We love to bash Gen Y for being lazy, overprivileged kids who expect everything and give nothing. A fair call? Or are they the future not just of our country but also our economy – and our innovation industry?
"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they allow disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children now are tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
While Socrates certainly never said this, and Aristophanes never put it quite this way, this quote or passages like it often come up when discussing ‘the youth of today’. Setting aside the visions it evokes of young people gobbling dainties, it’s usually tabled in support of the opinion that this whole Gen X / Gen Y / Baby Boomers thing is nonsense, and that really it’s just young people behaving as young people always have, while old people look on and grizzle that all the dainties have been gobbled.
There is some empirical support for this. Ray Glennon, a researcher at workplace psychological testing company SHL, said in a 2008 interview that the differences between Generation X and Generation Y were “minimal” and if there were any, then they were outweighed by the differences between individuals.
While Gen Y workers were perceived very differently by employers – cue anecdotes around photocopying being someone else’s job – SHL’s empirical survey of 3,500 workers found most perceived Gen Y characteristics were more to do with employees’ age than their generation.
Is it just history repeating itself?
Jane Keneally, owner and director of recruitment company Frog, sides with SHL.
“Gen Y are no different to any generation before them,” she says. “When assessed, their behavioural or axiological [value] patterns show them to be much the same as earlier generations. What is different is the era that they have been born in, which is vastly different to those of both baby boomers and Gen X.
“Gen Y are exposed to a lot more through media, the internet and the easy access to international travel. They’re savvy at finding information and are not only familiar, but also confident in social media.”
Frog recently interviewed 150 business leaders on their experiences with graduate recruitment, asking them what the key challenges were in hiring Generation Y staff. According to Keneally, a few common themes emerged.
Individual differences between candidates outweighed generational similarities. Companies are increasingly seeing graduates as people to learn from, not just train. And good management of expectations reaped rewards – both around what the company expected from the grad, and what the grad needed in terms of training and mentoring.
Or are they self-serving know-it-alls?
But the concept of Gen Y as impatient, self-serving know-it-alls remains popular with managers, marketers and countless seminar organisers. The University of Queensland has gone as far as publishing a set of guidelines for managing Generation Y employees (in the hospitality industry, specifically). Want to keep your precious 20-something petals from going all droopy and heading for a sunnier flowerbed? Here’s the recipe:
Hire well: Consider the values of the recruit, not just their skills and knowledge, when hiring Gen Y.
Train them: Find ways for Gen Y hires to learn from older employees.
Encourage opportunities for learning and growth through challenging work.
Offer more flexible work arrangements.
Recognise and respect individuality.
The study wasn’t just a guide in how to kowtow to the self-entitled slacker by the watercooler though; unlike the 2008 SHL study, it identified some differences in how Generation Y workers perceive themselves, compared to the workforce as a whole – Gen Y workers believe they’re more employable, they have higher intentions to quit their current job, and they display more job-switching behaviours.
The most interesting finding was that “on attitudes where the higher the score the better, Gen Y generally rates LOWER” their caps). In other words, science proves that Generation Y, should it exist, has, well, a bad attitude.
The good side
It’s not all bad, though. Auckland parenting and education coach Rachel Goodchild is a firm believer in Generation Y, but sees both a good and a bad side to them. She sees their key characteristic as being extremely self-reliant and having a high sense of self-worth.
While this can lead to Generation Y employees making great leaders and advancing quickly through organisations, it can also make them difficult to train, as they can be reluctant to admit there are things they can’t do.
From a parenting perspective, Goodchild believes the ‘good’ Gen Y individuals come from homes where they were expected to help out and look after themselves, and sees changing parenting practices as having as much of an impact on this generation as any other factor.
“The 90s were the era of the ‘supermum’, where women felt they had to balance their high-achieving professional lives with equally high achievement as a mother – so many kids grew up unable to fend for themselves,” Goodchild says. The decade also saw the rise of ‘time out’, leading to more self-reliance in children. Most of all, though, positive parenting meant kids were perhaps praised more than ever before, leading not just to adults with a high sense of self-worth, but an addiction to affirmation that largely defines the generation.
