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Understanding the “Y” Generation


Lessons to help blend together the attitudes and work ethic of multiple generations in your workforce

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Why do your coworkers act the way they do?

With retirement age being pushed back, it’s conceivable that you work with people whose ages differ by several decades – from the Silent Generation (1922 to 1945) to the Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964) to Generation X (1965 to 1979) and Generation Y (1980 to the mid- to late-1990s).

“Your growing up years define your work style to some extent,” said Judy Ruhl, management development consultant and trainer with Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.

Cultural factors from war to the economy affect how one views the world, and the workplace, Ruhl said.

Of course, multiple generations working together isn’t a new phenomenon. What’s new is the scope of the changes society has made in the past 50 years, said Dan Schroeder, president and owner of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants.

“Older people in the workforce have always asked the question, ‘What is it with those young people anyway?’”

While your company may not show signs of blatant tribal warfare, every workplace has its “What the Hell Are They Thinking?!” (WHATT?!) moments. Here’s a glimpse into a few common WHATT?! moments and what generational factors might be feeding them.

Newbies in the office

What the Hell Are They Thinking Situation No. 1: The newbie doesn’t seem remotely impressed with (or grateful for) the new job.

Schroeder recalls a story about a talented young new professional who acted like he thought he knew everything, including how everyone else should do their jobs. He also believed he deserved a much higher salary right away. When his boss told him to show some respect, the young man indicated the company needed him more than he needed his job. The boss fired him but later regretted it because the firm lost a talented employee who eventually could have made some great contributions.

“Generation Y often seems to expect mid-career level salaries and perks right away,” Schroeder said. So when they get beginners’ wages and cruddy hours, they aren’t impressed.

Generation Y – also referred to as the Millennial generation – came of age during a time of a lot of violence. And due to advances in technology, not only do they tend to be tech savvy, but they had to grow up fast.

“They had more information thrown at them about how the world really works,” Ruhl said. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unibomber and other violent crimes happened, and Generation Y learned about it in school. “We would have been sheltered from things like that,” said Ruhl, herself a Baby Boomer.

If they come off as cocky, it’s because their self-esteem is pretty high. Their generation was the first entire generation whose parents had access to multiple forms of birth control. Translation: “This is the most wanted generation,” Ruhl said.

Their parents let them know how special they were by enrolling them in violin camps, language lessons and private sports.

“They have the expectation that they will be tended and cared for – maybe that’s how they’ve been raised,” Schroeder said.

They offer their opinions freely because they’re accustomed to having input.

“Their parents negotiate with them. They ask them what kind of bike they want and what color,” Schroeder said. “Back in the day, your parents went to the hardware store and brought home a bicycle and said ‘Here is your bike.’”

What can organizations do about such a mindset? Show those employees what a career path at your company looks like.

“New-employee orientation is an on-boarding process where you culturally assimilate these folks and say ‘Here’s what to expect.’ It’s almost a quid pro quo. If they give us their labor, what do we give them in return?” Schroeder said.

New entrants to the workforce are more mobile and expect to make more job changes than their parents did.

“What they have been learning over the past 20 years is (that companies and jobs are) here today, gone tomorrow, with mergers, acquisitions, downsizing. They know more than one person who has lost their job. So their attitude is ‘What’s in it for me?’ They are not going to be used by the company; they are going to use the company,” Schroeder said. “If we are not giving our talented young people reasons to work for us, they won’t work for us.”

Issues with training

WHATT?! Situation No. 2: Young employees don’t seem to be getting the information and training required (and offered) by your company.

It could be that it’s the format in which the info is delivered, according to Ruhl. It might be time to reassess some of the more traditional training mechanisms.

“The old teach-as-you-were-taught” method of lecturing a group doesn’t always work anymore, Schroeder said. It’s hard for today’s generation to sit still for two hours in a meeting or class.

When Faith Technologies in Menasha noticed poor attendance among its field employees at safety workshops, the company was understandably concerned. But by looking at how to bring the information to the employee rather than to expect the employee to seek out the information, Faith turned that situation around.

“We started making the workshops available online,” said Jill Hermans, director of learning and development for Faith Technologies.

