While old-style employers struggle to adapt to Gen Y, research says we can all get along just fine.
At a time when three distinctly defined generations are working side by side in the workforce, many companies are struggling to understand the values and thought processes of their newest employees. Gen Y, millennials, echo boomers… although the nicknames may vary, the workplace challenges and concerns are quite consistent.
As the world generally is generally evolving far faster than organizations, companies are often faced with outdated perspectives on how things “should” be done. Antiquated views clash with the free thinking of Gen Y employees, leaving many organizations scratching their heads as to how to attract and retain young talent.
However, from an academic perspective, researchers like HEC Montréal’s Anne Bourhis see light at the end of the tunnel. Bourhis is a Professor in the Department of Human Resources Management and has seen the Gen Y recruitment and selection angle rise to prominence in recent years.
“Some of the things I hear today were said about Generation X and Baby Boomers in their time,” she notes. “I think it is more a question of current generations looking at the next generation and passing judgements.”
That being said, Bourhis agrees that some of those perceptions may be partially true. The problem lies in misinterpretations. One popular myth surrounding Gen Y is that they don’t want to work hard, but Bourhis points out that they just have a different set of priorities concerning their work/life balance than older generations had.
I think it is more a question of current generations looking at the next generation and passing judgements.
“If you look at Gen Y employees in the gaming industry, for instance, you will find that many of them put in 80-hour weeks when they are close to launching a new product,” she says. “The difference is that they don’t want to work that hard all of the time. By letting Gen Y employees know that they will be rewarded by relaxed periods and time off in the future, some employers are maximizing their talent.”
Another researcher interested in the topic is Christian Vandenberghe, a Professor in HEC’s Department of Management and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Vandenberghe holds the Canada Research Chair in Management of Employee Commitment and Performance and his research focuses on commitment, attitude, leadership and relationships at work.
“Gen Y employees expect to grow and to find meaning in their jobs, while being respected by those who employ them,” he says. “They also embrace a philosophy of pursuing full, balanced lives and don’t want to invest all of their time in their work environments.”
Vandenberghe notes that Gen Y’s unprecedented access to information and communications has provided them with a much broader view of the world than previous generations held, and this has translated into a new definition of the meaning of life, including in the workforce.
“Through social media, they see everything that happens in the world and they compare things as they reflect on their own destinies,” he explains. “When everything is collectively put into perspective, their views of work become consistent with their views of how the world at large functions.”
ADDRESSING THE ISSUES
When it comes to entering the job market, many Gen Y candidates are likely to turn the tables on potential employers by asking a lot of questions themselves. Bourhis notes that such behaviour simply reflects a desire to understand their future roles.
“Doing a job a certain way, just because it is the way it is, is not enough for them,” she explains. “They want to understand how their role affects the big picture and why the employer is interested in their skills and competencies.”
Gen Y employees expect to grow and to find meaning in their jobs, while being respected by those who
Bourhis also notes that Gen Y is tagged as being both selfish and community-aware, but explains that contradiction as a need to know how personal involvement with a company will translate into results within the community.
“They want to know that they will be valued and listened to, rather than just told what to do,” she says. “They also want to hear that an employer will help them to develop their skills and grow professionally.”
Another significant factor that comes into play is that most Gen Y employees were raised in Baby Boomer households that believed in long-term employment. Gen Y kids have seen the struggles faced by their Gen X predecessors during times of economic crisis, when the rules of the game changed and people began jumping from job to job. That has left their generation with a very cynical view of “employment for life,” which they no longer believe is the path to a successful career.
As a result, Gen Y employees remain focused on growing their skills for future employability from the day they are first employed, sometimes in cocky response to feeling invincible in a job market increasingly vacated by Baby Boomers. Although many employers see this as a threat to retention, the solution often lies in understanding their motivation.
“We need to be careful when attributing a series of characteristics to generations that may not be blanket characteristics after all,” warns Denis Chênevert, a Professor in HEC Montréal’s Department of Human Resources Management and an internationally recognized researcher. “We have a tendency to forget that we were all the same at some point and, in many cases, characteristics may reflect age, rather than generational values.”
