Companies & Industries

Book Excerpt: What's Next, Gen X?


In an excerpt from her new book, Tamara J. Erickson outlines the forces that have shaped Gen Y, personally and professionally

Over the past decade, Generation Y, also often called the Millennial Generation, has joined the workforce. Born between 1980 and 1995, the Y's are the largest consumer group and soon will be the largest employee group in the history of the United States, more than 70 million strong. They represent an even larger proportion of the population globally. The large size of this generational cohort means that they will have a significant influence on the world in which we live and work. They have been teens since the mid-1990s.

Y's grew up in the midst of a world struggling to comprehend the escalating terrorism and school violence dominating the headlines. Beginning with the Lockerbie air disaster, in which Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb, that occurred before Y's were teens (in 1988), through the bombings at the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, and the Atlanta Olympics during the 1990s; the bombings of the Madrid and London subways in 2004 and 2005, respectively; and, of course, the events of September 11, 2001, this generation has been engulfed in a world colored by inexplicable and unpredictable events. And the violent incidents in schools during Y's own school years—Columbine and Virginia Tech in the United States, Beslan in Russia, and, sadly, many more—had an even more significant impact, being aimed straight at their age cohort.

Terrorism differs from war in one important way. Everyone who goes to war recognizes at some level that bad things could happen. No one goes to school expecting that bad things could happen. Acts of terrorism are fundamentally random. Growing up when they did has left Y's with a conceptual model that is heavily based on unpredictability (have you noticed how frequently the word random peppers their speech?). For many, living life to the fullest—now—has become an important and understandable priority. A sense of impatience—I prefer the word immediacy— will be the single most salient characteristic defining this generation throughout their lives and not something they will "outgrow."

In contrast to the external world, and perhaps in part because of it, Y's have been blessed with an almost cocoon level of parental attention—immersed in a very pro-child culture—in contrast with the latchkey childhood of many X'ers. This is a generation that grew up eating off red plates with "You Are Special Today" on the rim; one that was continually reminded that they could do anything they set their minds to. Movies in which kids were horrible or scary began to fail at the box office during their youth, replaced by Three Men and a Baby and Parenthood. Boomers soaked up the humanistic theories of childhood psychology and became increasingly involved in their children's lives.

Today, Y's and their parents share many common interests, from movies and music to recreational activities and charitable concerns. The result is a generation of young adults who like and trust not only their parents, but most of the older adults in their lives. "Their connection to their parents is deep and strong," says Middlebury College psychology professor Barbara Hofer. "They say, 'My parents are my best friends.' People would have seen that as aberrant a generation ago, as pathological."

Their behavior in the workplace can strike many of you as inappropriate. Fearless and blunt, they offer their opinions freely, without regard for corporate hierarchy and with no sense of what would be considered "proper" business protocol, and seem to expect everyone to be interested in their point of view. The strong bonds they've formed with their families are easy to misinterpret as dependence and can seem very odd to many of you who made your decisions independently or based on advice from friends.

"Yes, there's a revolution under way among today's kids—a good news revolution," demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss would write in 2000 in Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, barely containing their glee…These are not my italics, by the way. They're in the book. Howe and Strauss must have been really excited about this…they go on to rave about how these super-duper millennials are optimists! Who accept authority! And follow rules! Oh, happy happy, joy joy.

Other aspects of Generation Y's childhood experiences were very different from yours and left them with a very different perspective on money, working mothers, and, no surprise, technology.

Unlike your experience of watching parents and other adults go through the downsizings and layoffs of the 1980s, Generation Y has experienced, until very recently, an unprecedented bull market and economic prosperity. Despite current economic difficulties, Y's tend to have a rosy outlook on the long-term opportunities ahead. This sense of optimism, along with the safety net that their warm relationships with their parents provides, is prompting Y's to approach work in a way that, again, can be highly annoying to X'ers, almost as if they hope to be paid "volunteers." Many Y's are shopping around, in what David Brooks has called their period of "odyssey years," for organizations that they really want to join.

Where Generation X's experience of women working outside the home was one of change and upheaval—mom going off to work—for Generation Y, mom has always been at work. Generation Y's attitudes on this issue are both more relaxed and also more choice-oriented than any generation before.

They are accustomed to seeing women in leadership roles and know that women can, if they choose, work full time and rear children. In many cases, their own mothers did it.

Generation Y is the first generation of unconsciously competent users of digital technology. Generation X grew up alongside the Internet. You learned to use the technology as its influence spread and as you or your contemporaries developed new applications. Generation Y woke up and the Internet was there, always on. They have never known a world that wasn't wired. Technology is ubiquitous and an essential part of how they operate day to day. Y's are not stressed by it and can be dismissive of those who struggle with it. Y's reach out openly to peers for vetted sources of information and share it with wide groups of friends and acquaintances. Unlike your tighter "tribes," Y's typically operate with broader and looser networks.

They did everything in groups, they even dated in groups. They moved in noisy little packs…they networked, they sought out mentors, they kept each other in line. They wanted to connect with everyone; they wanted the world to cuddle up with them on Friendster and Face-book. They were unfamiliar with the notion of privacy. Solitude made them…uncomfortable.

Relationships between X'ers and Y's in the workplace are mixed. Many Y's do report having strong relationships with X'er colleagues. As one said, "They can remember what it was like to start out as a professional and are more likely to offer unsolicited advice or to assist me with a problem. My higher-up supervisors tend to be too busy for such a relationship, and I tend to be more formal with them."

But many do not. As another said, "The Y finds the X'er not competent to be his boss, feels that the X'er is diffusing his enthusiasm by not appreciating his work and ideas, and thinks the X'er underestimates his capacity. These reasons may be right or wrong; but…it is high time for the X'er to realize that Y is to be treated with more respect and consideration."

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from What's Next, Gen X?: Keeping Up, Moving Ahead, and Getting the Career You Want. Copyright © 2010 Tamara Erickson; All Rights Reserved.


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