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Saturday, August 24, 2013

The challenges of working with Gen-Y

By David Johnson

The July jobs report (PDF) that came out earlier this month held more dismal news for Gen-Y workers. For adult workers, ages 25 to 54, Gen-Y (25-34) comprises about a third of the work force or about 31 million people. Unemployment is at 7.5% for them, compared to 6.0% for workers age 35-44 and 5.7% for workers age 45-54. For slightly younger workers, the unemployment rate is downright grim – a whopping 12.6% for workers age 20-24 and 23.7% for teenage workers.

So what does that mean for managers?

Gen-Y Employee
Younger workers don't see as much payoff for their efforts
A lot of the complaints about Gen-Y workers – a sense of entitlement coupled with complacency, poor work habits, social media-derived communication and professional styles – are actually a natural growth from a poor work climate. 

Todd and Victoria Buchholz published an article in the New York Times last year that detailed research that children and young adults in hard economic times don’t see a payoff for hard work, so they associate achievement more with luck than with persistence. They point to a number of disappointing trends: younger people are less likely to move states, get driver’s licenses later, even see reduced earnings 15 years after the end of a recession.

The educational climate feeds that complacent mindset, with participation trophies and gold stars rather than rewards for performance. And an emphasis on college and even masters degrees means that most young workers don’t even seriously enter the job market until their mid-twenties – meaning that managers have to deal with fully adult workers with no practical work experience, and workers who should be established and independent are in entry-level or even interning positions.

That’s an interesting situation to me, and one I think managers can easily overlook in a “get off my lawn!” generational conflict in the work place. Quite simply, Gen-Yers don’t know how to work.

Pushing back

There are some good articles out there with work advice for dealing with Gen-Y (and, honestly, workers of all ages). Forbes has a good article from Jason Nazar for advice for young workers. What jumps out to me is how many of his 20-tips deal with pushing back against the degrading influences of social media saturation – something that can be very helpful to managers to gain perspective on the quirks of their 20-something employees. Key points:
  • Social media is not a career. It’s a type of marketing.
  • Work during regular office hours, especially in the morning.
  • Pick up the phone or chat in person – don’t rely first on email.
  • Don’t wait to be told what to do.
  • Don’t back-talk and gossip.
  • Learn technical skills. WordPress programming is a skill; posting to Instagram is not.
  • Read books, not texts or tweets. Long works require concentration, thoughtfulness, and the ability to process information.
  • Bouncing between jobs isn’t a good thing. Commit to a place and develop your skills.

Effects of a media-driven culture

David Hassell at Talent Culture has another list for Gen-y and feedback. Two of his three points are key, and they also relate to the effects of a media-driven culture.
  • Gen-Yers are accustomed to instant feedback. Download a song on iTunes, listen to the song immediately. Turn in a paper on Friday, get the grade on Monday. Combine instant-gratification with thin work experience, and most Gen-Yers don’t have the skills to read and respond to normal feedback loops, and a traditional yearly performance review may simply take to long for them to be able to assimilate the feedback, good and bad. Informal and frequent feedback will help younger workers figure out what they’re doing right and how they need to improve more effectively.
  • Participation awards and a crappy economy have combined to make success seem like luck, not something that is pursued. Therefore, Gen-Yers need to be taught how to establish personal goals before they can begin successfully achieving them.

Instill positive habits

One key thing that emerged from these articles for me is how very different the perspective is for younger workers than it was for new workers 20 years ago. The sense of instability in the 2000s has bred a generation of cautious, inexperienced workers that is very different from the driven optimism of the 1980s or the booming 1990s. Recognizing that the apparent lethargy and entitlement in younger workers comes more from uncertainty than laziness is a good thing. Both Nazar and Hassell have some good points – ultimately, the general goal is to instill habits counter to the passive Facebook/Twitter/texting trend and inspire some real confidence and ambition to perform.

About the author: For the better part of four decades, David Johnson has been working in both small and large business for strategic marketing, productivity, management, and office design.  Experiencing different industries and different management styles has helped develop his perspective on office culture, leadership, and communication. Follow his posts on his business site ConferenceRoomOutfitters.com or on Twitter (@bizoutfitter).

*Images: 1. Gilles Klein; CC BY-SA 2.0,  2. Author owned and licensed.