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Does Generation Y really exist or have we simply developed a convenient tag to explain a cog in the workplace wheel? Whether or not you think Generation Y is a construct, its high time you get used to their approach to project management. According to Karen Williams, Gen Y is very real and unlike any demographic group we have seen before.

There has been a great deal of publicity about Generation Y: who they are, their mindset, what they want out of life and how to keep them performing in the workforce. Of even more significance is the controversy surrounding the special treatment and conditions they seem to attract—or is that demand?

Many of the perceptions surrounding Gen Y have manifested into reality in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Gen Y now live the brand that demographers and the media have created manipulated for them. This has made many question the legitimacy of the Gen Y category, and whether it actually exists.

I believe there are definitely generational differences. Demographers make assessments based on statistical/census data, which informs them about what the generations are and how they may be defined. The challenge for project managers and employers alike is to remember that this data should only be used as a guide. While it is certainly convenient to categorise people, it is equally vital that employees are regarded for their own skills and abilities, not just their age.

Gen Y is a group unlike any other workplaces have seen before. The question is, how do we as project managers work effectively with them? Gen Y has only recently entered the workforce and project managers, like their organisational counterparts, are still wrapping their heads around this generational group. My advice is that they need to do it, and do it fast, because before long Gen Y will become our middle-management tier.

The characteristics of Gen Y
Typically, Gen Y is your twenty-something-year-old employee who is, at this point, likely be engaged as a graduate, associate or in a support role within the workplace. This demographic is tech-savvy and engaging, and reminds other generations that workplaces can, and should, be fun.
The flipside is that Gen Y has been criticised as being short on skills, demanding, impertinent and disloyal. They often appear to have a blatant disregard for, or maybe a lack of understanding of, rank and file, and tend to question tradition. Gen Y is unafraid to challenge the organisational establishment.

While this description may seem tough, older generations are responsible for the definition and shaping of Gen Y. We, Generation X and the Baby Boomers, have no one to blame but ourselves for creating Gen Y: as a society we indulged them, we relaxed the rules, we taught them that they are equals at home and at work, therefore Gen Y has every right to see the world through rose-coloured glasses. They believe they can question authority because we encouraged them to do so.
Project managers must look beyond the generalisations and, more importantly, the misconceptions about Gen Y in order to sustain their workplaces. Gen Y is an invaluable element of a successful project team. In addition to their youthful enthusiasm, they have the smarts: it is statistically likely that a team member from Gen Y has received more years of formal education than their superiors. Further, as a result of job-hopping, they have had exposure to a number of workplace environments; the challenge is to keep them engaged.

Fortunately, projects are ideally suited to the Gen Y approach to work because they offer the best of both worlds, which is the security and structure of deliverables, and the opportunity to demonstrate their creative flair. Deliverables should be determined in a clear, deliberate way with the project scope setting the direction. Give Gen Y the rules to play with and they will bring their own unique approach to any project, often with solid results.

Furthermore, there is no question that Gen Y is switched on. Given they have grown up in a world of mass social media, Gen Y has an uncanny ability to sort through the gloss to determine what is real. If your project management style is ‘all talk, no action’ you can expect Gen Y to walk. Gen Y demands their work to have meaning and deliver real, tangible benefits. They want to be associated with good stories and want to be proud of their achievements.

Getting the mix right
The project environment is a micro-organisation. Strong, healthy and successful projects are a product of the people, processes, infrastructure and culture driving their delivery. At the core, project managers need to ensure they attract and retain the right people to the right jobs, at the right time to achieve sustainable project outcomes. ‘Right people’ however does not suggest carbon copies of capability. As a rule of thumb, recruiting project teams using a best fit approach can be far more successful than just going by experience; be sure to balance your team with complimentary skill sets such as young and old, experienced and new, local and international expertise.

Gen Y can add a brilliant and dynamic dimension to any project team. The challenge for project managers is to embrace that enthusiasm and keep ahead of it. Gen Y thrives on a ‘quick win’, but they also like to have visibility of the bigger picture. Better still, they like to contribute to shaping it. This need for involvement will challenge the thinking of Gen X and Baby Boomers because from their perspective, they are the experts. I often hear from these generations that Gen Y would do well to listen instead of talk!

The number one strategy to attract and retain Gen Y to your project team is to give them a voice. Like previous generations before them, Gen Y love to feel important. The difference with Gen Y, however, is that they demand the attention. Project managers need to ask them for their thoughts, their opinions, and their feedback.

Uncertain economic times
Over the coming months, the Australian workforce will begin to realise the impact of the financial meltdown currently being endured by Western markets. The impact is expected to be severe.

Having grown up in boom times, Gen Y has never known workplace uncertainty. Stable, well-established working conditions may well become important, and the youngest of the generations can expect potential opposition from the more experienced and more capable Gen X, who will be jostling for positions within projects.

The face of project work in the short term has changed. Organisations are beginning to discard plans for future initiatives, reduce the scope and size of current pieces of work, and even shut projects down altogether. The consulting and contracting market has tightened, seemingly overnight.

For project managers fortunate enough to be continuing to drive projects, now more than ever is it important to secure strong Gen Y talent to complement your team skill sets. In the long term, businesses cannot afford to ignore Gen Y’s potential and bypass them in organisational planning.

Employers must to understand what makes Gen Y tick and actively turn these perceived negatives into positives: they’re bratty, but they’re fun, they are flighty and fabulous. They challenge the norm, and vex their elders. They have all the latest gadgets—and know how to use them. Gen Y’s skills and abilities keenly match the needs of a fast-paced, globalised world. Managers should be embracing them in order to sustain their business.

Karen Williams is principal of Message Stix (www.messagestix.com.au), a Brisbane-based organisational change management and communications consultancy.

This article was first published in the December/January 09 issue of The Project Manager, magazine of the Australian Institute of Project Management. Please visit www.aipm.com.au for more information on the Institute.

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