Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Our Digital Creation: Generation Y’s Monstrous Leap into the Workplace

Cheryl Croce

Cheryl Croce
Sr. Consultant
Veris Associates, Inc.

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“…my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…”[1]

With all of the recent news around the Millennials – Generation Y -- and their impact on the workplace, you would think they were creatures from another universe. Who are these kids, with their iPods and their Social Networks and their – gasp! – flip-flops? Why do they think everything can be solved with the click of a mouse? They think they’re heroes because they showed up and mentioned something about working ‘green?’

When I think of how seasoned professionals will ‘deal’ with Generation Y’s own theories of how work will be done and their contributions, I think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The story is about the construction of a creature from borrowed parts, and the subsequent events when it becomes part of the Doctor’s world -- whether he wants it to or not. Ultimately, the novel resonates with philosophical and moral ramifications: themes of nurture versus nature…and ambition versus social responsibility dominate readers' attention and provoke thoughtful consideration of the most sensitive issues of our time.[2]

Imagine that – all that influence from a book authored by a nineteen year old.

Generation Y, similar to Frankenstein’s monster, is our generation’s creation; and the generation before us; and the generation before them. They are the product of years of revolution and evolution. We have a choice – and a responsibility – on how we integrate our creation into the workforce. We can either fear and loathe them as they enter the workforce, or we can harness their strengths and help them through their weaknesses. In the end, the Millennials will add value to our workplace, and teach us things we didn’t know we needed to learn.

Borrowed Parts: The Genesis of Generation Y

“Every thing must have a beginning ... and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.”[3]

From Baby Boomers to Generation Y, while our music, dress and political tastes may be different, we share a lot in common. Like each passing generation, Generation Y’s genesis is embedded in the social, political and environmental elements of previous generations.

For people of the Depression Era, it was very simple: If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. Many turned to manufacturing and government relief work programs, as jobs in farming and mining were devastated by the collapse of the economy. People, young and old, had to make due with what they had, and children grew up quickly in order to survive. There were no computers to automate any of the work done at jobs or in homes.

While the Stock Market crash of 1929 defined the Depression-era workforce, World War II defined the Baby Boomer generation. A sense of patriotism and necessity drove ingenuity, resourcefulness and mass production…in many respects. The Baby Boomers are roughly 80 million strong; with a work ethic set firmly in the belief that if you work hard now, you can do the things you really want to do when you retire. While the Baby Boomers did just fine without the use of computers, one technological advancement shaped their world: Television. Just in time for this wealthy generation came a magic box that showed them exactly what they could buy, where they could travel, and what dreams they could accomplish, all in a wholesome package that cheerfully emitted the benefits of the good life.

Life wasn’t perceived to be as ‘perfect’ for Generation Jones, otherwise known as the Shadow Boomers, who were influenced by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Rock music did for the Generation Jones era what television did for the Baby Boomers: it defined and shaped their way of thinking. For them, distrust and anti-establishment eclipsed patriotism and loyalty. Entrepreneurs were borne from the skills, independence and latitude that came from higher education as it became more commonplace. Instead of being the workers, they became the higher-educated, the shapers, and the process developers. We started to see the early usage of computers and the internet.

In a March 5, 2000 article[4], CNN’s Ian Christopher McCaleb talked with Jonathan Pontell, who coined the ‘Generation Jones’ phrase, about the generation’s concerns:

"We're concerned about things like school violence. These are our kids that are in the schools everyday facing potential danger."

"Yet, we've got people blaming us for the violence. You hear things like, 'Where are the parents?'"

"The parents," he continues, "are working. Americans are working harder than ever before, despite the economic boom. We work eight weeks more per year than many Western nations."

"We want to be with our kids," he insists, unlike Boomers, who practiced "non-participatory parenting" while seeking social and financial indulgence in the '70s and '80s.

"We're interested in things like flex time, and overwhelming number of Jonesers want a more family-friendly society."

Generation X had higher education, computers, the internet, and music television that put visuals to the music that fed their souls. There were more working moms, higher divorce rates, the dot-com rise and fall, and the end of the Cold War. Generation X continued to move away from structured 9-to-5 work environments to work-life balance and wearing – gasp! – jeans into work.

The Generation Y Creature

If we look at the borrowed parts – the best parts – of previous generations, we see the true beauty (and the horror) of the Generation Y creature. Generation Y has lived with computers and the internet all of their lives. Mobile technologies bring information to their fingertips in an instant. They are connected using these technologies and social networks, making them very much globally in-tune and peer-focused. However, with information at their fingertips, they are instant gratification junkies.

Their ability to be flexible and quickly adapt to any situation gives them an advantage in ever-changing work environments. They may get something done differently and in half the time. As a result, they value their free time – and aren’t shy about telling you.

Work-life balance is not a catch-phrase to them. It’s reality.

Matt Spitko, our resident Generation Y-er and Account Manager, provides additional perspective on this point: “My generation has watched its parents work too hard their whole lives, with what reward? Sure they might have ‘decent’ retirements lined up, but what about those 30 or so years where they sacrificed much of their waking lives to work? We understand where it comes from, but are determined to not be consumed by our work the same way our parents were. The present trend of corporate cost-cutting is bound to clash with the values of Generation Y, who will end up costing corporate America more in turnover if it does not take action to keep Generation Y-ers loyal. Generation Y will gravitate toward companies with comprehensive corporate cultures with quality-of-life perks, benefits and the lot.”

