“At once a hipster and a climber, he is all nonchalance and expectation. He is new, he is annoying, and he and his female counterparts are invading corporate offices across America.”
This is the description that Nadira Hira, a writer-reporter for FORTUNE magazine, recently applied to the generation of workers referred to as Generation Y, or the millennial generation. This is the generation born from between roughly 1977 and 1995 – children of the Baby Boomers.
I am in this generation. Surprisingly, based on her scathing portrayal of it, so is Hira. In her May feature article inFORTUNE, she goes on to label us as needy and entitled. When it comes to our dependability in the workplace, she writes, “Despite a consensus that they’re not slackers, there is a suspicion that they’ve avoided that moniker only by creating enough commotion to distract from the fact that they’re really not into ‘work.'”
While I resent that remark far more than I resemble it (I have too much rewarding work in front of me to even begin to want to create a “commotion”), sadly Hira is not the only member of the media painting this portrayal of Gen Y. In June even the venerable National Public Radio was reporting on its “Morning Edition” program the trend of companies hiring consultants to help them manage the “over-praised” Me Generation. NPR said the fruits of organizations’ work with these consultants, which are being steadily dolled out to Gen Y workers, include “kudos for showing up to work on time” and “awards for getting a report in.”
Frankly, although such recommendations may lead to greater revenues for business consultants, they will not help firms in other industries over the long term. Why? For one thing, as the NPR piece also mentions (to its credit), many older managers are resistant to heap this bordering-on-undeserved praise on any of its workers, much less millennials, because they were able to motivate themselves, and ultimately succeed, without it.
This brand of rewards without merit sets up a dangerous precipice, on two levels. First, over time it will create a Pavlovian effect among Gen Y workers whereby the aforementioned on-time kudos, for example, will cease to have the same effect. This will force supervisors to be bolder and more creative if they want to maintain the same level of recognition for this generation as it ages. Unchecked, this effect could put a strain on the budget and/or upper management resources.
But perhaps even more dire, this generation-exclusive reward system could create a divide where one need not exist, as older generations of workers notice that their younger colleagues are getting more recognition for doing the same amount (or worse, a lower amount) of the work. Think of it as generational de-motivation.
I propose that what the media says my generation of workers wants, every generation wants. And despite the trappings that Hira says are indicative of my generation, including cell phones and iPods, these basic wants haven’t changed for decades. They include, quite simply, honesty and open communication from supervisors and senior management, and a shared dedication to and understanding of the work required in each role.
It’s also important to note that Gen Y is also not necessarily about sidestepping the corporate ladder to reach a big payoff for its own sake. “I think Gen Yers will absolutely do grunt work,” Bruce Tulgan, the author of “Managing Generation Y,” recently told Entrepreneur Magazine. “They just want to know, ‘OK, I did all this grunt work; what do I get?'”
In other words, they want to be rewarded for the hard work they put in, including the time away from their family and friends. Obviously, a paycheck goes a long way toward meeting this want. But research has shown that, depending on the industry, you can pay workers as little as 75 percent of their market-rate salary based on their training and skills, and still retain them. So something else is going into the mix that is keeping Gen Y workers, and all workers, on the payroll of the companies that have hired them.
Often times, that X factor is the leadership’s willingness and ability to give employees real ownership over their work. As Winning Workplaces Executive Director Mary Corbitt Clark related in this column last month, it was this willingness and ability of Ric Wilson and his leadership team at Telkore, Inc., a wireless construction company, that led employees of his only three-year-old business to turn back bonuses on multiple occasions. And while Wilson’s workforce includes some Gen Yers, it was the workforce as a whole – all generations in – that came to this consensus.
While there are many blanket statements in Hira’s article that I don’t agree with, there is one fact that cannot be denied: She cites current Census Bureau data which finds that there are now more millennials than Baby Boomers. Couple this with the Entrepreneur-reported detail that millenials are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, with some 10 million more set to join the workforce over the next four years, and it becomes clear that we should be working with each other and not to the detriment of a subset of us to meet our personal and professional goals, including the success of the organizations for which we work.