After 25 years in human resources roles, I've had the chance to observe significant numbers of employees from four generations: the Greatest Generation, representing my parents and their peers; Baby Boomers, from the earliest hippies to the trailing mid-sixties-born babies; Gen X'ers, currently zipping up the corporate ladder in their 30s and early 40s; and now, Gen Y workers, everybody's favorite scapegoat of the moment. You can hardly pick up a newspaper without reading afresh how Gen Y youngsters are ungrateful or disloyal or motivationally challenged.
It would be comical if it weren't so tedious: With each new crop of talent, we're doomed to hear the same old refrains. These kids don't know how to work. They expect too much gratification, too soon. In the Gen Y doom-and-gloom song, there's even a theoretical refrain: We're told these young people got too much praise as they were growing up, with the result that they've come to expect praise at every turn. The theory says Gen Y kids were given gold stars and cupcakes a few too many times as children, so that they never learned the value of hard work.
Please give me a break. We've heard variations on all of these themes before, and yet the business world keeps on turning.
When I was a high-school babysitter, I clocked more hours than I care to remember observing Gen Y's predecessors, the Gen X children, and let me tell you, Gen X's parents praised those kids to high heaven. The idea of positive reinforcement for children (not to mention dogs), wasn't invented for Gen Y kids. But those lavishly praised Gen X youngsters learned to survive in a work world where gold stars weren't part of the daily ration. They are running companies now. Surely their younger counterparts will rise to the occasion, too.
Whenever an entire generation gets painted with the same brush, we ought to look at what's driving the urge to make generalizations about several million people coming from wildly different family situations, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and socio-economic strata. My theory says it's far easier to proclaim that a given group is lazy or spoiled or untested or whatever than it is to manage people as the individuals they are.
It's no different to say that Gen Y folks are ungrateful than to say that salespeople are greedy or that blonde women are dim. As managers, our job is to hire the people who will make our companies hum. Anyone and everyone who gets hired—and remember that we did in fact hire these folks—is likely to cause some bit of disruption or agita at some point. How much easier is it to say: "Well, what do you expect from Gen Y?" than to listen, observe, and tackle the problem at hand? Lumping employees into generational heaps and then labeling them by their generational faults is a crutch for poor managers.
Managers who blame their personnel woes on the ages of their staff members—or any other irrelevant factor—are managers who could stand to look in the mirror. Who, after all, hired those pesky youngsters? By whose largesse do they remain on the payroll? Good managers deal with their team members as individuals, not as archetypes.
Managing One by One
It's a fundamental leadership skill to take people out of the groups they're so commonly lumped into—by gender, age, job function, ethnicity, whatever—and interact with them as unique individuals. We speak of managing teams, and there's plenty of value in helping our employees find interdependencies and discover the power of teamwork. But at the end of the day, we've got individuals to manage.
Each member of the squad is incontrovertibly, inescapably, maddeningly unique. It takes time to get to know our subordinates beyond their age-groupings and ethnic groupings and functional titles. Over time we see that not every HR person writes policies in her head, not every IT person plays Dungeons & Dragons, not every Gen X'er listens to Dave Matthews, and not every Gen Y person falls into pieces without a daily pat on the head. Not even close.
Labels are essential for filing cabinets; they're not so useful for understanding who's on our teams and what special gifts, quirks, passions, and needs define them. Let's give Gen Y a break and get back to managing the complex and amazing individuals in our workplaces with the individual attention they deserve.
If somebody on your team isn't special, why have you set your standards so low?