Be Nice to Generation Y

Business Casual
Susan Percy

Remember those annoying yellow and black “Baby On Board” signs that seemed to adorn half the cars on the road a few years ago? Well, guess what? Those “babies” are all grown up now, and many are entering — or trying to enter — the workforce. They are Generation Y, 18-24 years old, sometimes called “Millennials,” distinctly different from the old-timers, 25-34, who make up Generation X, and from those of us who are part of the fossil collection lumped into the Baby Boomer category.

Monirah Womack, who heads Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s communications practice in Atlanta, offers some help in characterizing the three workforce generations that are now existing side-by-side.

Boomers, of course, are the “all about me” generation. “Gen X-ers,” Womack says, “are different from boomers in terms of where their interests are, where they are. They are ‘all about me,’ too, but in isolation.” The Y’s? She calls them “more civic-minded,” concerned with equality, with a perspective and mindset different from the X-ers before them. “They came along at the point the tide turned and there was a great interest in protecting children, enhancing the childhood experience.”

Or, put in broader terms: “Generation X is more likely to be children of divorce, the latchkey kids. Generation Y is the ‘babies on board’ kids.”

Womack’s firm has recently released results of its “2002 People at Work Survey,” which sampled 2,600 U.S. workers on their attitudes toward work. The 18-24 group comes across as more positive in several areas than their older counterparts. Some 64 percent say they and their colleagues are able to balance work and personal lives effectively, compared to 47 percent overall; 75 percent say their manager is available when needed, compared to 56 percent overall; and 83 percent think their organization has a good reputation for customer service, compared to 65 percent overall.

But the younger workers fault their organizations in areas of cooperation and fairness. Only 30 percent think they get the cooperation they need at work, compared to 47 percent overall; and only 44 percent believe they are treated fairly, compared to 64 percent overall.

Womack says these attitudes very likely reflect the care and concern lavished on Generation Y kids as they were growing up. She’s aware that some of them find their workplace experiences to be pretty sobering. “Their uniqueness … flies in the face of their work experience. It’s hard on them not to be special. You do your work in one cubicle, don’t see the whole picture — don’t know where you fit in.

“These workers want mentoring, feedback, access, connection,” she says. “They want interesting and challenging work — now.”

They want to matter to their organizations. Sure, they are interested in fair compensation, but they are also interested in quality-of-life enhancements — tuition assistance, flexible working arrangements, opportunities for more training.

All of this has particular significance in light of an impending worker shortage, as the workplace begins to deal with the effects of a long period of low birth rates. (Apparently there weren’t as many of those “Baby On Board” signs as I remember.) “We’re going to need these people engaged, need their skills,” Womack says.

Backed by nothing as scientific as a nationwide survey, I have a theory that a lot of employers are about to miss a big fat boat. Over the last couple of years, I listened to my Generation Y daughter and her friends and classmates talk about their job-search experiences. By and large, they are a pretty realistic bunch; but, as Womack and her colleagues found out, keen on things like fairness and civility. They understand that they are competing in a tough economy. No whining on that front.

The things I hear them complain about have to do with discourtesy on the part of potential employers: failure to acknowledge a requested resume, failure to return a phone call, failure to let them know the job they were interviewed for has been offered to somebody else. Those things matter to them, as they do to most of us.

Were I to presume to lecture the employers of the world, which I’m just about to do, I’d say something like: You’d better be nice to these folks. You’re going to need them pretty soon. Better start now if you want to get them on board.

Categories: Business Casual