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Generation Y – bored brats or brilliant businesspeople?

By Julia Stolzenberg
Created 03/11/2008 - 12:22

Generation Y – bored brats or brilliant businesspeople?
by Julia Stolzenberg [0]

They seem to be the ultimate nuisance of modern society with their cool, self-focussed and pleasure-oriented lifestyle. They are criticised for being financially immature and unwilling to take on responsibility, and are accused of being obsessed with social networking, ringtones and credit cards. The list of allegations against teenagers and young people in their 20s, commonly known as Generation Y, goes on ad nauseam. None of the PlayStation generation’s bad habits, however, seem to cause so much public debate as their alleged snotty attitude towards work life. According to many employers – most of them quite obvious Gen Y haters – young staff are no more than a lazy, bored, demanding, fickle, lippy and over-indulged bunch of spoilt brats.

“They are famously known as the generation who expect everything, and give zero,” trumpets a recent article in The Advertiser [1] that calls the members of Generation Y “obnoxious creatures “and “little upstarts”, naming a young employee a “painful little creep”. Even though these insults sound rather toxic, there is a common perception that Generation Y tends towards serial job-hopping and lacks practical workplace skills and realistic expectations about salary, promotions and job requirements.

“86% of Generation Y expect to be promoted within two years, 63% stay less than two years with an employer, and over half (52%) think it’s easy to find a new job,” reveals a recent study [2] of 3,000 Gen Y Australians undertaken by the international recruitment company Drake [3]. The survey paints a revealing picture of a new type of employee emerging with very different attitudes and motivations from previous generations.

When asked about the main difference between his and his father’s attitudes towards work, Josh, a 21-year old university graduate, names dedication and passion as his generation’s main characteristics. “I certainly wouldn’t take a job if it didn’t challenge me or make me feel involved,” he says. “I think I am a bit more than a monkey in a uniform.”

Just like every other generation, Gen Y, born between 1980 and 1994, is a reflection of its childhood circumstances which are likely to carry over to the workplace. Gen Y was raised in the era of globalisation and in a period of economic growth with low unemployment and diverse career opportunities – assets that promote the notion of frequent workplace variation. Add the influence of fast-paced multimedia and you know why Generation Y behaves the way it does, says journalist Richard Watson in his Herald Sun article [4] Doing it Y way.

“Gen Y has grown up with rapid technological change and this makes them expect change and speed as a matter of course,” he says. “They have zero attention spans and get bored easily.”

Another influencing factor is the economic prosperity of the last few decades that has led to a delay of the traditional milestones of marriage, mortgage and kids. Young people’s current focus is on self-realisation, often in form of extensive travel and continuous education, rather than on commitment. Gen Y’s baby boomer parents and teachers have encouraged them to express their opinions and Gen Y rarely hesitates to do so. Moreover, many mid-20 Gen Yers juggle studies and part-time jobs – circumstances that provide young employees with valuable skills. The ability to multi-task and to collaborate within networks is just one of Gen Y’s unique strengths.

“Gen Y employees are technologically savvy, innovative and entrepreneurial, so may well exceed in product development and sales roles,” says Stephanie Dinnell, organisational psychologist at Drake. “They will also challenge the way things are done, which can lead to improved processes and services. Gen Ys are good for business.”

So while many employers seem to overlook their qualities over harping on Generation Y as loud-mouthed impatient divas, clever recruitment agencies have long ago started analysing and harnessing Generation Y’s potential. Global specialist recruitment consultancy Hays [5] , for example, has recently released its research report [6]Portraying Generation Y – a survival guide for employers who want to understand their young staff. The message is clear: companies that want to attract, recruit and retain Generation Y will have to radically reshape long-established business practices.

“Generation Y are the young recruits of today who are the future of our skilled candidate base and the talent we need to maintain business success,” stresses Hays Specialist Recruitment who surveyed 1,200 young people from Australia and New Zealand. Their findings suggest that many of the old rules of recruiting and retaining employees do not work for Generation Y. While previous generations’ job choices were strongly money-motivated, Gen Y is more interested in the actual “package”: employer honesty, respect, continuous learning and development, career progression and a work/life balance; all of these ranking much higher than financial considerations. Overall, the Hays Specialist Recruitment research paints a positive picture of the ostensible “bored brats” – that of a well-educated, career-driven and extremely ambitious generation.

“Generation Y are confident and optimistic. With this comes an expectation of responsibility and challenges, which they seek earlier in their career than previous generations,” concludes the Hays Specialist Recruitment study. “While baby boomers believed if they worked hard and did a good job their employer would look after them, and Generation X are content to work their way up the corporate ladder, Generation Y need to be continually challenged in the workplace, or they will go elsewhere.”

Peter Sheahan [7], Generation Y expert and author of the book Generation Y: Thriving (and Surviving) with Generation Y at work, agrees with the study’s findings. The 26-year-old coaches companies such as Google, Coca Cola and L’Oreal on how to keep tomorrow’s Executive Assistants and Project Managers happy at work. The strategy is to keep jobs stimulating by giving employees difficult tasks and offering rotations within companies, inter-departmental transfers, international exchanges, and establishing a clear reward and recognition program. To Sheahan, the secret recipe for bosses is to understand the needs of Generation Y and to provide the advancement they seek while also managing their expectations. Eventually, the demands of Generation Y are not much different from the ones of previous employee generations, he says. Gen Y is just much more outspoken.

“Who doesn’t want flexible working hours, respect and the opportunity to do work that makes a difference?” Sheahan asks potential Gen Y employees in his report [8] Understanding Generation Y. “The real distinguishing feature of Gen Y is that they are the ones screaming the loudest for what they want and talking with their feet when they don’t get it.”

Bored brats or brilliant businesspeople? I believe it is difficult to pigeonhole Generation Y. One thing is undeniable though. With large numbers of the 4.5 million Generation Y members in Australia currently entering the employment market and displacing the baby boomers, Gen Y’s manpower is indispensable. In the long-term, businesses won’t be able to do without Generation Y’s potential – a potential that in my opinion ideally matches the needs of a fast-paced and globalised world. It is time for employers to understand how Generation Y ticks in order to turn perceived negatives into positives. Rather than seeing the new entrants to the workforce as a force to be in staunch opposition to, the challenges and opportunities that Generation Y represent need to be met. Or, as Peter Sheahan phrased it in an interview with the New Zealand Herald [9]:

“You say you want passionate, creative and innovative people but not impatient, manipulative and demanding. Sorry, they only come in a package! Generation Y.”

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