Time to rethink Gen Y

A generation that values structure, collaboration comes of age

(AP Photo/Karly Domb Sadof) (AP Photo/Karly Domb Sadof)

As a new generation increasingly becomes part of the workforce, a few stereotypes need to be reexamined. Employers and HR professionals might think they have the younger generation figured out, but as time goes on, the evidence suggests this group of workers has been misunderstood.

Yes, millennials are wired, plugged-in, and addicted to screens — but they’re also dedicated team players who consider networks and collaboration as essential as the air they breathe.

Yes, millennials expect flexibility and creativity in their work environment — but they also crave structure and will look to experienced co-workers as mentors.

Yes, millennials value their free time and like to play hard — but they are sophisticated enough to know that their employment makes such things possible; and further, they identify with their jobs in ways earlier generations might not.

Checking their schedules since preschool

“This is the most structured generation in the history of the planet,” says Susan Heathfield, human resources expert for About.com and co-owner of TechSmith. “And they’re networked in ways baby boomers only dream about. If you can capitalize on that, you’re going to get great employees.”

Heathfield and others who’ve studied the millennial generation note that tightly controlled parenting styles of the baby boomers who raised them have a lot to do with this new generation’s approach to work.

“They moved through a world where parents scheduled hundreds of after-school activities, then they go on to college, which is fairly structured, and then they come to the workforce,” she said. “They expect the structure. It’s what they’re used to.”

Other observers have reached similar conclusions.

“Millennials were raised under heavy supervision,” said Jessica Brak, author of a report from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The report, “Maximizing Millenials in the Workplace,” reveals millennials are a million miles from the Mayberry of the 1960s or Bart Simpson’s Springfield.

“This generation didn’t grow up in a world where kids left the house on their bikes every summer morning and returned in the evening just in time for dinner,” the report noted. “They were driven to soccer practices, music lessons and T-ball games, and most summer days were spent at a carefully selected camp. Their early (and constantly supervised) exposure to team sports has made them the best team players and collaborators in generations.”

Filling labor, leadership gaps

The UNC report outlined the growing importance of this younger generation of workers. It noted that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 80 million young adults born between 1976 and 2001 have already joined or are preparing to join the workforce. By 2014, 36 percent of the nation’s workforce will be comprised of this generation and by 2020, nearly half (46 percent) of all U.S. workers will be millennials. By comparison, the report notes, Gen Xers represent only 16 percent of today’s workforce.

“The sheer volume of millennials, combined with the relative lack of Gen Xers and the increasing retirement of Baby Boomers means that employers will be facing leadership gaps. And they will be looking to millennials to fill those gaps,” Brak wrote.

The report added that the more individualistic work styles of earlier generations (referred to in the report as “The Cowboys”) have been supplanted by a more collaborative mindset with these younger workers (whom the report calls “The Collaborators”).

Putting the right structures in place

To avoid cultural clashes and attract millennials, the report said employers should put a premium on work structures that emphasize coaching, performance metrics, collaboration, and opportunities for recognition and advancement.

Heathfield said younger workers want to hear how they’re doing, and they want to be able to set their sights higher.

“These youngsters want feedback daily, if possible,” she says. “And they are really interested in career development. They’ve got to see something in place with the company that is going to help them grow their careers.”

In addition to giving feedback, companies should cultivate the millennials’ natural impulse for teamwork. This impulse toward collaboration is one of the younger generation’s real strengths, Heathfield said.

“I’ve spent my entire career trying to teach Gen Xers how to work on teams,” she noted. “This generation demands to work in teams.”

Wanted: Mentors

Although older workers might feel a little threatened by the different work culture approach of younger employees — not to mention their comfort with technologies that may be intimidating with baby boomers — there are ample opportunities for the generations to work together in a productive way, experts say.

Craig Malloy, Cofounder and CEO of Lifesize Communications, noted recently in a Forbes blog that older workers can play an important role in mentoring younger employees.

“While [older workers] may not be as technically adept or as deeply creative with technology as their younger counterparts, they’ve seen countless waves of trends in business,” he wrote. “Combined with the new way of doing things that technology provides, this experience and pattern recognition creates business insights that a younger worker may value.”

The UNC study added that even if formal mentoring isn’t possible, managers can take on the role of coaches — an authority relationship millennials are comfortable with.

“Millennials were raised with constant coaching and feedback and expect it to continue in the workplace,” the Brak wrote. “Coaching will keep millennials engaged in their work.”

Flexibility and social networks

There’s no doubt younger workers prefer more flexible working arrangements, and that social networking is a big part of their lives. But Heathfield said these elements have become the new normal, and HR managers should recognize the tradeoff in increased productivity they’ll receive by being accepting of millennials’ work habits.

“They’re online 24-7,” she said. “Young people may spend an hour from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., chatting with friends, but at 10 p.m. that night, they’re at home doing email. I’m going to try as an employer to create structures to encourage them to get the work done whenever they’re comfortable [doing it].

“If I’ve set up structures where they’re accountable for deliverables and outcomes — then how they get it done should not be so much my concern.”

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