We all know a 20-year old who crosses what we are think are inappropriate boundaries and who expects to be treated in the same way as the boss despite having only been in the company six months. Someone who comes to work with different hairstyles weekly (some of which are risky at best); who dresses in ways that would have made your grandmother faint; who wants to learn in two years what you learned in two decades and who wants you to make that happen, right?

Does it drive you nuts that the youngest entries into the workforce appear not to be able to work on their own, take initiative, accept responsibility, or spot the spelling and grammatical errors in anything you have asked them to write or proofread? Have you noticed that your Gen Y’s have an opinion on everything? They often have to leave work in the middle of something to get to another commitment. They can come across as having a sense of entitlement and maybe a little arrogant (whilst also appearing naive).

But have you ever asked them to be part of a decision-making process, or challenged them to come up with a creative solution to a specific problem? It is in spaces like this that you will see them shine. They are ambitious, they like hard work (when they can see the purpose), they are committed and loyal (in their understanding of loyalty) and engaged when they are included and treated like adults; and they like to help. After all, they have been fixing the DVD player at home since they were five.

We all know that the world is shifting on a multitude of levels, but it has always done that. What we are also aware of now is the exponential rate at which the world is changing and that is having a profound impact (but we are not always sure exactly what that impact us). This is largely driven by continuous advances in technology, which is also responsible for altering a) the speed with which the world is moving and b) globalization- shrinking the space in which we as a global village now live. This fast-paced, interconnected world is the only world Generation Y has ever known. That’s right- they have no idea there was a time when petrol stations closed or when there was literally nothing to watch on TV.

TomorrowToday’s newest offering is a follow on from the award-winning ‘Mind the Gap’ presentation which looks at four generations’ value systems for those of you who have not seen it. ‘Generation Y, Why, Whatever’ interrogates who Generation Y are, why they are that way, what impact this has had on the workplace; and what managers, leaders, decision-makers, and Human Resources practitioners (amongst others) need to redefine in order to work with them optimally.  This is not about who is right or wrong.  It is about illuminating what is and how we deal with it.

If you have been following TomorrowToday’s ezine for any length of time, you will be acutely aware that we are all about future trends and how this has brought us in to what Bill Gates termed ‘the new world of work’. This implies a new way of doing things; a new way of being or operating; a new way of selling, marketing and recruiting; a new way of managing, of communicating and interacting and creating new cultures within organizations. This new world requires new ways of thinking.  It challenges what you have always done.  It requires innovation within an organization and individuals, collaboration, lateral thinking, being open-minded; and utlising different perspectives.  It teaches that you need to be wise and humble enough to know that your view might not be the best view all the time.  This requires flexibility, resilience and stamina.

I am sure you are horribly aware, also, that whatever changes you make to differentiate yourself or the organisation- ones that you hope will put you in the ‘blue ocean’- are copied and sometimes done better by your competitors (and often those who are not even perceived to be competitors). This has resulted in an on-going need for everyone to ‘keep up’. No generation is more aware of this than Generation Y. Their whole lives have been about ‘keeping up’, staying aware, being informed, getting ahead, being the best, being told that they can, being given the choice, being included, making it fair, having what they want (or at least believing that they should have) right now. They are the result of the ‘Dream Society’ created by Baby Boomers. 

 This entirely new generation of thinkers and doers are entering the workplace now. They are a generation that will challenge the status quo and make changes to ‘what is’ like no other. Their relationship to ‘the system’ is that they have to make it better because it is not sustainable the way it is. They are a generation with opinions they are not afraid to express. They are the largest generation on earth, in terms of numbers, with an exciting and energetic outlook on life and work, which they will demand is as balanced as it is integrated.

They are a workforce who has never known a world that was not full of change, chaos, opportunity and freedom. But we all know that with freedom there comes responsibility.  Because they are also the ‘me’ generation who instinctively knows that the world is competitive and cut-throat, unpredictable and volatile, in an attempt to self-preserve, they are not always good at taking responsibility. Or perhaps this is because they are young? Maybe it is because whilst they have grown up to be hugely tolerant, they haven’t always been taught to be empathetic (and there is a difference). Or perhaps it is because they are the ‘subscribe/ unsubscribe’ generation who can ‘poke’ friends on Facebook but block you from BBM when they feel like it.

They are a generation who comfortably create identities behind avatars and have opinions they don’t have to back up because they communicate them virtually. They just have a fundamentally different understanding of what responsibility entails- but that is not to say they are not responsible.

Being the ‘digital natives’ Generation Y has never lived in a world that was not ‘on’. They have never not been connected to one another, to other cultures, to people they have never met face-to-face, to information, to choice, to change, to questions, to instability and to team work to name but a few. They are also the generation who has grown up in a democratic, egalitarian society, where at school everybody must be included which means you get a prize just for showing up. They are the children who have been given a choice around what they want for breakfast, rather than being told to be grateful for what they are about to receive. This makes them a challenge and amazing all at the same time. 

