Today, I spoke with Tamara J. Erickson, who completely made my day. She’s a generational expert and her latest book is on Gen-Y. The coolest thing I got out of this interview is the fact that the amount of jobs in our economy will be greater than the amount of Gen-Y’ers to fill positions, even though there are 75 million of us. This will allow us to have more recruiting power and as a result, we will be able to negotiate and get paid more. Aside from this, Tamara talks about the issues Gen-Y will face and what they (we) need to do to succeed.
Tammy, can you paint a portrait of the stereotypical Gen-Y for us?
Most Gen Ys are what I like to call “immediate” — eager to live life fully today. This trait is often interpreted by older generations as “impatient” or “unwilling to pay your dues“ but it actually relates much more to the influence of random events, such as terrorism and school violence, on Ys’ view of the world. In a random world, making sure that what you’re doing today is fulfilling, meaningful, and enjoyable just makes sense. Ys are also confident and optimistic (they’ve grew up in a consistently positive economic climate until this year and have heard positive, esteem-building messages from the adults in their lives), tolerant, and eager to learn. They’re also very family-centric.
“Ninety percent of Ys say they are very close to their parents — a huge change from Boomers (when they were teens, more than 40 percent said they’d be better off with no parents!).”
Relative to Gen-X and baby boomers, what competitive advantages and threats does Gen-Y have while they grow up and become workers?
Gen Ys have one huge advantage: without even trying, they will bring innovative ideas to the workplace, simply because many of the ways they do “things” are . . . well, different. For example, Ys rarely schedule. If two Ys want to get together, they most likely would text to ascertain each other’s coordinates — and then would home in on each other, like ships following radar. This is very different from the way corporations today operate; most activities rely on long-range plans and detailed schedules. Not every Y-way will work for every situation, but organizations that are smart enough to pay attention to the possibilities have the potential for some real innovations.
There’s also early evidence that Ys are able to perform some tasks more quickly than older employees — perhaps because they are more adept at using technology, perhaps due to comfort with multi-tasking. Many managers tell me they are struggling to come up with enough work to keep their Y employees challenged and busy.
The biggest threat to Ys is that they won’t “get” how corporations work. To Ys, many corporations feel like mysterious secret societies, full of unwritten rules. They find themselves irritating older colleagues for reasons that they don’t even fathom or, more commonly, feeling frustrated because they aren’t making the progress or having the impact they’d hoped to have. One of my key objectives in Plugged In is to help Ys figure out how organizations work — what they should expect — as well as how they can have an impact and help the organization change.
What 3 pieces of interview advice would you lend to Gen-Y?
1) Be ready to articulate a compelling reason why you want to work at that company. Nothing is more appealing than authentic enthusiasm. The reasons may include how a specific element of your previous experience can contribute to an objective or program the organization has underway (do your research in advance!) or what you want to learn from this job. The specifics are less important than simply having a logical, well-informed, and enthusiastic reason.
2) Ask (polite) questions about what it is really like to work there. Most of the complaints Ys have after six months on the job have to do with the day-to-day reality of how work gets done — excessive layers of required approvals, too many boring meetings, bureaucracy, lack of equipment, or unfriendly colleagues. Try, if possible, to meet the people that you’ll actually be working with on a day-to-day basis; they can make or break the experience. Don’t be dazzled by the company’s brand or reputation without really digging in to understand what your job will be like.
3) Leave your parents at home (and out of sight). Okay, I know most Ys don’t bring parents to the interviews — but a few do allow mom or dad to be a little more visible in the process than many managers are quite ready to accept. It’s so easy for older managers to mistake Y’s close relationship with parents and (I think) sensible tendency to rely on people who have expertise to contribute as a lack of confidence or self-sufficiency. Don’t give them any excuse to hesitate in hiring you!
After getting a job out of college, which is obviously tough in this economy, what tips would you give to Gen-Y for being successful in their first 6 months to a year?
Make sure you understand (and negotiate, as necessary) the work place norms. The four most common sources of conflict among the generations at work are:
- How members of each generation view time and place — Older colleagues often view work as a place — a location you go to at a specified time. Work used to require synchronous activity — it would be hard to run an assembly line if everyone wasn’t there at the same time — but for much of the work today it’s no longer necessary. However, older colleagues often still use adherence to time and place norms as a sign of commitment or team work and misinterpret a Y who arrives “late” or works from the local Starbucks.
- How they communicate — Ys are much more comfortable using text and social networking than members of older generation are. Older colleagues may not only be uncomfortable with digital communication, they may even feel offended by a lack of face-to-face interaction.
- How they get together — Older generations are planners and schedulers; Ys are coordinators. Boomers may be annoyed by younger team members’ seemingly ad hoc approach.
- How they find information or learn — Ys like to learn “on demand” — to figure things out as they go, reaching out to personal contacts with relevant expertise for information or referrals, as needed. Ys are likely to be bored and turned off by what an older colleague may view as a necessary training phase.
The key is not that anyone’s approach is right or wrong, but that it’s important for Ys to discuss expectations with other colleagues to make sure that there are no misunderstandings.
Gen Y will change the workforce dynamic in several ways. First, although this is a huge generation, they are fewer in number than the number of jobs the economy is likely to create over the next decade. Granted, the current slowdown is putting a dent in the near-term job market, but longer-term, the demographic trends are pretty compelling. Birth rates have fallen dramatically over the past several decades in the U.S. (and most other countries around the world), while the size of the economy has continued to grow. As the economy rebounds, it will have the capacity to create more jobs than the Gen Y’s could fill.
This phenomenon will intensify in the segment of the job market that is looking for college-educated employees; the number of jobs there will significantly outstrip the number of Y’s with college degrees.
“All of this adds up to provide workers of all ages with greater leverage — to tip the balance in the employee-employer equation toward employees, allowing individuals to negotiate arrangements that are more desirable than have been available in the past — more flexible, varied, learning-oriented, and lucrative.”
Because of this added leverage, Ys are likely to be able to bring many of their preferences — asynchronous work patterns, more frequent task rotations, even corporate objectives that include greater balance on social good — into the reality of the workplace.
Employers should begin today to create a wide variety of flexible work arrangements — project-based options, virtual work, self-scheduling, and other approaches. And, they should help managers develop confidence and skill in managing a rapidly changing workforce.
Tamara J. Erickson is both a McKinsey Award-winning author and popular and engaging storyteller. Her compelling views of the future are based on extensive research on changing demographics and employee values and, most recently, on how successful organizations work. Erickson has co-authored four Harvard Business Review articles and the books Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work and Retire Retirement: Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation. She is with nGenera .