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The Private Sector: Energetic Generation Y bores easily, needs coaching

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

By Joanne Sujansky

So, you finally have figured out how to manage your Generation X employees. You know all about motivating them and what makes them tick, and you have a strong work force of quality young employees. Well, don't look now, but here comes Generation Y.

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Yes, Generation Y. Another crop of young people you have to figure out. Well, hey, all young people are alike, right? Not exactly.

Age is the obvious difference between the two: Generation X consists of those born between 1965 and 1976, Generation Y between 1977 and 1994. While Generation Y has just entered the workplace, Generation X has almost become old hat.

As Generation Y makes its early impact in the workplace, these new faces are definitely showing signs of being different from their immediate generational predecessors.

As you may know, research showed Generation X was a work force raised on instant gratification, technology and independence. As a group, they took very nontraditional career paths. Generation Xers lived to hear the words, "We don't have a lot of rules here" -- they tended to be individuals who value work-life balance. They also experienced economic difficulties during the early '90s, when many took temp work, waited tables and accepted jobs outside of their area of study in college.

Their economic experiences are a root of a divide between the younger generations X and Y. Gen Xers came of age during a bleak job market. A soaring national debt, the Gulf war and a lack of opportunities shaped their world view, and many were grateful for any entry level professional work or even a fast-food job. Generation Y, however, grew up in a time of economic expansion and until recently, never experienced an economic downturn. They tend to be more optimistic than Gen Xers and expect success early in their careers.

One thing they do not seem to lack is 100 percent raw, unfocused energy. Early reports of the Generation Y representatives entering the work place have given them a new nickname: the Ritalin Generation. Generation X may have introduced multitasking to the work place, but Generation Y has perfected it. Nothing seems to hold their attention very long, and they are constantly looking for new challenges, according to "Millennials Rising," a book by Neil Howe and William Strauss.

This energy also translates into a high level of enthusiasm different from Generation X's first foray into the workplace, which actually is a source of conflict between the two generations. Howe and Strauss found that more than two-thirds of all teens had a negative view of Generation X and some view Gen X to be lazy and a bunch of whiners. On the other hand, Gen X found Gen Y to have an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

This conflict between the generations and the Gen Y "sense of entitlement" may cause managers some problems. While the idea of a young work force up for any challenge sounds great, there is a flip side to Generation Y -- they come to the work place with expectations considered laughable just 10 years ago. Many expect six-figure salaries and international travel within a year, and sometimes are reluctant to do tasks they feel are beneath them. Early signs seem to indicate the present economic slowdown has done little to curb their enthusiasm and optimism for success.

Managing Generation Y members means playing to their strengths, which includes building trust, inspiring loyalty and harnessing their energy. They need to be challenged, as many enter the "real world" work place after college with a surprising amount of professional experience. Often they overestimate their standing and abilities, and this can be a problem.

The smart managers become coaches when dealing with Generation Y. Coaching allows you to take advantage of their strengths while helping them understand their weaknesses.

Being rigorous and direct with feedback is vital, especially given Generation Y's worldbeater attitude. If they come to you wanting to tackle a huge project on their own, give them smaller goals to reach, then give them feedback and greater levels of responsibility.

Also, managers have found that Generation Y employees expect the office to adapt to them, instead of the usual expectation that new employees learn how a work place functions. At the same time, they thrive in a team-oriented environment, so motivate them by stressing how they are working with other bright, creative people.

The following tips can get the most of the Gen Y energy and avoid a management nightmare:

Offer challenging assignments -- These people get bored quickly and thrive when they feel tested.

Coach and mentor them -- Provide needed support and encouragement.

Provide state-of-the-art resources -- Gen Y workers likely have better technology in their living room, and will not be shy about letting you know it.

Provide state-of-the-art training -- Reminder, the magic is in the mix; provide online, on-the-job and classroom training.

Offer autonomy -- Give them enough leash to help them succeed without hanging themselves.

Be flexible -- Gen Y workers like to have a life outside of work.

Keep up with their pace -- Fast-paced communication is key to keep their interest.

Involve them in a partnership -- Solicit their ideas and contributions, and work with them as a team.

So watch out -- Generation Y is not just knocking on the office door -- they're kicking it in. They're wired (and wireless), enthusiastic and high-maintenance.

Quite simply, a good coaching style of management for this unique and promising generation will make the difference between a manager's dream and an office nightmare.

Joanne Sujansky, Ph.D., is chief executive officer of KEYGroup, an expansion of Training Connection, a Pittsburgh-based consulting and training services company she founded in 1980.

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