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Instead of sneering at our youngest workers, let's keep an appreciative eye on them
I'm leery of saddling a whole generation—whether it's boomers (the group I belong to), Xers, or Ys—with a lot of categorizations. Any generation is made up of individuals with unique talents, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. But if we're going to talk about Gen Ys as a whole, let's say this: They're not as two-dimensional as we've been led to believe.
Let's start with the popular notion that Y kids are slackers. I teach workshops at my local university, and I've never seen such a crowd of overachievers in my life. These students travel, they intern, they teach, they learn. They take on multiple leadership roles while in school, and they baby sit and dog sit and kayak and learn foreign languages for the heck of it. (And this at a school just dubbed the 13th-most-partying university in the country.) The very last thing they are is slackers. Yet they've got that label—along with the labels self-absorbed, overly social, and lacking a work ethic.
I'm not buying any of it—and neither should you—for fear of missing the talent boom emerging from colleges and AmeriCorps and other youth havens all around us. These young folks can help our organizations, but we may have to flex a bit to get the best of them to do so.
My friend Laura teaches marketing in an MBA program, and she's been tracking the progress of the students who graduate from her program. Over half of them, she reports, left their first post-graduation job within a year. One year! That's shocking to a boomer like me, who believed a job straight out of college was a gift. Much as I think generalizations can be unfair, I'm willing to make some about Gen Y.
Based on my own experiences with hundreds of Yers, and on less-than-scientifically-gathered data from colleagues and others who have had lots of exposure to them in the workplace, I believe Gen Yers are looking to make a difference, have fun, and learn as they go. If the first job they accept isn't the right one, they think it's silly to stick around—just because. Who can blame them? Their Boomer parents faced waves of layoffs, despite often having done "the right thing" by sticking around.
The implication is that we, as managers, will have to work a bit harder and stay a bit closer to our Gen Y employees in order to keep them on board. We'll have to keep an ear to the ground vis-à-vis their career plans. How can those be bad things for managers to do?
Gen Y is also justifiably famous for its love of online research and online community. These interests are great assets to us as employers, once we've figured out how to think about and optimize the communities of interest that surround our brands, our employees, and our other constituents (customers, vendors, and business partners, to name a few). The Gen Y predilection for being online will come in handy as we learn about everything from customer buying habits to who's saying what about our latest release—provided we're comfortable with young knowledge workers being glued to their PCs for hours at a time, not obviously "working."
Maybe Gen Y brings us closer to the workplace that baby boomers dreamed about, but didn't feel they had the luxury of pursuing. That's the job in which you were valued for the quality of your work, not its volume. The one where you got to do—even had to do—what you were good at, and weren't asked to do things for which you had no aptitude. Where it was okay to ask "Why am I doing this?" without flirting with disaster. Yes, managing Gen Y types will stretch our leadership muscles. What's wrong with that?
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