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The Gen Y Myth - 5 September 2016

You can safely assume anyone aged below 35 in your workplace is a member of Gen Y.  It’s also safe to assume they’re tarred with the same stereotypical brush: an infamous sense of entitlement.  It’s a common perception held among older generations who see Gen Y as entitled, especially in relation to pay, promotions, benefits, balance, job tasks, and more.

But how true is it, really?  The problem with most of the ‘research’ on Gen Y is that commercial pollsters have conducted it, which means very little of it can be trusted.  The reason why it can’t be trusted is that random polls conducted on the internet are rarely the focus of scientific rigour and, if we’re going to treat one generation differently to the others, it’s probably a good idea to make sure the information we’re relying on is, well, reliable.

Which is why two new empirical studies on Generation Y are worth heeding.  The first was led by scholars at Middlesex University Business School.  They interviewed students in the UK who were just about to enter full-time employment.  What they discovered was a “weak sense of entitlement” among the soon-to-be employees.  These school leavers were genuinely looking forward to working long hours, putting in a lot of effort, and being responsible.

The reason for those results can be summarised by one word: context.  The Gen Y stereotypes that prevail are contextually absent.  They don’t account for the diverse experiences, cultures, and values that make individuals unique.  They’re stereotypes that generalise something that may apply to some people but certainly not to most.

The second study was led by researchers at the Australian National University where the notion that Gen Ys seek instant gratification was disproven.  They were instead found to be incredibly focused on long-term development.  Also disproven was the ‘work to live’ mantra.  Far more prevalent was an inclination to work more than rest.  Likewise, doubts about their work ethic were disproven by evidence showing Gen Ys concentrate very much on process improvement, change, efficiency, performance management, and direct communication.

There are several lessons to take out of these findings:

  • First, don’t manage generations; manage individuals.  That means discovering the needs and motivators of each person rather than the needs and motivators of each age-based cohort.
  • You’ll occasionally come across Gen Ys who fit the unkind stereotype of, say, narcissism or impatience.  But if you expect the worst, you’re likely to get it.
  • Be mindful that even though ageism is most often targeted at older employees, it can also occur in reverse. 
  • Sometimes what we dislike in others is what we dislike in ourselves.  So consider whether your perception of Gen Ys exists not because there’s anything wrong with them but because they remind you of who you once were (or of who you were once prevented from being).

Generation Y?  More like Generalisation Y.


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