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Learning to Think and Work Like Net-centric Generation Y

Last December, our family was planning a caroling party. Feeling very contemporary, I sent the invitations via an invitation website, sendomatic.com. After 10 days or so, I noticed that none of Julie (age 19) or Edward's (age 17) friends had responded to the evite. When questioned, Ed said, "No one reads their email. I put an event on Facebook." Facebook: a whole world my children inhabit that I don't! Try as we might, it's hard to keep up! This experience and several like it with our young adult children and with recent college graduates entering the workforce brought to mind how significant the generational differences are for leaders.

So, this post I offer some thoughts about creating a workplace that appreciates and leverages all generations' values, work habits and approaches. Let me know how these differences are showing up for you at work!

8795249_3164680348.jpgUnderstanding Generation Y

Individuals born between 1977 and 2000, better known as Generation Y, are the first generation that has spent its entire life surrounded by technology.

Seventy-six million strong, they bring to the workforce the power of super-networkers. Generation Y are connecting and reconnecting online and building entire communities in cyberspace - and they bring those communities to their work experience. They don't distinguish their social networks from their professional ones.

Matt Winn, a very talented and successful 26-year-old friend keeps a terrific blog, punctuative! about trends in an industry related to his work. When asked about why he keeps a blog, he noted that, for him, his blog is both a communication tool and a branding device. It is a way of building professional credibility and an expertise-based resume. It also forces him to "think - and write -- publicly."

When you are looking for new employees, do you think of looking for bloggers in your industry? (Me neither!) Understanding the mindset and values of these young workers is critical if we don't want to find our organizations and ourselves as obsolete as dinosaurs.

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Generation Why?

Here's how leading author and speaker on Generation Y Eric Chester describes them: "They grew up with cell phones, pagers, laptops and bottled water in a world of AIDS, crack and terrorist attacks." Chester calls them Generation Why. As in, why do they have to listen to their business elders? This means that Generation Y is much less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management still popular in much of today's workforce.

According to Bruce Tulgan, a founder of RainmakerThinking, which studies the lives of young people, "They have been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a slew of activities since they were toddlers, meaning they are both high-performance and high-maintenance."

If you were educated since 1985 or so, chances are you grew up working in teams, and creating projects and presentations for which you received team grades. You learned collaboratively, worked with others on a common set of deliverables, and have come to the workplace with a different set of skills than people who were educated in an era when collaborating with your classmates was called cheating!

These Gen Yers are much less tolerant than Baby Boomers of nasty bosses, inflexible hours and a work atmosphere that is not fun. However, Chester touts these "stimulation junkies" as adept at multi-tasking, fast thinking, passionately tolerant of diversity and astoundingly creative. They crave friendly co-workers, understanding bosses, personal recognition, benefits and tuition reimbursements.

Harness the power

So these are markers you need to know to harness the power of these young workers, instead of losing out to the competition. (Source: Bruce Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking)

  • They have high expectations of self. They aim to work faster and better than other workers do.
  • They have high expectations of employers. They want fair and direct managers who are highly engaged in their professional development.
  • They want ongoing learning. They seek out creative challenges and view colleagues as vast resources from whom to gain knowledge.
  • They want immediate responsibility. They want to make an important impact on Day 1.
  • They are goal-oriented. They want small goals with tight deadlines so they can build up ownership of tasks.

A recent USA Today article, noted that Gen Y workers:

Have financial smarts. Today's newest entrants into the workforce are generally savvy when it to comes to money and savings. They care about such benefits as 401(k) retirement plans. Thirty-seven percent of Gen Yers expect to start saving for retirement before they reach 25, with 46% of those already working indicating so, according to a September survey by Purchase, N.Y.-based Diversified Investment Advisors. In addition, 49% say retirement benefits are a very important factor in their job choices. Among those eligible, 70% of the Gen Y respondents contribute to their 401(k) plan.

Work-life balance isn't just a buzzword. Today's youngest workers are interested in making their jobs accommodate their family and personal lives. They want jobs with flexibility, telecommuting options and the ability to go part time or leave the workforce temporarily when children are in the picture.

Change, change, change. Generation Yers don't expect to stay in a job, or even a career, for too long and they're skeptical when it comes to such concepts as employee loyalty, according to Tulgan. "They don't like to stay too long on any one assignment. This is a generation of multitaskers, and they can juggle e-mail on their BlackBerrys while talking on cellphones while trolling online. Moreover, they believe in their own self worth and value enough that they're not shy about trying to change the companies they work for," says Tulgan.

Managing and Motivating

When you understand this new generation better, what can you do to manage and motivate them? Here's what Eric Chester recommends:
1. Let them know that what they do matters.
2. Tell them the truth - don't try to pull the wool over their eyes (to put it politely)
3. In order to get ‘buy in', explain the ‘why' of what you're asking them to do and tell them what's in it for them.
4. Learn their language - communicate in terms they understand.
5. Be on the lookout for "rewarding opportunities"
6. Praise them in public - make them a ‘star'
7. Make the workplace fun
8. Model behaviors - don't expect one thing out of them that you don't and won't deliver yourself, be the example.

Communicating with Gen Y

A recent article in Pink magazine detailed the ways communication will change with this new generation's arrival in the workforce. As you can see, the younger generations lead the pack in engaging in all online activity, from gaming to instant messaging to blogging. If you want to communicate with this generation, you must learn to speak their language.

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Some things never change

In her book, Retiring the Generation Gap, Jennifer Deal reminds us that fundamentally people want the same things, no matter what generation they are from. Her research confirms that all generations have similar values; they just express them differently. As she explains it: "The values are the same. However, the behaviors that go along with those values are different." For example, wearing jeans to work may be considered an expression of disrespect for the work site to an older worker who thinks that jeans are too informal for work, but to employees from Generation Y, wearing jeans at work is not necessarily an expression of disrespect - they just want to wear jeans.

Regardless of the generation, Deal's research confirms that "family," "love" and "integrity" are the values that held universally. We can work effectively with or manage people from all generations if we keep in the mind the following principles:

1. All generations have similar values.
2. Everyone wants respect.
3. Trust matters.
4. People want leaders who are credible and trustworthy.
5. Organizational politics is a problem - no matter how old (or young) you are.
6. No one really likes change.
7. Loyalty depends on the context, not on the generation.
8. It's as easy to retain a young person as an older one - if you do the right things.
9. Everyone wants to learn - more than just about anything else.
10. Almost everyone wants a coach.

Almost everyone wants a coach

This last point in Deal's research interests me very much. And I have a suggestion for you: If you are part of any generation other than Gen Y, go out and find yourself a Gen Y "reverse mentor". Ask that person to show you how to download music, how to find blogs that interest you, and to talk about their views on business and politics. They can teach you how to text message from your cell phone, show you highly entertaining videos on YouTube, create a Linkedin page for you and add a Skype i-chat account to your desktop. This stuff can be a little scary, but once you see how it works, you too will begin to work differently - and keep yourself from turning into a dinosaur!
My reverse mentors are Julie and Edward thanks to them I can IM (reachable on Skype as kwunderlin), and I know who Ricky Gervais and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are. And they still think I'm a hopeless dork!

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