Why We Should Be Grateful for Gen Y
by Penelope Trunk
What's the point of baby boomers complaining about Generation Y at work? First of all, it's a cliché, because people over 40 have been complaining about "young people" since forever.
Even worse, it's a losing battle. Generation Y is huge. It's one thing for boomers to verbally squash Generation X -- that was no problem. Gen X is tiny and the baby boom was huge.
But in Generation Y, baby boomers have met their match. And in the demographic catfight of the century, Gen X aligns itself with Gen Y over baby boomers, which means that the workplace gripes boomers have about young people are going to be moot in a matter of years.
So maybe the over-40 crowd should spend less time talking about trying to "bridge the generation gap" -- which is really a euphemism for "get Gen Y to be more like us" -- and more time celebrating the great things that Generation Y brings to the workplace. Gen Y isn't going anywhere, and it's not like they're about to conform to baby boomer demands.
But before you continue reading, understand that the world doesn't actually adhere to demographer datelines: The generation you fit into is more a function of the choices you make than the year you were born. So if you want to know where you truly fit along generational lines, take this test.
And if you want to know why baby boomers should ease up on Generation Y, consider the ways that these youngest workers are making life better for everyone:
1. They won't do work that's meaningless.
These kids grew up with parents scheduling every minute of their day. They were told TV is bad and reading is good, and are more educated than any generation in history. They just spent 18 years learning to be productive with their time, so they're not going to settle for any photocopying/coffee stirring job.
But that's good, because we all want meaning in our jobs, and we all want to understand how we're contributing to the world at large. Why should anyone have to wait until retirement age to start demanding that?
These days, the workplace can be restructured so that we all do a little coffee stirring in exchange for each of us getting to do some meaningful work. And if work can be in some way meaningful for all of us, then the workplace in general will be a better place to spend our time.
2. They won't play the face-time game.
We've known forever that it isn't necessary to be in the office from 9 to 5 every day to get work done. But many of us have missed family events only to sit at a desk all day getting pretty much nothing done because of the stress of missing a family event. And there didn't used to be any option -- if you wanted a successful career, you made sure co-workers saw that you were putting in the hours.
Generation Y wants to be judged by the work they do, not the hours they put in. And what could be more fair than this? In fact, a good portion of the workforce has been requesting flextime for decades, but the requests have gone unheeded.
We have Gen Y to thank for forcing the switch, because if Gen Yers can't leave the building whenever they want, they'll walk out the door and never come back. Face the truth: Boomers weren't willing to go that far, but they sure are benefiting from it. Now they have more opportunities for flextime, too.
3. They're great team players.
If you've climbed a corporate ladder your whole career, then it's probably inconceivable to you that Gen Y doesn't care about your title. But it's true -- they don't do rank. Chances are they saw their parents get laid off in the '80s, so they know how ephemeral that special rung you stand on is and they don't want to waste time trying to get there.
Generation Y played on soccer teams where everyone participated and everyone was a winner, and they conducted playground politics like diplomats because their parents taught them that there's no hierarchy and bullies are to be taken down by everyone. And Gen Yers take these values to work -- they expect to be a part of a team. Gen Y believes that no matter how much experience an individual has, everyone plays and everyone wins.
Maybe it's annoying to you that you don't get to be team captain, or worse, the bully on the playground. But you've read the Harvard Business Review's decades of research on how essential workplace teams are and how older people have little idea how to be good team players, so relax: Gen Y is doing the teamwork for you. In fact, there's no way to work with Gen Yers except on a team. They go to the prom as a team, so they're certainly going to go to product reviews as a team.
That makes us all lucky. We don't need any McKinsey person coming to our company for $10 million a minute telling us how to promote teamwork. We can just follow Generation Y.
4. They have no patience for jerks.
Generation Y changes jobs every two years, typically because the work isn't a good fit, or the learning curve isn't steep enough, or they don't like their co-workers. And Gen Yers will disengage from a jerk before trying to get along with him or her, according to a report by Stan Smith, national director of Next Generation Initiatives at consulting firm Deloitte. They have no desire to bother with somebody they don't like.
This is really how we all should function. After all, according to research by Stanford professor Bob Sutton, the cost of putting up with a jerk in a company is about $160,000. Moreover, Harvard researcher Tiziana Casciaro found that people hate working with high-performing jerks so much that they would rather work with someone incompetent who's nice.
Nobody likes having to deal with jerks, but we've always believed it was asking too much to have a workplace full of decent people. Generation Y sets a new standard for this, and companies are having to dump jerks quickly or risk losing their ability to recruit and retain Gen Yers.
Don't Fight the Future
So let's get off our high horses and stop evaluating whether or not we like working with Generation Y. Its members have incredible leverage in the workplace right now, and they're not going anywhere.
It's time to admit that the workplace is changing and that we're lucky to have a group as optimistic and self-confident as Generation Y leading the way.