“Because our employees are out in the field, getting them to come in for training was rather challenging,” Hermans said. “We created an environment where they can log in and access the classes that apply to their job role. We’re making it more accessible for them and we’ve used different formats to present information,” such as video and audio clips, podcasts, etc.

Use of social media

WHATT?! Situation No. 3: Brittany seems to be texting and checking Facebook an awful lot at work.

Before assuming all at-work social media use affects productivity, figure out if that’s really the case.

“If she’s not performing and not meeting deadlines, that’s another story,” said Anjali Seefeldt, who works with Appleton-based Strategic Solutions Consulting, a firm founded by her mother, Shipra Seefeldt.

Seefeldt knew of one case in which an employee’s social media use angered the management until they realized it didn’t negatively affect the employee’s job performance. The employee still did her work quickly and efficiently and completed projects faster than anyone else.

“We grew up multitasking. We’re used to having five things going on at the same time” rather than focusing on one thing, said Seefeldt, a Millennial herself.

Generation Y grew up with computers, and their minds think in “random access types of ways,” Schroeder said. “They are more nimble and able to switch back and forth from task to task. They can be working on one thing, park it and switch to another, store it in their memory and switch back. To sit in a board room and be talked at for two hours – you are killing them.”

Quality of life

WHATT?! Situation No. 4: “These twenty- and thirty-somethings leave at 5:01 p.m. and are not eager to work holidays and weekends, even for bonus pay.”

Money isn’t always the great motivator for Generation X and Y. Quality of life factors such as balance between work and life, working from home or from a remote site, being allowed flexibility in scheduling to attend family events and, of course, time off, speaks just as loudly.

“My generation is motivated by more vacation time, whereas the older generations would want to see how their career would progress and be motivated more by accomplishing certain things in a job setting,” said Seefeldt.

Generation X and Y grew up with both parents working – the term “latchkey kids” came about during X’s growing-up years, Ruhl said. Both generations watched their parents work their butts off and get downsized from their jobs anyway and therefore may not be as willing to sacrifice everything for a career.

They’re striving for more of a balance between work and life – they want to do their best for their employers and still have time and energy for fun.

“They will work really hard in order to afford time off to have quality time and to have money to do the things they want to do,” Ruhl said of Generation Y.

Flexible work time

WHATT?! Situation No. 5: Jake strolls in whenever he feels like it, leaves whenever, and doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the whole 40-hour-a-week thing.

Generation Y wants to be judged by the work they do and not the hours they work, Ruhl said.

“We are much more willing to work whenever we may need to, at all hours, answering emails from home or being on our BlackBerrys late at night than we are to being glued to a desk chair,” said Seefeldt. “The older generation sees (desk time) as much more valuable and thinks more highly of people being physically present from 9 to 5 five days a week,” even if they are just staring at their computer screens.

Short timers

WHATT?! Situation No. 6: “These young employees don’t last more than a year, anyway, so why are we spending all this money on training them?”

Companies that have trouble retaining employees should view it as a red flag, Ruhl said.

In the first place, Generation Y is more likely than previous generations to have several different careers over the course of a lifetime, let alone work for a single employer for several decades. And if they don’t see much hope at one workplace, they aren’t likely to stick it out.

“If the employee sees that the only growth pattern here is ‘when the guy above me retires in 11 years, I can move up a notch,’ then they are not going to stay,” Schroeder said. “They have a nonlinear mindset – they play that out in their private lives, and they are hoping to play that out in their professional lives.”

Companies can get their young employees more invested in the company by giving them hope in the form of “career pathing, succession planning, talent development and basically showing young employees how to make fuller contributions to the company,” Schroeder said.

The old company hierarchy doesn’t make sense to them.

Generation Y doesn’t see much value in the kind of slavish devotion their parents showed to their places of work.

“We see how it has negatively impacted them in the long run, and it has made us open to job hopping and looking for opportunities beyond the organization we may be working with,” Seefeldt said.

But don’t confuse devotion to a single employer with loyalty as a character trait.  “Generation Y is more loyal to a certain person rather than to a certain corporation,” Ruhl said.

That’s why when one employee leaves a company, several others may follow him or her to the next company.

