Debunking the myths about Generation Y

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We all know that Generation Y-ers are revered and reviled by their employers in equal measure. But are they really so different to their parents? Virginia Matthews looks at some of the myths around Generation Y.

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1 Gen Y are excessively ambitious

What they say: “I’ve been brought up to believe that anything is possible if I work hard enough and refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.” (22-year-old office manager)

True or false? True, says Keith Dugdale, director of global recruitment at KPMG accountancy giant. “They’re like Generation X on steroids and having been coached and supported all their lives, their expectations can be enormous. They are fiercely competitive and meeting their career aspirations can be a real challenge for organisations.”

2 Gen Y isn’t prepared to put in the hours

What they say: “My parents both worked 50- to 60-hour weeks and rarely saw us kids. No job is worth that sort of sacrifice.” (25-year-old trainee architect)

True or false? False, says Jessica Pryce-Jones, chief executive officer of leadership development consultancy iOpener. “There’s no artificial barrier between work and life for GenY-ers they have a far more integrated approach. Although many of them talk about hating the long-hours’ culture, if something needs doing urgently, they will make sure it’s done – even if it is 2am.”

3 Gen Y-ers are eco-warriors who won’t even consider working for employers with a less than 100% commitment to saving the planet

What they say: “I intend to interrogate every potential employer about their environmental record and corporate social responsibility policy and I won’t be working for any firm that appears to fall short.” (20-year-old geography student.)

True or false? False, says Ron Eldridge, chief executive officer of engagement consultancy TalentDrain. “Our research among 16,000 people suggests that concern for corporate and social responsibility tends to increase, not decrease with age.”

4 Gen Y is self-absorbed and believes the corporate world owes it a living

What they say: “I find it very rude when employers don’t respond to job applications quickly. I don’t expect to wait more than a few months for my first break.” (electrical engineering graduate)

True or false? True, says Pryce-Jones. “These youngsters have grown up believing in the message of the L’Oreal ads – ‘Because I’m worth it’ – and some of them are quite shocked when they realise that the world, or their own office, doesn’t solely revolve around them.”

5 Gen Y has been over-cosseted by helicopter (always hovering around) parents and shows a distinct refusal to grow up

What they say: “My mum went to quite a few careers fairs on my behalf when I was at uni and I’m convinced that it was her original application letter that got me my present job.” (26-year-old journalist)

True or false? True, says Dugdale. “More direct parental involvement is a global phenomenon and if we want the top talent, then we as employers have to make allowances for it,” he says.

But Eldridge disagrees: “My own personal experience suggests that Gen Y-ers are extremely independent and would do anything rather than go to their parents for help all the time.”

Pryce-Jones, meanwhile, thinks Gen Y staff lack independence. “Some of my younger employees treat me like their surrogate mother,” she says. “They seem unable to sort things out for themselves and disclose far too much about their private lives when it really isn’t appropriate.”

6 Despite years of expensive education, Gen Y is illiterate.

What they say: “I consider myself fairly literate, but I was never taught how to punctuate properly.” (27-year-old local government worker)

True or false? True, says Eldridge: “Gen Y-ers use technology to overcome their innate illiteracy, but the effects are not always consistent.”

Paul Redmond, head of the careers and employability service at the University of Liverpool, agrees. “They’re among the brightest people in the country, but Gen Y-ers as a whole are unable to use written English properly.”

7 The internet is the lifeblood of Gen Y and employers that don’t provide 24/7 access to Facebook will suffer in the recruitment war

What they say: “I like contacting my friends virtually when things are quiet in the office and as long as my work doesn’t suffer, I think it’s unreasonable for employers to ban it.” (24-year-old HR executive)

True or false? True, says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. “This is the permanently connected generation and it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of top employers to make arrangements for Gen Y-ers to use social networking sites or intranets. As long as there is some give and take, there are benefits for both sides.”

“Like all firms with young employees, we discussed banning these sites in the early days,” adds Dugdale. “Nowadays, some staff are actively encouraged to set up Facebook groups.”

