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Does Gen Y really exist?It may not be an employee’s market anymore but the way you treat your Gen Y staff today, will affect how they treat you tomorrow, when the recession’s over. As an employer, you should manage by individual, not generation.

I’d like to introduce you to Leon. He loves to party and when he parties, he parties hard. He has little—if any—loyalty to his employer. He values his friendships and relationships above anything else. If you were to get to know him, you’d consider him lazy. Those who really know him, just consider him laidback. He’s got a gorgeous 25 year-old girlfriend. Travel means the world to him. Leon is addicted to text messaging, has a profile on Facebook, and can update both of them while simultaneously chatting to a mate on Skype. Leon is 57.

He acts like a 23 year old, but that’s not because he’s desperately trying to hang on to his youth. It’s because his personality is genuinely youthful. He resents having to act old just because you are old. He relishes in savouring every day and living in the now, not the “in the now” sermons that sappy spiritual sages profess, but in his own authentic way where he is being exactly who he really is.

Gen Ys aren’t all in their 20s
Leon is not alone. I’ve delivered many Gen Y presentations around the world and I’ve lost track of the number of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who come up to me afterwards and say: “Everything that you’ve said also applies to me. I’m just like a Gen Y.”

At least they admit it. There are those who are obviously well within the Gen X category but are in denial. They’re wannabe Gen Ys simply because the stereotype fits them. I had a new mate over the other day who called himself Gen Y. “How old are you?” I asked, incredulous at the audacity of his claim. He replied to say he was 33. I proceeded to explain how he’d missed the boat by a few years.

All of this begs the bigger question: does Gen Y really exist? Or is it just a hugely successful phenomenon that has given birth to a new breed of management consultant in the same way that the Y2K conundrum conceived a new (and temporary) species of IT guru?

Does Gen Y really exist?

Let’s begin this journey with looking at a description of Generation Y. The Australian Leadership Foundation has compiled the following general characteristics. As you read through this list, think of how many of these would also apply to you personally.

  • Value ownership and individuality
  • Motivated by job variety and creativity
  • Peer groups and the internet affect career choices
  • Like having innovative and empowering managers
  • Prefer hands-on learning and a participatory communication style
  • Lead by consensus and an awareness of others’ feelings

These same characteristics are replicated by the thousands of reports, journals, and studies which aim to teach managers and business owners how to manage the under-30s in their employ, yet I bet most of the above characteristics could be used to describe you personally in the same way they applied to Leon.

Every gen wants work/life balance
All of this leads me to believe that everyone really wants the same thing. All generations want to have a good time. All generations want to have a work/life balance. All generations want to have a stimulating job. There is, however, just one small point of difference. When Gen Ys don’t get what they want, they don’t put up with it. Their tolerance threshold is extremely low. While Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are sticking it out, Gen Ys are polishing up their resumes. While Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are complaining about how bad life is, Gen Ys are already attending interviews. And while Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are thinking about long service leave, Gen Ys have resigned without another job lined up.

Of course, there are those who are saying that the current financial crisis is exactly what Gen Ys need to be put back in their place. And they’re kinda right—sort of. Yes, the tightening of the employment market means that there are fewer opportunities for Gen Ys to chuck a hissy fit and leave—but this economic contraction is not going to last forever. It might not be in 2010, but almost certainly by 2011 the talent shortages in Australia will re-emerge. Businesses will once again be rummaging for leftover employees like seagulls searching for scraps of food. And once the power pendulum ticks back in favour of the employee, employers will experience an exodus of staff. And it all comes down to this: how you treat your employees today will determine how they treat you tomorrow.

Could it be that the characteristics of the stereotypical Generation Y worker are precisely the traits that people express when they’re young? When Gen Xers emerged in the workplace, there were similar snarls. When Baby Boomers were taking over, there was uproar from their Builder elders. Now it appears it’s Gen Ys’ turn.

Impatient, sceptic and image-driven
A report was compiled in 2006 by NAS Insights, titled Gen Y: The Millennials, a section of which looked at the negative aspects of Gen Ys. These included impatience, scepticism, bluntness, expressiveness, and being image-driven. Surely these exact same words could be used to describe most people as they depart adolescence and enter adulthood.

The impatience of Baby Boomers was proven at how eagerly they wanted to send a man to the moon. The scepticism of Baby Boomers is exemplified by fact that they rejected traditional values for sexual freedom and drug experimentation. The bluntness of Baby Boomers was seen by the 42 percent who gave up on religion. The expressiveness of the Baby Boomers was evident in their fierce opposition to the Vietnam War. The image-driven mindset of the Baby Boomers was obvious in how easily they broke fashion barriers with bell-bottoms and flower adornments. Sound familiar?

So where does this all leave us? Personally, as someone who has read all the books about generational differences and spoken to thousands of managers and business owners about the topic, I’ve come to two conclusions.

Firstly, yes, there are some core attributes that define each generation. As we grow through childhood, there are influences during these formative years which shape our attitudes and perspectives on life. The lack of employment opportunities during their time means that most Baby Boomers are inherently more loyal to their bosses. The sprouting of the self-help movement has made Gen Xers more cognisant of work/life balance and personal development. The fastest pace of technological change in history has meant that Gen Ys are more capable of dealing with change in the workplace. The subtle differences certainly exist.

Don’t manage by generation
Secondly, and by far most importantly, don’t adopt a leadership style where you “manage by generation”. If a manager tried to manage Leon in the way that they’re told to manage Baby Boomers, they would fail. If a manager tried to manage me in the way they’re told to manage Gen Ys, similarly, they won’t succeed because I am unlike most Gen Ys.

The best and surest way to engage each employee is to “manage by individual,” not by generation. The most exceptional managers know that an employee’s age and demographic are irrelevant. Amazing managers know that the key to getting the best out of each employee is to find out the specific motivators that turn them on individually because it’ll differ for everyone. Brilliant managers do away with the Gen Y hype and focus instead on the personal type.

—James Adonis is an author, employee engagement expert speaker and co-founder and MD of Team Leaders (www.teamleaders.com.au). James is also a regular Dynamic Business blogger. You can check out his blog here.

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James Adonis

James Adonis

James Adonis is a leading expert on employee engagement, the author of ‘Employee Enragement: Why people hate working for you’, and the Managing Director of ‘Team Leaders’ – a company dedicated to developing and recruiting the very best Team Leaders.

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