Employers always seem to be asking me, “What in the world is Gen Y thinking when they do some of the things they do at work?” As a researcher and member of Gen Y, which I define as being born from 1977 to 1995, I think it’s important to shine a spotlight on what my generation is thinking when we show up to work (and then immediately ask for a coffee break). The more employers understand Gen Y’s perspective, the easier it is to identify the strategies and actions that can transform us into high-performing, loyal employees.
Gen Y’s Top Five List for How We Think and Act at Work
1. No expectation of lifetime employment
Gen Y is the only generation in the modern workforce that has never expected to work for one employer our entire career. In practice this means that Gen Y expects to change employers throughout our lives, because it would be abnormal for us to stay with one company. This doesn’t mean Gen Y won’t or can’t stay with one employer, just that we see nothing wrong with switching employers if a job or company no longer fits us (or our sleep schedule).
Though we may not expect to be with a company for 20 years, we are willing to work extremely long hours for an employer if we feel a genuine connection to the company or its mission. At one online education company I visited, the Gen Y employees were working seven days a week, and some were taking showers in the office building in order to meet deadlines. One of the Gen Y employees told me, “That’s just what you do when your company is counting on you.”
2. A feeling of entitlement along with big expectations
The biggest complaint I get from employers of all ages — including Gen Yers who manage other Gen Yers — is that many in Gen Y feel entitled. We show up to work and act as if our boss owes us something for our presence. I know how off-putting Gen Y’s attitude can be, but before we condemn my generation as a bunch of spoiled brats (something that I find personally offensive and plan to tell my mom about) we should consider for a moment that entitlement is 100 percent a learned behavior. You are not born entitled. You have to be raised that way.
This might hit a bit close to home if your twentysomething child is still on your car insurance and carries one of your credit cards for emergency use only, which could mean a sale on cherry-flavored Pop-Tarts® at Target. In fact, many of us in Gen Y were told, “As long as you’re in college, we’ll help you out.” Seven majors and one study abroad semester later, we’re graduating with 196 credit hours and an Associate Degree — and courageously entering adulthood by returning home.
3. A hunger for instant gratification and tangible outcomes
Gen Y has come of age with almost instantaneous access to just about everything and everyone — from instant meals to instant messages. This constant immediacy has taught us to have little patience, short attention spans, and to seek ongoing progress in every aspect of our life. We hate waiting in lines at the grocery store (Can you say self checkout?) and don’t want to show our work on math problems, especially if you already told us our answer is correct. We will even walk into a fast food restaurant, see a line at the counter, and leave to go somewhere else.
However, rather than brand us as the “instant everything” generation, my research shows we are simply outcome-driven. This observation changes the conversation, because it shows we are not about having everything now, we simply don’t see — and therefore we do not appreciate — the steps involved in creating the outcomes we want. We literally do not connect the dots or consider our plans in terms of policies and procedures — that’s an older generation’s way of approaching work. Instead, all we want to know is what you want us to do. Then get out of our way so we can get it done. In the workplace, this makes us extremely project-oriented rather than job-description focused.
4. A new relationship with technology and communication
Since Gen Y grew up during the Internet boom and mobile communication revolution, technology has become an extension of ourselves. However, older generations have a big misconception when it comes to Gen Y and technology. Older generations think that Gen Y is tech savvy. This is 100 percent not true. Gen Y is not tech savvy, we are tech dependent. Important difference. We don’t know how technology works. We just know we can’t live without it.
5. A need for ongoing feedback
When it comes to employing Gen Y, if your company only gives annual reviews, then you can change the name. Call them exit interviews, because Gen Y won’t be there. We need feedback on a much more regular schedule, ideally twice a month, but don’t confuse frequency with a major time investment. We don’t want an in-depth 360-degree performance review, complete with personality assessment. Just a five-second check-in that says you notice we exist. All we need is for you to pause outside our cubicle and say, “Jordan, I saw how you helped Mrs. Booker solve the billing problem. Good job.” That’s it. Nothing more.
Turning These Gen Y Characteristics into a Competitive Advantage
As a member of Gen Y, I admit that all five of these characteristics do not initially appear as workplace strengths. However, I have seen time and again how employers have made every one of these Gen Y characteristics into a workplace advantage when Gen Y is managed correctly.
The key is to start with an understanding of our mindset, find a common ground with your company’s goals, and build on it. In fact, the breakthrough moment for many of my clients who employ Gen Y is realizing that what their Gen Y employees want in order to put forth their best effort is often less expensive and easier to give than their current employment practices. Now that is something you will want us to text our friends about — but not until our lunch break.