For the past couple of years, the business press has been telling managers that they need to engage with Generation Y, or else their companies will lose the war for talent and, worse still, they will be marked down as squares who just don’t get it, daddio. Or something like that.
This all sounds very plausible and management consultancies have been quick to offer to help the Baby-Boomers and the Generation-Xers, many of whom like to think they are still in touch with what’s hip, get down with the media-aware and techno-savvy Millenials.
Trouble is, when you dig around a bit it’s hard to find any real evidence for any of these claims. For a start, the definitions of the generations and the boundaries between them are not clear. There is so much disagreement that the relevant Wikipedia pages have been locked to prevent further editing “until disputes have been resolved”. Which, of course, they won’t be. Boundaries between generations are subjective and open to interpretation. There are nearly as many different definitions of the generations as there are commentators. Even when the definitions agree, the characteristics attributed to the generations vary considerably.
We are told that Millenials, which is an alternative label for Generation Y, are independent, self-assured and goal driven yet also high-maintenance, needing lots of positive strokes and reliant on external direction, due to the high level of attention they got from parents.
Of course, there are plenty of helpful suggestions about managing Generation Y too.
The following are some aspects to consider managing and motivating Generation Y:
Let them know that what they do, matters Tell them the truth Explain the “why” of what you are asking them to do and tell them what’s in it for them Learn their language – communicate in their terms Make the workplace fun Model the way – don’t expect something of them you won’t do or won’t deliver yourself.
Okaaay…., so how does that differ from managing anyone else? Don’t we all like to be valued, to be told the truth and to understand the reasons behind what we are being asked to do? Or is it just that these pesky Millenials will kick up about it more.
Incidentally, the what’s-in-it-for-me’ attitude is classed as a Generation X characteristic in other models.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying that attitudes don’t change over time. Most obviously, younger people regard as normal, technology that still over-awe’s many of their older colleagues. Social attitudes to work, hierarchy and status have shifted over time too. But I’m sceptical about the extent to which we can draw boundaries between generations and attribute characteristics to them in the way that many of the articles on this subject assume.
Does the generation you are born into shape your attributes more than class, national culture, ethnicity, religion or personality type? Can we really generalise about Millenials?
As I have read around this subject, there seem to be a lot of articles offering neat categorisations and pop-psychology how-to-do-it guides but very little concrete research. Has anyone done any rigorous studies on the Millenials and their attitudes to work? Has anyone compared the impact of someone’s generation on their attitudes, compared to other variables like personality type? If so, I haven’t been able to find this evidence. Most of the research seems to be from consultancies who are keen to sell solutions to the problem.
As you may have gathered, I am somewhat sceptical about this latest management scare. Yes, technology and social attitudes have shifted but they have been shifting for years. Smart employers will have kept up with these changes and their workplaces will have evolved accordingly. There is evidence of changes in values and behaviour over time but not, so far as I can see, of the clear generational fault-lines described in many of these models.
Isn’t the panic about Generation Y just the latest manifestation of that age-old complaint from middle-aged folks that young people seem to be from another world? Perhaps it also reflects the realisation among the old hippies and punks that, while they might still go to festivals to watch rock bands, they have now travelled well beyond the outer suburbs of youth.
I came across this quote the other day:
Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
It was from Socrates in the fifth century BC.
There have always been communication problems between people of different ages and, let’s be honest, a wistful resentment of the energy and freedom of the young by older people. It seems to me that we have elevated this eternal tension into yet another management fad, complete with the inevitable tools and methodologies, without very much evidence.
However, as usual, I’d be happy to be proved wrong. If anyone has any conclusive evidence for the claims about Generation Y, I’d love to hear it. I would also be interested to hear from anyone who thinks it’s all a load of mumbo-jumbo.
Update: Since I wrote this, I have read Noel O’Reilly’s piece on the Personnel Today blog. He says:
At first I thought this was just a lot of pop sociology tosh with a dodgy evidence base.
It’s not clear from his post why he changed his mind. From what I’ve seen, his initial instincts were right.