While education is important, the digital age and its associated technologies have also stemmed a new language where LOL, TTYL and POS (translation: laughing out loud, talk to you later, and parents over shoulder) are all acceptable ‘English.’ You Tube and viral marketing replaces television. Despite some seemingly immature behavior, Generation Y is financially knowledgeable. Many know what 401Ks and Roth IRAs are, how to use an ATM, and how to conduct banking on-line before they reach college.

“No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence. We felt that they were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed.”[5]

Generation Y children have been placed in the forefront. Parents are strongly influenced by their children’s spending preferences. In turn, parents are making a concerted effort to be involved with their children’s lives, and to protect them. Generation Y and their parents have been witness to the Columbine and September 11, 2001 tragedies. So, parents are heavily involved in items that previous generations would have viewed as independent activities: college interviews, job interviews, and sometimes even contacting employers about perceived ‘less than satisfactory’ performance reviews.

Perhaps one of the more compelling revelations in Frankenstein was that the Doctor was more monstrous than his creation. Was the Doctor ambitious? Yes. Did the Doctor have a God-complex? Perhaps. But, his intentions were to do something that had not been done before.

Arguably, there’s a bit of the Doctor in all of us.

That’s why Generation Y’s story parallels nicely with Frankenstein. While parents certainly aren’t trying to play God, they are trying to create an Eden for their children. But, as with anything, nothing is perfect or idyllic, and for whatever reason, it comes as a shock when children rebel, or are impatient, or don’t want to respect others.

Taking the Monstrous Leap with Generation Y (It’s Not That Bad…Really!)

As tradition dictates, this newest generation is rattling the nerves of their predecessors. They are impatient; want the same respect they get from their parents, and respect social networks and peer response more than the traditional boss’s “because I said so” response.

So, how do we ensure we - as ‘doctors’ and predecessors - and they - our Generation Y creatures - survive each another in the workplace? We’ll make use of some thoughts from Mary Shelley:

1. Accept the Borrowed Parts – Old and New

“…the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.”[6]

We were assembled differently; we were influenced by different elements. Like our predecessors, we may struggle with this generation’s elemental building blocks, because they are not the ones from our childhood. Be afraid, as you may be finding yourself saying, “Well, in my day, we used to…” Like it or not, we were them once. We were the curious new younglings emerging from school into ‘real world’ employment, and wreaking havoc on the previous generation’s way of thinking and doing things.

Just as we need to see ourselves, we need to take the leap and see who the Generation Y worker is. Deloitte provides the following profile of Generation Y[7] in the workforce:

  • Work well with friends and on teams

  • Collaborative, resourceful, innovative thinkers

  • Love a challenge

  • Seek to make a difference

  • Want to produce something worthwhile

  • Desire to be a hero

  • Impatient

  • Comfortable with speed and change

  • Thrive on flexibility and space to explore

  • Partner well with mentors

  • Value guidance

  • Expect respect

We need to embrace the ‘borrowed parts.’ Examine their potential, and imagine the possibilities.

2. Value Their Enthusiasm and Off-the-Wall Ideas

“Nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose--a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.”[8]

While we know they are impatient, we also know Generation Y workers can be focused if given a purpose. See what they’re made of and give them a challenge. Give them a single point of focus. Provide the rules, and the goal you need them to accomplish, and let them go to work – in their own way. Encourage them to work with teams.

With experience comes wisdom, knowledge and a temperance that minimizes our return to bad work habits. But that sometimes prohibits us from moving forward as ‘we already tried it before and it didn’t work.’ Leverage your experience and the Generation Y’s vigor. Maybe this time, because of a slightly different bent or newer technology, it will work.

3. Don’t Treat Them As Children, Even Though You Are Old Enough To Be Their Parents

What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”[9]

Believe it or not, the Generation Y creatures you hired are adults. You hired them because they filled your work needs. You don’t need to be a POS, but you can provide them with a mentor to make sure they have a model for how to dress, how to respond to customers, and how to employ the processes in place. At the same time, you can encourage them to move from student to teacher when they accomplish goals set for them.

Eventually, what you will find is that you have a happy, productive employee who understands your environment and the customers you serve, and you have someone who is encouraging you to embrace change in the way you work. So, put down the pitchforks and the torches. The Generation Y creature isn’t as fearsome as you might have originally thought.


[1] Literary-Quotations. "Quotes from Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus By Mary Shelley." [Online] 12 May 2008.
[2] "Frankenstein: Introduction." Novels for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 12 May 2008.
[3] Notable Quotes. "Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Quotes." [Online] 12 May 2008.
[4] CNN. "Overshadowed generation prepares to steer political agenda, author claims." [Online] 12 May 2008.
[5] Literary-Quotations. "Quotes from Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus By Mary Shelley." [Online] 12 May 2008.
[6] Litquotes. "Frankenstein Quotes." [Online] 12 May 2008.
[7] Deloitte. "Who are the Millennials? a.k.a. Generation Y." [Online] 12 May 2008.
[8] Literary-Quotations. "Quotes from Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus By Mary Shelley." [Online] 12 May 2008.
[9] SparkNotes. "Frankenstein: Important Quotations Explained." [Online] 13 May 2008.

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