Chênevert is a member of the Academy of Management and has spent much time separating fact from fiction when researching issues that bring Gen Y into focus. He views Gen Y as a generation raised in a multicultural world that embraces many of the family values that Baby Boomers neglected. They also see themselves as being on the front line of environmental issues, and their world views have been shaped by the exceptional violence of events like 9/11 and mass school shootings.
“Their relationship with time is quite different from those of previous generations,” he explains. “It has pushed them into real-life experiences very rapidly, so they expect things to unfold quickly in all aspects of their lives.” When it comes to a career, that thinking breeds impatience in terms of moving forward, which can create conflicts with Baby Boomer managers who have climbed the ladder slowly .
Management is being confronted with these realities, and we need to see changes in the way things
HOW EMPLOYERS CAN RESPOND
While recouping the costs of hiring and training new employees who won’t stick around long enough to earn their keep is a major concern for employers, Bourhis notes that it’s time for a reality check.
“Nothing is guaranteed, so employers need to shift their focus away from trying to change the attitudes of Gen Y employees,” she stresses. “The focus should be on trying to increase the probability of retaining those employees, even if their expectations and values are different.”
Chênevert also points out that plenty of Gen Y candidates actually embody many of the well-established industry drivers of commitment, autonomy, empowerment and diversity. In 2008, Chênevert and Bourhis collaborated on an Emploi Québec report entitled Connaitre ses employés, ça rapporte! Les attentes professionnelles des jeunes de la génération Y, in which values such as more responsibility, involvement in important tasks, group tasking, working at home, flexible hours and growth potential were identified as factors in retaining Gen Y employees.
“Management is being confronted with these realities, and we need to see changes in the way things are managed,” says Chênevert. “But it is still a bit complicated in respect to traditional approaches.”
He also notes that much of Gen Y is highly educated and their new way of thinking may be well suited to the non-traditional jobs they are headed for. However, a different set of problems arises for Gen Y employees who lack education and bring those same values to the industrial world.
“Many non-specialized industries are having problems because Gen Y is a multi-tasking generation,” he explains. “Labouring all day on a single task leaves too much time for them to be distracted by other things.”
LOYALTY AND COMMITMENT
When it comes to loyalty, Christian Vandenberghe admits that he has learned through his own research that it is far more difficult to earn the loyalty and commitment of Gen Y employees.
“Many have been raised in a way where they have had to be self-reliant,” he says. “They see no employer taking responsibility for their careers over the long term, so they have learned that they must take care of themselves.”
As a result, Gen Y employees do not easily commit to a company, given that they may need to move on in a year. That viewpoint differs significantly from 25 years ago, when Baby Boomers entered a company like a religion. While many potential employers view today’s attitude as lacking loyalty, Vandenberghe notes that it is more a case of shifting loyalty from an organization to its closest managers.
“Employers can do their part by focusing on proximate relationships between middle managers and their employees, because those human relationships are stronger and make more sense to them,” he explains. “Proximate leadership can show them how they are moving forward and upgrading their skills through new assignments, working with new people and networking.”
Bourhis adds that Gen Y members will also not respect authority for authority’s sake, but rather will support competency and leadership. Note that words without action can lead to conflict between employees and middle management, however.
“If employers see a high turnover rate among young employees, instead of blaming Gen Y for not being loyal, they should look at middle management,” says Bourhis. “Sometimes older managers are intimidated by Gen Y’s tech savvy, but employers should stress the benefit of engaging managers in a two-way learning process that can lead to things being done viably and more quickly.”
CHANGING THE WORLD
While organizations scramble to keep up with the times, Gen Y continues to infuse the workforce with creativity and innovation. They are less conformist and bring a broader view to the table.
“Their creativity breeds innovation, and I think the world needs more of that from business if you look at the economy,” says Chênevert.
“It has become an important issue in human resources, and managers are being schooled in Gen Y values and expectations through intergenerational training courses increasingly offered by professional orders.”
And that intergenerational focus may be the key to resolving workforce issues that many have been attributing to Gen Y, spurred by the realization that some of the topics under discussion may be linked to a simple changing of the guard.
“Baby Boomers were probably talked about in similar terms by their fathers’ generation,” notes Bourhis. “Our research is now refocusing on ways to avoid and mediate conflict in diverse teams, with an emphasis on cultural, ethnic and generational differences.” ∙