Social trends specialist Jill Caldwell of Dunedin-based Windshift is a little more cynical, and while she sees a greater emphasis on passion and personal fulfilment – and a stronger sense of certainty than earlier generations had – she says Generation Y has less awareness of the need to learn the rules of work or pay homage to the existing work culture.
Critically, Caldwell believes Generation Y lacks humility.
“They don’t know what that is – parents and teachers have focused on building them up and telling them not to settle rather than tearing them down and insisting they fit in.
“They hit the workforce at a time of plentiful opportunity and increasing specialisation – their skills were needed – but they have mostly learned how to do that work in an academic institution with their peers, not on-the-job with an existing team.
“They often need higher qualifications to do the same work other generations did – such as Honours or Masters – for a job that used to just need a Bachelors degree – so they are often over-specialised for entry level but insufficiently experienced for anything higher.”
Caldwell lays a lot of the blame at the feet of employers.
“We let them be like this. Think what would have happened if an archetypal Gen Y person walked into a hierarchical organisation of the 70s or 80s and turned up their nose at doing the menial work. They’d have been laughed at or told off – probably sent right back out again.
“Earlier generations felt they were entering unfamiliar territory, that they were the lowest rung on the ladder, and that if they wanted money this was what they had to do.”
Y on Y
But what does Generation Y look like from the inside? Kirsti Grant is 27 and owns SocialSauce, New Zealand’s first ‘socially powered talent agency’. She agrees Generation Y is confident and driven by a need to progress but believes it’s not out of selfishness.
“In our work we like to see the impact we have on a business, we like to know that we can grow and we want great managers that support and encourage that growth. When we get that, we’re ridiculously loyal, but not so loyal that we’re likely to stay in a job beyond five years. Why would we, after seeing our parents and grandparents work in the same jobs for most of their working lives?”
Grant agrees Gen Y employees can be disruptive in a team but it’s nothing that can’t be managed. “That’s where we need great managers who aren’t threatened by a challenge from a 20-something-year-old, but that’s where things can get hard. Many managers in New Zealand are given more responsibility based on tenure and because they’re good at the job they did before. They’re not necessarily given these roles because they’re good managers and then they often aren’t given the management and leadership training they should to be able to run effective teams made up of a variety of generations.”
Like Goodchild, Grant sees the potential in having Gen Y workers in a team.
“Having worked at a start-up that has a majority of its staff under 30, I can say that I’ve never worked in a team that has so much loyalty and enthusiasm towards achieving the company’s goals. It’s easy to see why everyone stayed so engaged, because in a small company each person made such a big impact and was involved in making decisions about the company’s direction along the way.”
Pace is good
Idealog contributor and entrepreneur Robert Bruce has employed more than 2,000 contracted and mostly Gen Y staff at his business SublimeNZ since it launched in 2007 (it was sold in October to WPP network company Professional Public Relations).
He’s found them to be tech-savvy and as such, a big asset to business.
“Gen Y moves at a million miles an hour, but they’ve been conditioned to do so,” Bruce says. “That forward momentum isn’t such a bad thing, though – pace is good.”
On the other hand, the challenge Bruce – and employers of Gen Y in general – faces is to keep them stimulated, engaged and loyal.
“With the speed of changing the TV channel, I have seen Gen Y staff quit a job, leave an agency, or simply lose interest in what they are doing. They want to pick and choose what they do, based on what suits their lifestyle and interests at that given time.”
And he should know. Bruce, aged 28, is Gen Y himself and having been self-employed since he was 22, he’s demonstrated classic Gen Y behaviour by working his own hours, controlling his own destiny and being competitive at all times.
“But I believe I have an empathy and respect for the old way of doing things and I’m not ‘all about me’. There have been hundreds of tech start-ups that peaked early and dive- bombed with a Gen Y at the helm, but the majority of top global businesses have been around for 50 years or more. You can’t cheat history, endurance, or a long-term plan.”
Bruce believes Gen Y will be at the forefront of pushing New Zealand Inc higher on the ladder of international business. Recently SublimeNZ was ranked 31st on the Deloitte Fast50 of the fastest growing businesses.
