At a lunch meeting last week the conversation turned to the differences between generations in the work place today. While this is a favorite topic of mine, it can be a challenge when the other side of the table comes from a position of superiority, stereotyping, ignorance, or all three. My lunch company was an intelligent, understanding man, not generally described by any of those terms, so I enjoyed the discussion. But he did say something that caught my attention. He said, “They’ll figure it out soon enough.” In my experience, comments about the new kid on the block are largely uninformed, even coming from people who’ve read the popular books on the topic (like The Trophy Kids Grow Up or any of these 483 books at Amazon). Three main reasons jump out at me:
1. Published ≠ True. No one buys a book that says the new generation isn’t really that different, and that deep down they really want the same things–things like respect, a challenging career, a chance to give back, and job security. What does sell, however, is that “Everyone born after 1980 is an entitled brat who wants the top job before they’re 30 and will sic Mommy and Daddy on us if we don’t give in.” As always, what’s published and reported is restricted to stories of the über-successful Millennials who founded their own social network, or the trophy kids who need a pat on the back just for answering the phone without disconnecting another client.
I guess some of what gets published is true. Or, rather, what gets published is true for some. It’s the exception rather than the rule. Most Gen Yers fall right in the middle–just like every other generation. We don’t expect everyone born in the 1920s to represent The Greatest Generation, do we?
2. What’s true for Gen Y is true for every new generation. A common gripe I hear is that Gen Y isn’t willing to pay their dues. Or that they’d rather be paid and promoted based on merit, rather than tenure. Well, duh! The lowest man on the totem pole should always feel that way. And while certain industries are moving away from a tenure-based system, most of Corporate America still rewards loyalty as much as talent. No new generation will like it.
That being said, Gen Y is closer to doing something about it than any previous generation. Never before has a new class of workers entered the mix with skills that are so honed and, in many cases, sharper than their superiors. I’ve seen grads coming in who started their own companies, spend two hours a day blogging, build web sites for fun, and have MS Access mastered. Those are all incredibly valuable skills that, frankly, out pace much of what I’ve seen in Gen X.
3. Gen Y doesn’t have to figure it out. They don’t have to conform. Instead, they’re changing the game. Generations may come and go, but it’s not like Corporate America stays the same. In fact, most of what we now take for granted came in with the Baby Boomers, or maybe a little earlier. Big employee benefits packages were nowhere to be seen until WWII. Even the general practice of management wasn’t found until after then. Labor unions were so strong in the 1940s and 1950s that pensions, wages and job security became almost guaranteed.
And now we have technology running businesses, which is a whole different ball of wax. The first truly digital generation is starting to penetrate the ranks of major companies, and there’ll be a shake up. I bet if we quizzed Senior Managers and Directors around town, we’d discover that they expect the Millennials to “learn the ropes,” and “eventually figure it out.” But they never will–the don’t have to. They’re going to re-write the manual instead. Simply conforming won’t work. Between easy access to technology, social media, crowd-sourcing, and a 24-hour content engine powered in no small part by Gen Y, Corporate America will have to change, not the other way around.