Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Motivating Generation Y...

(Pic credit: gapingvoid.com)

Generation Y, or Gen Y, are the youngsters in the workforce. It’s a bit of an Americanism (often the worst kind of business-speak anachronism) but it’s becoming common parlance, and therefore worthy of some attention.

So to break it down, here are some definitions to start with if you're not familiar with the term. First up we have the Baby Boomers, then Generation X and now Generation Y.

Born in 1981 myself (I’m 26 in a couple of weeks, 17th December if you want to send a present…) I’m in Gen Y, just! I should therefore be fully up to speed with my own generation and emotionally intelligent enough to understand my elders too, if the definitions are to be believed. There’s been a lot written on the subject and whilst some of it is accurate (common sense you might even say) some is as out of kilter as you can get, not totally surprising given that all 3 terms are seriously sweeping generalisations. I read an article today though that came to me from Reuters, via Wally Bock. It lit a bit of a creative fire in me, so I decided I’d tackle the subject myself briefly.

First up, the Reuters article.

From that we glean some useful tips. Younger workers want positive engagement. They need praise, recognition and “patting on the head”. Older workers couldn’t care less about that apparently; the boomers want “clear direction” instead. Apparently they’re “past” looking for praise.

Anecdotally this may well have some backing too. Ask around your office and see what people think (particularly any emotionally intelligent managers responsible for boomers, X-ers and Y-ers).

Yet it is clearly a simplification. Rather than just requiring ‘praise’ per se, I would argue that Gen Y are the group most likely to want to do meaningful work that adds value (sweeping generalisation and simplification in itself I know, but bear with me!) This need for ‘meaning’ can’t be fulfilled in all roles; not everyone can have a job that gives them that warm fuzzy feeling that an assuaged social conscience can. So the praise and recognition can act as a replacement for this.

Additionally, Gen Y is the teamwork generation. Y-ers are more likely than boomers or X-ers to embrace collaborative working and the possibilities that the hive mind offers. This team ethos is predicated on praise and recognition, a team can’t survive and succeed if everyone is busy working away for their own benefit and never stopping to say well done to others in the group.

So whilst the article may broadly be reporting an accurate picture of the generations, I can't help but feel it's missing a trick by not looking at why Y-ers want praise (the article seems simply to point out the trend and suggest that boomer or X-er managers should be exploiting it). My biggest problem with the article though, is the following line:

Generation Y are portrayed as self-centered and demanding in the workplace -- and it's all true

This isn’t the case to my mind. In reality Gen Y believe in endless possibilities and are inherently optimistic. This optimism could be perceived as selfish (trying to change the status quo, seemingly for their own benefit) but in actual fact it’s massively egalitarian. Gen Y wants to change the status quo for sure, but they have a bigger picture in their sights; Gen Y truly wants to change the world! There’s a guest post on Penelope’s blog that expresses this confusion a lot better than I can, so have a read of that.

As a Gen Y-er I’m naturally inclined to defend my peers, so apologies for the natural bias there. But I truly believe that the new trends in business for collaboration, transparency, trust, happiness at work, creativity, innovation, social responsibility and so on are going to define the coming years. These trends are most associated with Gen Y, but there’s plenty of X-ers and boomers who buy into them too. So in true Gen Y style, I’m keen to work with these people to make these modern methods the norm.

The Reuters article raises an interesting point, but misses the crux of things for me. Rather than pointing out differences for the sake of it why doesn't it instead highlight how the gaps in each generations skill set could be negated by co-operation. Surely the ideal team is driven by relentless Y-ers, grounded by realistic X-ers and guided by experienced (open-minded) boomers?

As the cartoon above (by the imperious X-er Hugh) attests, change isn't what you should be afraid of.

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