Redefining Gen Y

A generational guide to help Gen X managers understand what's really going on with their younger employees

The point of generational analysis—indeed, of understanding any dimension of diversity—is the recognition that unique formative experiences condition us to see and act differently. Because members of any single generation have lived through the same times and shared many formative experiences, common themes tend to characterize how they behave. Not surprisingly, this shows up acutely in the workplace.

There's no right or wrong here. It's legitimate for members of Gen X and Gen Y to interpret events in the workplace differently. This often leads to misunderstandings and conflict.

Based on my research with members of three generations—Gen Y, Gen X, and Baby Boomers—here are seven impressions that many Gen X managers have formed of their Gen Y employees. Each is a legitimate observation of behavior viewed through the Xers' specific lens. Each can be interpreted differently when seen from the Ys' perspective.

1. Impatient?

Perhaps the biggest gripe against Ys by Xers is that Ys want everything now. They don't want to pay dues over time, as Xers were forced to do with a sea of Baby Boomers blocking their path forward. To Xers, Ys are demanding and overly confident about tasks they ask to take on.

A legitimate observation, for sure. Ys are not big on paying dues. Consider why.

The most significant formative experience of Generation Y's youth, the primary focus of adult conversations and concerns when they first began listening in, was terrorism. They came of consciousness in the midst of 9/11, Columbine, the London Tube bombings, and wars fought against terrorism. Terrorism is a strange phenomenon: It is essentially random. It can affect anyone, anywhere, at any time. Ys' mental model of the world reflects a keen awareness of random, uncontrollable events.

For many Ys, the logical reaction to a mental model heavily influenced by terrorism is to live life to the fullest. They care deeply about doing work and more broadly, experiencing meaningful, challenging, and important lives. I don't find that most are as focused on "promotion" per se, as we often assume; that's an Xer or Boomer interpretation of the signals that Ys put forth. What they're asking for is work that makes full use of their talents … today.

2. Helpless and hapless?

We've all heard the stories. Gen Ys bring their parents to the job interview. Parents send in resumes on behalf of their Gen Y child—or even call to discuss a poor performance review. What is it with these Ys? They must be helpless. Or how about that astonishing tendency to move home at the drop of a hat? Conclusion: hapless, too.

Not so fast. Most Ys have a very different relationship with their parents than past generations experienced with theirs. Many Xers were part of the first wave of latchkey kids, home alone while parents struggled through the rapidly changing social norms of the 1980s: skyrocketing divorce rates, women entering the workforce, widespread layoffs. Bear in mind that 40 percent of Boomer teens surveyed in the 1970s said they'd be better off with no parents.

Gen Ys like their parents. When asked to name their heroes, Ys consistently name Mom and Dad as Nos. 1 and 2. Unlike past generations—when adults did adult things with other adults and children played with each other—Ys and their parents played together. They went to movies together, skied together, and listened to the same music. They are friends.

Ys see nothing odd about having their very capable friends mail those resumes. And they certainly don't mind staying with the friends when times turn tough.

3. Needy trophy children?

Now really, who were those trophies for? There's no question that Ys accumulated a lot of them over their early years. But who was behind the idea that everyone deserved one? Who proudly put them on the mantle? And who is holding on to them, even today?

Ys were reared by Boomers—a critically important context for understanding Ys.

Boomers, who grew up in a too-small world, sometimes attending school in temporary huts because the school infrastructure couldn't accommodate their astonishing numbers, are competitive. They've had to be. Boomers have always known that any slip could result in 1 of 10 other Boomers taking their place.

With the best of intentions, Boomers focused their competitive drive onto their children. They wanted their children to win. All of them. Every time.

Boomers need trophies. Ys, because they love their Boomer parents, try hard to bring them home. That doesn't mean they need constant gold stars in the workplace.

4. Craving constant feedback—unable to take it?

One thing Ys want in the workplace is feedback.

"Feedback" has very different meanings to Xers and Ys. To an Xer, the phrase "I'd like to give you some feedback" is unlikely to stir great feelings of warmth. To Xers, feedback means an assessment—a judgment rendered by a person in authority. Not the sort of thing you want to do often, let alone every day, as these crazy Ys seem to require.

For Ys, however, "feedback" is different. Ys learn through trial and error and interaction. A Y who asks for feedback is asking for a tip—for a way to proceed more effectively. They equate feedback with teaching, coaching, and opportunities to improve.

No wonder it's so easy to fall into a vicious circle in the workplace. The Y asks for feedback. The X manager stalls as long as possible, then finally, reluctantly, sits down to provide a formal review—an assessment. The Y is visibly disappointed with the exchange and the X concludes that Ys can't take criticism.

Actually, Ys can take criticism—which typically is not what they're asking for.

5. Poorly Educated?

Are Ys suffering from a knowledge deficit? Certainly not.

Granted, their writing is not always up to professional business standards. It needs to be. (Ys, listen up on this one; it's critical.)

But while Ys don't necessarily know or excel at the same things Xers do, they are far from dumb. Their savvy often lies in skills and ways of operating that many older colleagues find more challenging.

Ys find information as they need it, rather than memorizing and storing it away. They've come of age in the world of Google, where almost any fact can be found in seconds. Most will never have the mental store of knowledge that their grandparents gained through education. The Ys' ability to "find it and figure it out" is a key strength.

6. Disorganized?

Don't Ys ever have a plan? Xer managers are often frustrated with Gen Y's seemingly seat-of-the-pants approach to getting work done. Where's the schedule? How about a documented approach?

In fact, Ys are not natural planners, but they're far from disorganized. Ys are coordinators. Where an X might schedule future meetings, a Y is more likely to reach out in the moment. Y texts are often requests for coordinates—"where r u?"—after which they home in on each other like ships with radar.

7. Uncontrollable?

For many Xers, managing Ys is an oxymoron. Ys are apt to discuss an idea with a senior executive they meet in the cafeteria or call someone in another department with a question, all without going through proper protocol. How do you manage people who seem so fundamentally unmanageable? And how can an X feel secure, sandwiched between generations that often seem to be having a love fest.

Ys have been reared to behave in ways that often conflict with traditional corporate protocol. They've been invited to interact on a near-peer basis with their parents and their parents' friends. They've been coached to speak up, to become "self-advocates." They've repeatedly been told they can do anything they set their minds to.

The question for smart X managers is how to leverage these characteristics, rather than struggle against them. For example, leverage the Boomer-Y relationships to take some of the burden off you and provide the level of on-the-job learning that Ys crave.

It's a two-way street. Gen Xers have a unique lens on the world—one that has extraordinary strengths, but is often misunderstood by Boomers and Ys. The challenge for everyone in today's workplace is to move beyond annoyance—even beyond tolerance—to a sense of empathy and appreciation for the other guy's view.

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