But whether you like them or not, they are a generation who naturally has a lot of the qualities that we need to utilise in order to cope with the new world of work.

Generation Y, Why, Whatever’ also unpacks some themes that have emerged from the new world of work. It is not to say that Generation Y is responsible for creating these themes because I do not think this is true. However, what I think is important to be aware of is what impact Generation Y has had, and will have, on these future trends. Below are some brief, possible explanations of these themes:

  1. Complexity: In a seemingly increasingly homogenous world, what is emerging is deep social, economic and environmental complexity. Generation Y is relatively open, flexible and adaptable to this. The question is what impact will this have on the future? How are they going to manage this? What will they need to know in order to make the world of work, work? And who are they going to ask?
  2. Globalisation: In an interconnected and interdependent world, Generation Y thinks nothing of sending their CV to somebody they have never met, in another country, who is not currently recruiting; and won’t be surprised when they get the job created for them by a company providing a service that would not have existed five years ago.  How is this going to impact your talent attraction and retention? Why would they want to work for you? And if they do, why would they stay? What attractions do you have (like personal development or mentorship programmes) in place for Generation Y?
  3. Immediacy: The instant-gratification generation does not resonate with the verb ‘to wait’. We are all familiar with the term ‘turn around time’, which seems to have taken on a life of its own in the last 20 years. For Generation Y things happen now. How will this affect the workplace in terms of protocol, hierarchies and organizational culture; and have you thought about what you are going to do about that going forward?
  4. Transparency: In the old days transparency meant receiving a memo about decisions made amongst Exco at a recent Bosberaad. For Generation Y that memo almost means deceit. Transparency is paramount for Generation Y. If it doesn’t exist in your organisation, management will be perceived as dishonest. Please note- surveys don’t equal transparency for Generation Y. So, how are your going to be transparent in the future?
  5. Collaboration: In an over-informationised world, can one only be an expert in one thing? But then, Generation Y are likely not to stick to only one area of expertise because they like choice and change. Surely this is a dilemma? As a generation familiar with teamwork, how will they work in their inter-connected, always on, reality, across borders to maximize work experience, profit and collectivism for productivity? Because they will!

The implication of the above is that there are some workplace fundamentals that need to be redefined or relearned in order for you to maximize the potential of Generation Y. This is the third cog in the wheel of this presentation. Essentially these have always been fundamentals, but Generation Y has a different interpretation of what these things mean or look like. This is one of the cornerstones of the communication and relationship breakdown in the workplace and thus one of the primary reasons why people leave (or are unproductive in) their place of work. To understand this is an imperative step to creating a successful and valuable, multi-generational work environment. Below are the fundamentals to relearn:

  • Loyalty
  • Effectiveness
  • Articulation (or communication)
  • Respect
  • Nobleness (this implies honesty, politeness, ethics, dependability)

Whatever your industry, different generations have a different perspectives on values because of their value system construct which is influenced by when a person is born. It is important to note that there is no blame, right or wrong or better than scenarios in this. The key is to learn to utlise all perspectives to enrich your working environment. So, if I use ‘effectiveness’ as an example to talk about, I would look at it like this.  Effectiveness in the workplace has always been a consideration when measuring success. If effectiveness looks different to different generations, how does one then measure somebody else’s effectiveness? For example, an effective manager through a Baby Boomer lens, is one who chairs the 7am Monday-morning face-to-face meetings consistently. Gen X’s hate this, and can’t see the point.  Will they be effective in those meetings? An effective manager through a Gen Y lens is one who is flexible about working hours and conditions, allows for people to work from home, gets on with the job and reports in when the job is done.  They are sastisfied as long as everybody is meeting their target and taking responsibility for their part in the collective goal.  See the difference? The aim is not necessarily to eradicate the Monday morning meeting, but rather to be aware that Generation Yers will have to know why the meeting is so important for them to buy in.

Now we get into communication; and that looks different too. Generation Y are complicated. There is so much duality to them which, if we are to work with them, we need to understand.

So who are generation Y? What do they want from the workplace? How can you best employ them, utlise their natural abilities, retain their interest in working with you, optimize their productivity and learn from their adaptability, curiosity and creativity? How can you share your wisdom, experience and gravitas without being intimated by what they will do with it? What are you going to do differently in terms of your recruitment, management, retention, training and mentoring, communication, work/ life balance, wellness and leadership strategies, policies, processes and decisions going forward? How well do you understand Generation Y? How well do you need to understand them? What are you doing to do about it if you don’t? Remember, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  (Mark Twain).  In order to be most effective in the new world of work, we need to utilise the diverse strengths of all our talent.

For more on ‘Generation Y, Why, Whatever’ contact [email protected]

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