8 Gen Y needs constant appraisal and feedback

What they say: “I want to know where I stand and I’m not prepared to wait until my annual appraisal.” (23-year-old supermarket manager)

True or false? True says Redmond: “It may take extra time, but this generation has grown up with routine academic testing and needs to know how well they’re performing on a regular basis.”

Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s European HR director Donna Miller agrees: “We believe that informal, regular appraisal tends to work better among Gen Y-ers than allowing problems to build up,” she says.

9 Gen Y is more in tune with complex computer technology than any other generation.

What they say: “Sorting out broken laptops or setting up new satellite TV receivers comes easily to me. I’m certainly not a geek, but I find computer technology very logical and easy to understand.” (24-year-old marketing executive)

True or false? True, says Pryce-Jones. “What I love about this generation is their can-do attitude when it comes to technology. Give them any sort of techno problem to fix and they’ll do it within minutes – without ever looking at the manual.”

10 Generation Y is labour-intensive and self-obsessed, but when push comes to shove, many of them have the talent and skills that organisations continue to crave.

What they say: “I wake up every day raring to go. That may change when I’ve got a family and more commitments, but just for now, my firm is getting a great deal for its money.” (25-year-old IT consultant)

True or false? True, says Ailsa Thorpe, HR manager at Majestic Wine retail chain: “We’re always willing to consider people with experience rather than a degree, but on the whole, we believe that today’s graduates tend to be bright, sparky people who can engage with our customers and learn a terrific amount about our product in a short space of time.”

Dugdale agrees: “We believe that Generation Y has creative flair, independence of mind and enormous enthusiasm and energy. Any organisation that takes the time to get to know them will find they are extremely highly motivated and hard-working.”

Do we really need to label generations?

Ron Eldridge, chiefe executive officer of employment engagement consultancy TalentDrain, remains deeply sceptical about the supposed differences between today’s 20-somethings and their counterparts of 20 or even 40 years ago.

He argues that while generational theory “is a convenient shorthand”, it is ultimately a “scientifically baseless, though profitable tool” for the HR consultancies who peddle it.

TalentDrain’s own research among 16,000 workers – which would be refuted by many blue-chip employers and by leading academics – suggests that Gen Y-ers are essentially no more anti-multinational or even IT-oriented than their own parents once were, but simply display the age trends that have been observed over many decades.

“We hear a lot about Gen Y living through massive social change, but I would argue that exactly the same was true of Baby Boomers living through the Summer of Love in 1967,” he says.

Case study: Emma Pook

Emma Pook, 26, is manager of the Reigate branch of Majestic Wines. A graduate in food technology, she also holds an advanced certificate in wines and spirits.

“I met a lot of people at uni who felt they were entitled to a good job just because they had done a degree, but I knew I’d have to work hard. Although I don’t like doing a 50- to 55-hour week, I accept that long hours are necessary at this stage of my career.

“Eco-values and business ethics didn’t really matter to people at university what we were all far more concerned about was being able to afford somewhere decent to live and enough to pay the rent and pay back the plastic each month.

“My parents always told me they’d be there to support me emotionally, but as one of four children, I knew I’d have to stand on my own two feet financially. Nowadays, I’m grateful for that.

“If I’m in for the evening, I invariably find lots of my colleagues are on Facebook, so we usually have a competition to find out who is drinking the best bottle of wine.

“Could I live without the internet? Probably not.”

Case study: Ahsan Naqvi

Ahsan Naqvi is a 19-year-old maths and economics student at the London School of Economics. Raised in Dubai, his ambition is to work in investment banking.

“I read with interest all the stuff that is said about Generation Y and maybe some of the generalisations are true. My father tells that his generation was prepared to start off doing boring work, but me and my friends are determined to do a job that stimulates us right from day one.

“I would never do anything I didn’t believe in and if I find that investment banks are ruthless, I may think again. Money isn’t my main motivator.

“Most of my friends in Dubai will end up working for their fathers or uncles, but I’m determined not to have a free ride.

“I have a lot of trouble sleeping, so long hours won’t be a problem for me. A 50- or 60-hour week sounds awful to my friends, but for me, it’ll be a good way of getting off to sleep.”

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