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The kids are alright: What Generation Y brings to the workplace


By the end of October, business was painfully slow. Revenue wasn’t coming in and, as a junior employee, I knew I would be laid off. I had to start looking for a new job. When I was called for an interview at an advertising agency, I prepped for three days. I wanted to be ready.  

Mid-interview, the Creative Director asked why I wanted to leave my current position. Before hearing about my imminent unemployment, he post-scripted his question, stating “you Generation Yers are known for bouncing around from job to job; people your age are not committed.” This, I wasn’t ready for. In the end, I didn’t get the position and two months later, I was called into my boss’s office and was let go.

The Creative Director was right, by the way. Well, half-right. Generation Y—known more commonly as Millennials—does carry a collective reputation for job-hopping (in fact, average Millennials will have had 10 to 14 jobs by the time they retire). But it’s not because today’s twenty-somethings just happen to be disloyal or unable to commit.

Ray Williams, Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, believes Millennials are prepared to be dedicated to their work, but businesses will have to redefine what company loyalty means. As an executive coach and management consultant, Williams sees the same unyielding work ethic in young professionals, only with conditions attached.  

“Things have changed,” he says. “At one time, employees were loyal to the company regardless of how they were treated. Work was transactional—if people were paid on time, they stayed around. But Millennials don’t perceive work that way. To them, work is more than a paycheque; it has to be meaningful and they have to be treated like a human being. And that changes things entirely.”    

Sound demanding? It might. But don’t misunderstand the Millennials; they aren’t trying to be impolite or subversive. In reality, they’re acting on what they were taught by their nurturing, protective Baby Boomer parents. Since birth, Millennials have been told they are special, deserving and capable of anything. Respect is just something they’re used to getting—without years of paying dues. 

The Millennials are certainly a force to be reckoned with. As the fastest growing segment of today’s workforce, this group is sizable and holds the potential to transform what we know as the traditional workplace along with its leadership styles. It’s not only numbers that will give the Millennials clout in the office, it’s also the spaces that will need to be filled within a few years. The Boomers are starting to retire and the employment gap is impending.

“Most leadership positions are held by people who are looking to retire soon,” explains Williams, “the Millennials are poised to step into leadership roles at a younger age. Despite not having 20 years experience, they are skilled, knowledgeable and in an ideal situation.”

Who are they and what do they want?

The Millennials, born between 1981 and 1999, are characterised by their technological savvy, self-confidence and affinity for collaboration. Many professionals from this generation are highly educated, so they are less likely to tolerate a command-and-control, top-down leadership style. Instead, they want to give input and get feedback as a part of a company that respects their ideas.

Their demands are simple, really. The Millennials want meaningful careers. To be more specific, Williams cites the 2006 Cone Millennial Case Study. Here were the conclusions:   
• 79 per cent of Millennials wanted to work for a company that cared about a bottom line other than profit, such as social responsibility or sustainability
• 78 per cent believed companies have a responsibility for making a difference in the world, as part of their reason for existing
• 76 per cent said they would refuse to work for an irresponsible or unethical company

“Pretty significant numbers,” notes Williams. “This is how Millennials are prepared to work. If they don’t like it, they will walk.”

On top of something worthwhile, Millennials also want a career that allows them to maintain a personal life. Unlike generations before them, this group is driven to work 80 hours per week for a company; they would rather work to live than the other way around. It seems that Millennials have figured out at a young age that there is more to life than a job—a value that has been attributed to 9/11, an event the Millennials experienced during their teen years.
But what of productivity? Won’t fewer hours mean fewer accomplishments. Williams doesn’t seem to think so. Not only are Millennials highly efficient as a natural by-product of technology, but he points to a study done by the Texas-based Worklife Institute that assesses productivity. “This study showed that after a certain number of work hours, productivity goes down, not up,” he reports.

“The argument that Gen Ys will be less productive if they only want 30 hours a week doesn’t hold much water,” Williams continues. “It’s all about what you do in the time allotted for work—not how much time you spend in your seat. Often managers will measure productivity that way and that’s not a good measurement. In Denmark, for example, they work much less and they are one of the top rated countries for productivity.”

The bottom line is the Millennials are willing to work hard, but in a different way. Williams summarizes it like this: “They will be productive if they believe the work is significant, they are not expected to be married to their job, and if their workplace is structured in such a way that shows them respect.” 

Getting the most out of Millennials

Managing the Millennials doesn’t necessarily mean catering to them. Certainly, there is a lot these young professionals can learn from their predecessors. Instead, Williams suggests that managers look at workplace as multigenerational and multinational and go from there. “You have to be open to multiple forms of delivery,” he explains. “Generation X and Millennials, for example, like to receive training via computer or DVD, so they can tap into it whenever they want, instead of having everyone at a seminar at the same time. Boomers, however, seem to thrive in face-to-face meetings. It’s about flexibility.”

If managers are interested in getting the most out of the Millennials, they could start by structuring supervisory work around teams with distributed leadership, encouraging teamwork. In addition, they could instil flex hours for work-life balance. Whatever the method, Williams believes managers need to be a lot more knowledgeable about the psychology of human performance. When they realise how employees can work the happiest, they have figured out how they work the hardest. “Just by understanding basic human needs, bosses will automatically be more in tune with the Millennials,” he says.

Twenty years from now...

When the Millennials have 20 years of work experience under their belts, what can we expect from the future workplace?  Williams sees fewer levels of management in the organization, as well as leaders working with teams of collaborative people as opposed to having a separate role. He also anticipates concern about products and services, as well as how they are making their communities better.

Who knows? Maybe the Millennials won’t be as revolutionary as they started out to be. Look at the Baby Boomers. They began as the generation of rebellion and counter culture, but by the time they were in their 40’s and 50’s, they became the ones who owned all the “evil” corporations. No one knows what Millennials are going to be like as they age.

“Thirty years from now, I’ll revisit this stuff to see if it’s still true,” Williams laughs. “Having said that, Gen Y does portray distinct characteristics in personality, behaviour and world-view. They are connected 24/7, they are highly skilled and their need for constant communication is a significant difference from any prior generation. I do believe organizations will be lead in a much different way.” Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see whether this is the generation that will live up to its expectations. You have to admit, a little more work-life balance could do us all some good.

While there are social patterns that seem to encompass every generation, be careful of ageism. Everyone, after all, is unique and deserves to be evaluated based on his or her own merit.

About Ray Williams
Ray Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Vancouver and Phoenix providing leadership training, personal growth, and executive coaching services.  Ray has been a CEO and HR Executive, management consultant, trainer and executive coach for the past 30 years.  He writes columns for the National Post, Fast Company and Psychology Today, and is a platform speaker in demand throughout North America on topics of the workplace, leadership and personal development.

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