playing by the old rules, or you can get the most from your employees by learning to master the new game.
"This is going to be the most high-maintenance workforce in history--but I think they're also going to be the most high-performing workforce in history," says Tulgan.
And Howe reminds managers that this generation isn't going anywhere. "Each year they're going to fill in this age bracket more and more," he says. "And before these managers and employers start gloating about how much these kids are going to have to change, I think these employers should start asking the question: How much are we going to have to change?"
For reprints and licensing questions, click here.