Working independently

WHATT?! Situation No. 7: Tina, a GenXer, tends to not keep people posted on how her projects are progressing or what she’s doing when.

Blame the parents again. Generation X grew up during a time when many institutions were breaking down. Nixon was impeached, John Lennon was shot to death, an assassination attempt was made on the life of President Ronald Reagan, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster happened, the Berlin Wall came down, divorce rates rose, many kids came home to an empty house as moms pursued careers.

“This created a generation of skeptical people who are quite comfortable working independently,” Ruhl said. “They don’t need anyone looking over their shoulder.”

Lack of initiative

WHATT?! Situation No. 8: (The flip side of No. 7) Ashley does what she’s told, but she can’t seem to start anything on her own.

“One issue is that Generation Y has had their time and priorities scheduled for them by their parents,” so they aren’t as accustomed to working independently as other generations might be, Ruhl said.

This generation grew up with music lessons, language camps, organized sports and a dearth of unscheduled time.

“More than any other generation, their parents showed up at school to resolve their conflicts for them,” Ruhl said.

“We might have to set their priorities for them. If you set clear expectations of who does what, they will do it, but until you do so, they are perfectly content to watch their mother do it for them,” Ruhl said.

Generation Y is also more accustomed to working in groups, in teams and a lot more collaboratively than their predecessors did.

“I don’t believe that means we can’t work individually, but I think the older generations are more used to working individually,” Seefeldt said.

But while having more people putting their minds together can be a good idea, it’s not always the best.

“The flip side is group think,” Seefeldt said. “If everyone is going off one idea and they’re really excited about it and somehow everyone misses one side of it, it can be a huge disaster, too.”

Technology disconnect

WHATT?! Situation No. 9: Ralph the Boomer seems to need a lot of face time — whenever you email or text him, he calls or shows up at your desk instead of responding electronically. Or the converse: Brittany the Yer emails or texts when she could call or talk in person.

Aaah, the modern-day curse/blessing of intra-office messaging. For Gen Y, it’s seeing the person they just texted show up in person. For Boomers, it’s colleagues who message from the next desk over.

“There still is a bit of a disconnect between (older and younger) generations, with things like preferred communication styles,” Seefeldt said. “Generally, the older generation prefers face-to-face conversation or making a phone call because it’s a lot more personal.”

Texting instead of talking may sound cold or rude but it’s all about efficiency, she said. Generation Y wants to get the message to the other person without spending time on chit chat or voice mail.

“I can text someone and he can respond without my taking more of his time,” she said. “A lot of it is trying to get each other to see the value in the other’s way.”

Electronic communication is only going to increase – not decrease – as more companies allow telecommuting, more business gets done remotely, and more job functions get outsourced to remote areas, Schroeder said.

“That’s just the nature of how we carry out our work today – we are more isolated. We don’t know one another.”

While technology has its benefits, it can’t replace relationships.

“A lot of what we do is based on relationships, and a lot of our referrals are from people who know our work and trust us and with whom we’ve built good relationships,” Seefeldt said. “I don’t see that being able to happen if we were just communicating via email. There needs to be a balance between the two.”

Complacency to change

WHATT?! Situation No. 10: Ralph the Boomer doesn’t seem to want to try anything new.

It’s human nature to be suspicious of the unknown, and the more risky we think something is, the more suspicious we are of it, whether it’s learning a new technology or marketing a new product line.

“The older generation wants the status quo because they feel this is what made (them) successful,” said Shipra Seefeldt, the founder of Strategic Solutions Consulting.

“They are for tradition and for what is tried and true because that is what helped them grow,” she said. “The younger generation is more into buying the latest (technology or equipment, etc.) and is more into risk-taking, and there is a lot of push and pull.”

Boomers and the Silent Generation value stability, and they put great importance on being reliable and dependable, Ruhl said.

“They are service-oriented and used to meeting the needs of others.”

When they entered the workforce in the 1960s, the Boomers were seen as the me-first generation and the rebels who questioned the establishment.

“But now they are pretty much the establishment,” Schroeder said. “When it comes to work ethic, they look an awful lot like their parents and grandparents.”

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.