How dramatically will Gen Y change the workplace?

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By Phyllis Weiss Haserot
This is the fifth in a series of regular columns by generational expert and internationally known consultant, coach, writer, and speaker Phyllis Weiss Haserot on intergenerational relations and navigating the challenges of the multi-generational workplace for better productivity, retention, succession planning, and business development results.

We will be debating for some time whether it's life-changing determination, a clear-eyed vision, naiveté, or the arrogance of youth: A significant number of Gen Yers are convinced they will dramatically change the world of work.

As a faithful reader and sometimes commenter on the Employee Evolution blog, I found myself following and making multiple comments on blog founder Ryan Healy's post in May 2008 (and still receiving new comments)",10 Ways Generation Y Will Change the Workplace." Well written with seemingly no doubt in his mind, Healy described the 10 workplace transformations to come from Gen Y/Millennials. They will:

1. Hold only productive meetings
2. Shorten the work day
3. Bring back the administrative assistants (to relieve Gen Y of minutia)
4. Redefine retirement (many short "retirements" along a career path)
5. Find real mentors
6. Restore respect to the HR Department
7. Promote based on emotional intelligence
8. Continue to value what our parents have to offer
9. Enjoy higher starting salaries
10. Re-invent the performance review

Each change was described in a paragraph. Some comments quickly came to my mind, particularly regarding the limited perspective. This is not surprising given Gen Y's short tenure in the workplace.

Generational DefinitionsHere are some quick definitions. Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists born 1925-1942
Baby Boomers born 1943-1962
Generation X born 1963-1978
Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998 (under age 30 today)

The post elicited a large response with comments from three generations. Below are the comments I posted.

A wonderful aspiration! You want to change the world just like the Baby Boomers - and they did. I encourage you and your generation to go for it.

At the same time, the road from today to your vision presents some substantial challenges, which are not about the older generations pushing back, but rather about business economics. A few tough questions are:

  • How do you string the off- and on-ramping you talk about (referring to Healy's description of multiple mini-retirements during a long career span) into the continuing upward career trajectory you want?
  • Who will do the routine work that Gen Yers reject? (There will always be some that can't be computerized, and some of it is necessary in order to learn enough to do the challenging, creative stuff.)
  • In a bad economy, high salaries are much harder to get, especially when you could be competing with a large cohort of Gen Yers, so how can you be sure of high salaries when you start or move? Gen X has already been through the boom and bust. No generation is immune.

Having raised just a few wrinkles, I am rooting for your generation to actually achieve a lot of positive change. I'd like to experience those changes too.

Interestingly, Ryan Healy's blogging partner Ryan Paugh wrote (June 10, 2008) a personal counterpoint two weeks later where he described the changes in his thinking after one year out of the corporate cubicle bubble",Standing at a Crossroad: Am I Still a Millennial?" He says now he is:

  • Not as idealistic - " ...let's face it, we haven't proven anything yet…and I'm pretty sure now that it's going to take a lot more work than I originally thought...a lot more than Gen Y to make change."
  • More skeptical – "...we're a lot of talk. And sometimes we believe in things without asking for proof."
  • Not as bold – "Today I think things through...My new motto: Stay cool...[so as not to] lose my leverage as a reputable voice."
  • More myself than I've ever been – " feels awesome. And at the same time, I wonder if I'm staying aligned with my generation. Do I need a reality check?"

I would say he is feeling the change that happens when the realities of life hit outside the cocoon of school, parents, and even a large employer with many perks. We face challenges and grow and learn that we are not so sure of what we absolutely know (to slightly paraphrase the King in "The King & I").

My other posted comment, which actually applies to both of the Ryans's entries, is:

We all must be careful not to stereotype any generation or any "diversity" group. It is also important to regularly remind ourselves that not everything is a generational issue or a generational attribute. Behaviors and values are formed by individual experience, personal style, the position you occupy in an organization, and life cycle issues as well as generational influences. First and foremost the people in any generation are individuals: some better than others, more or less motivated, more or less tech savvy, more or less skilled at interpersonal relations, leaders or followers, etc.

We should be encouraging everyone to aspire to be the best they can be and not have a "we" vs. "them" attitude among the generations. Let's have more inter-generational dialogue!

Please share your thoughts.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2009. All rights reserved.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over 20 years ago. A special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners. Haserot is the author of "The Rainmaking Machine" and "The Marketer's Handbook of Tips & Checklists" (both Thomson/West 2008).

See all of the articles in this series.

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