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Managing Gen X and Gen Y

Cam Marston

Imagine this: It's Sunday afternoon and you're watching your favorite pro football team on TV. A terrific play is made as the linebacker blitzes through the offensive line and sacks the quarterback for a loss. The television stays focused on the linebacker as he gets up off the ground and (think about this, now) does what? Fifteen years ago the person that made that play would run towards his teammates and all eleven of them would come together on the field to celebrate. Today, though, that player runs AWAY from his team and celebrates alone on the field usually doing some sort of dance or pose. His actions appear to say, "I made this play! Cheer for me and me alone! The team had nothing to do with it." Do you remember when players were booed for celebrating like that? Today, that dance is standard. What's happened to today's players that make them do that? What's happened to the fans that make them cheer for this behavior?

The New Workforce

Some demographers postulate that upcoming attitudes, behaviors, and values of a generation can be predicted based on the behaviors of their highest paid athletes. The athletes are the earliest ones to reach affluence, after all, and their actions are easily visible to the masses. The linebacker dancing alone on the field is a Generation Y. He's less than 24 years old, was raised in the Eighties, and never knew a day before the remote control. And, according to the researchers, he's his own hero. He's the center of his universe. His future has nothing to do with becoming a non-descript team member. Conformity is not in his lexicon. To him, he's the one. The only one.

Four generations of workers exist in today's workplace. Each bring with them some very unique demands of what they want out of a job, what they want from the company they work for, and what they want from their boss. Assuming that an elder employee that has come out of retirement to work again and a recent high school graduate have similar expectations of their job is a serious mistake. That younger employee will typically have between ten and twelve CAREERS in his or her lifetime. And many jobs within each career. Part and partial to their own, personal job forecast is that they will be unemployed for some amount of time, whether via layoffs or through their own decision to quit a job and be unemployed while they search for their next job. Contrast that with the senior employee who, typically, had one job in a lifetime and was loyal to that employer and vice versa.

The Uniqueness of Gen X and Gen Y

Cam Marston
Cam Marston
If you're like the typical manager/boss in today's workplace you are a Baby Boomer. Parents who remember World War II and, perhaps, lived through the depression, raised you. You're proud of your strong work ethic and your evidence of your work ethic is the countless hours you work. "Only sissies work forty hours in a week," you think. You're also frustrated by the lack of work ethic you see in your under 35 year old employees. They work the minimum hours and go home. "What's wrong with them?" you ask, "And why can't I find some that know what real work is all about?"

Generations X and Y view today's workplace quite differently than the Baby Boomers and the Matures. They've lived such a different life than those that came before them and the collection of experiences they've had to date have created their work expectations. There are many differences but they can be boiled down to three different categories - demand to learn, control of time, and loyalty to the boss.

1. The Demand to Learn

"Tenure is dangerous. It's rewarded with vulnerability" is the motto of Generations X and Y. "The longer you're on the job, the more disposable you become," say these younger employees. To today's kids there is no badge of honor given for spending the majority of a career with one employer.

Contrasted with the eldest generation in the workplace (known as the Matures) who, typically, had one job in a lifetime, Generations X and Y switch jobs regularly because of the learning opportunities that come with taking new jobs. To Generations X and Y, its not how long you've worked someplace that gives you value, its what you know how to do. Who cares if you've spent fifteen years with a company if you don't know how to operate the newest and most integral technology in your industry? And more and more, companies are making decisions at lay-off time based on what employees currently know and are capable of learning rather than how long they've been in the workplace. This message is integral to the Gen X and Gen Y work experience - they know diverse knowledge leads to job security. They know diverse knowledge creates more opportunities. They know knowledge is power. When you're interviewing them for a job they're most likely listening for what they're going to learn on the job rather than what they're going to have to do.

2. Control of Time

The value of time to these generations is manifested in many different ways: the demand for flextime, working from home, balance between work and play, etc. Never before has a group of employees wanted so much influence over the hours and locations that they work. The question has arisen, "What does it matter when or where I work as long as I get my job done? Are you paying me to be here or are you paying me to get the job done?" It's a question some traditional employers are having a hard time answering. To many of them, their only response is, "Because that's the way we do it around here."

Not a real good answer. Several years ago US News and World Report predicted that Generation X would raise their children more like their grandparents did than did their parents. Integral to the behavior of their grandparents in child rearing was being present for their children. The Boomers created the latchkey households. Gen X has said they won't allow that. Though Gen X'ers will still live in two income households they've said they won't be a part of two workaholic parent households at the expense of their children. Time with the kids is too important. And that means have flexible work hours and flexible work places.

3. Loyalty to the boss

There was a time not long ago where employees were loyal to the company. Even though unhappy with the job or having a dislike for the boss, the employees stayed loyal. To Gens X and Y, those days have never existed. Their loyalty is to their boss, not the company. It is the boss, after all, who grants the opportunities to learn and who allows for the control of time. Because of these and many more, the loyalty is now extended to a person rather to an amorphous entity called "the company." Taken a step further, when a Gen X or Gen Y employee quits they don't quit the company, they quit the boss. So the question bosses need to be asking themselves if they're struggling with productivity or turnover in their Gen X or Gen Y employees is, "Am I the type of person that my employees can become loyal to?" And what are the employees looking for? A mentor. A friend. An advocate. If you feel like you're doing more parenting than managing it's because you are. The younger employees are looking for a parental figure to work for since, because of their latchkey kid upbringing, they didn't have one growing up. Becoming that person will create loyalty to you.

The Future

What can you expect as Generations X and Y age into adulthood? They'll settle down a bit but the things that are important to each generation will remain important throughout their lives. They'll still prioritize the ownership of their time and they'll still want to keep learning in order to remain a viable and valuable employee. The items that are integral to their generation will remain, just like the values of teamwork and democracy in the workplace have remained integral to the matures and baby boomers, respectively. And on the horizon looms the bulk of Generation Y. At over 80 million strong there's not much of a chance to dodge them. They're the next big workforce this nation will experience, so its best to prepare now and get familiar with what's to come because, quite simply, there's no alternative.


Cam Marston has given hundreds of presentations worldwide on Generation X and the up and coming Generation Y. He has studied the Baby Boomers, Veterans and the Silent Generation. Today he instructs audiences on what makes each generation unique, why they are the way they are, and how to make the most of those intrinsic characteristics.
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