Motivating Gen Ys in a Downturn

Young people change jobs every 18 months. And when they get a job, they start job hunting three days after their start date. That's a pretty expensive churn rate for employers. In many cases, you have lost the employee before you even finished training. The good news is that in most cases, a young person is easy to retain if you understand his or her motivations.

Generation Y is fundamentally conservative. Not politically. But in terms of their lifestyle choices and aspirations. This is a generation that loves their parents. Over 65% of college grads move back in with their parents, and they are not particularly unhappy about it because they have a great relationship with their parents. Adults have been helping Gen Y their whole lives. They are used to their parents' friends helping them, their coaches and tutors, and every time there's a problem, a parent talks with an adult involved and fixes it. So Gen Y loves authority—it has always been good for them.

Think about it: Baby boomers protested Vietnam by taking to the streets and violating laws. Gen Y protested Iraq by playing by the rules and electing Obama. Gen X invented grunge music and jeans at work. Gen Y is making the Beatles hip again—and they love to dress up for work. Gen Y is conservative, kind-hearted, and they follow the rules. Of course they are like this: The world has treated them well.

Gen Y just wants what their parents want for them: a good job, a stable family life, and a life that has meaning. Baby boomers told Gen Y that the most important values were contributing to the greater good and always learning. And Gen Y believes that.

it's all about learning

So here's what they want at work: Stability. The only reason Gen Y job hops is keep their learning curve high. No one wants to change jobs all the time. It's scary and difficult and tumultuous. But Gen Y knows that there are no lifetime jobs any more, and we're each responsible for our own careers. The best way to keep yourself employable is to always be learning. So when the learning curve flattens out at work, Gen Y jumps.

This is, of course, exactly what their parents told them to do: "Get off the sofa and do your homework! Don't watch TV! You're wasting your mind! The most important thing is your education!" These kids were overprogrammed after school so they would be exposed to new ideas and learn lots of new things. So of course they expect work to be this way as well. And, just like their parents, when things start looking slow, they panic.

In order to keep young people from leaving, you need to address their learning curves. Here are five ways:

1. Focus on mentoring.

Most young people have no idea what they want to do for their lives. They are trying things out. They need a mentor to help them figure out what to try next, and how to make sense of what they've already tried. A mentor isn't someone who meets with you once a month. A mentor is someone who genuinely cares if you succeed in life. The mentor is checking in to see what you're learning and where you could learn more. The mentor is introducing you to people and ideas and steering you on a weekly basis. Note: You cannot fake caring. A good mentor honestly believes the best part of work life is helping other people, and this opportunity is a privilege.

2. Create rotation programs.

The hottest jobs for Gen Y are getting into programs that steer you through many departments (Procter & Gamble (PG), General Electric (GE)) or companies that encourage you to move around after a short period of time (Deloitte, Ernst & Young). Young people love these opportunities because they know their learning curve will be high, but within a context of relative stability. Any company could create this sort of program as long as it was willing to invest the time in training young employees in many aspects of the business.

3. Don't focus on pay.

Young people expect to be paid market rate. They have easy access to resources like PayScale, where the range of salaries in a given field is listed. Young people can also go on LinkedIn and ask former employees what they made in a given position. Additionally, women in their 20s earn as much as (or more than) men do, so there is no tension around negotiations or fair pay. So Gen Y knows the market rate, and they want to be paid that. You insult them by offering them an above-market rate for doing a boring or meaningless job: Gen Y knows money isn't the most important thing in life, and they are not going to sell their 20s in order to get money.

Also, they saw their parents working insane hours—no generation has worked longer hours than the baby boomers—and their parents were rewarded with layoffs, corporate ladders pulled out from under them, and crashing retirement funds. Gen Y wants no part of that deal. They want to learn. You can't retain a young employee with money. They'll take a lower-paying job with better learning opportunites.

4. Micromanage.

That's right. Gen Y wants to be micromanaged. To other generations this would be insulting or annoying. But Gen Y wants constant feedback and constant attention. That's how they were raised—to be the center of the family. So they expect to be important wherever they go. You can complain about this attitude, but newsflash: This is actually a reflection of very good self-esteem, and employees with high self-esteem perform well. So stop judging and start micromanaging. Check in three times a day. Give goals that are daily and weekly and monthly. Give rewards in the form of positive feedback. Yes, this takes a lot of time, but your job is to manage, so buck up and do it.

5. Get real about teamwork.

For the last 20 years we've been talking about how important teamwork is. Companies that work in teams create better ideas, faster progress, and stronger companies than companies full of lone rangers. We know this, but baby boomers hate teams. They want to be in charge; they want to stand out as being special from everyone else. And Gen X hates teams: They've been alienated and responsible for their own well-being ever since their parents invented the phrase latchkey kid and told them to make dinner for themselves. The only real team players in the organization are Gen Yers. They've had social-skills courses in school, they did book reports in teams, they went to the prom in teams—often they quit their retail jobs in teams.

Gen Y expects work to be about teams because for them everything is about teams. Which means you can't retain Gen Y if you're not really serious about teams. Get software that encourages teamwork—PBWiki for group-based thinking, Yammer for group-based conversations. This type of software makes Gen Y feel at home, and it forces older people to be team players even if they don't like it.

You'll get a lot of work out of this generation if you manage them well. Just look at everyone's inboxes. Baby boomers use their inboxes as to-do lists—you see them scrolling up and down looking for something to do. Baby boomers complain about information overload because they can't sort information as fast as it comes in. Information overload is not a phrase Gen Y uses. They don't feel it. And get a load of this: Their inboxes are empty. Not because they don't get as much e-mail as their older counterparts. In fact, they get more. But they process it more than five times as fast.

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