“The theme is clear – Gen Y are in business for good, and they are hustling. The vast majority of finalists, some of whom had brilliant business models and innovative marketing techniques, were around my age, late 20s or early 30s. I think because Gen Y ‘want it now’, they make great sales people, marketers, and innovators. [Trade Me founder] Sam Morgan wanted to buy a toaster, couldn’t find one, and the rest is history – I love stories like that.”
The no-plan plan
Jenene Crossan, who launched e-publishing business NZgirl.co.nz in her early twenties, says Gen Y is fascinating, frustrating, and our future. But as for their own future, it’s often devoid of planning. “Ask any Gen Y if they have a five-year plan and they’ll stare at you blankly – wondering if you’ve gone a bit bonkers,” Crossan says. “In job interviews, if you ask the standard ‘Where would you like to be in five years’ time?’ question, expect a whimsical, theoretical answer such as ‘That’d be grand’. For them answering this is kind of like describing if they won Lotto how they might spend it.”
It’s a generation that doesn’t subscribe to their parents’ school of thought; of the rite of passage of school, university, job, marriage, babies, promotion and retirement.
The rules have changed.
“They put their own personal happiness at the forefront, and they’re untethered to romantic partners or permanent homes,” Crossan says. “They chase the dreams built for them by Hollywood and Silicon Valley.”
For New Zealand Inc, that last bit is an advantage, not a disadvantage.
Crossan admits Gen Y gets a swift kicking from the media and she’s done that herself, with more than her fair share of war stories to tell.
There’s the one about the girl who told all the NZgirl advertisers that she’d bought the business, talked Peugeot into giving her a brand new car (for which Crossan would need to pick up the tab later), and left the country with her boyfriend when it all got too hard, with a trail of client relationship destruction and debt in her wake.
There’s the P addict, the plagiariser, the serial liar, over-sharer and office gossip.
So why keep employing young people?
“Because I operate tech start-ups,” Crossan says. “Would I find the same stories if I employed older people? Yes, I would. In fact, one of the worst employees I ever had was someone who was 25 years older than me and she just could not cope with the speed of our environment. She was out of her depth and her reaction was nastiness – it brought out the worst in her personality.”
Crossan is thankful for the three-month trial clause in employment contracts, which has enabled her to take a punt on people she might’ve otherwise steered clear of, due to past bad experiences.
So is there any such thing as Generation Y? If you’re trying to hire or manage a graduate, it probably feels like it, but on balance it seems that the young ’uns have been gobbling dainties since there have been dainties to gobble (glance back at the opening quote if that made no sense at all). So cater to their needs, by all means, and listen and nod when they round out their first week on the job by explaining exactly what needs fixing around here. But as Caldwell points out, you get the employees you make. So unless you fancy spending your days doing your own photocopying, make sure your Generation Y hires know who’s running the show – even if they may well be by the end of the year.
Crossan on Y:
The good, the bad, and the downright fugly
• They’re great at multi-tasking
• They appreciate diversity and have no tolerance for racism or other narrow-minded world views. They grew up without borders and this has created a good level of tolerance towards diversity
• They’re amazingly adaptable – throw them curve balls and they’ll ‘like totally’ cope
• They’ve got great technical nous – they pick things up very easily and are really good at teaching others how to do the same
• They’re good communicators– they share
• They’re incredibly optimistic–they don’t see the negative that you might. They see opportunity and ideas. While this insatiable niceness might really hack you off, and typically more so the older you get, it’s this niceness that they think will stop wars, bring people closer together and create a better, brighter future
• They need constant recognition and attention – they can’t be left to be self-starters. They have to be egged along, massaged and reminded that they’re indeed worthy
• There’s a high parental attachment; many have been over-indulged as children and as a result are lacking in some departments.
This contributes to a strong sense of entitlement (spoilt child syndrome), with very little long-term commitment to the hard work required to actually get a job done well
• That same strong parental attachment can also mean that sometimes managing them involves their parents – big decisions require mum and dad’s input
• It’s not called Generation Why for nothing! Y should I get a job? Y should I care? Y should I have to go to work? [Insert your own Y-ism ad nauseam.]