The Myth of Gen Y

So the title of this post makes the content fairly self evident. But why am I concerned about exposing the theory of Gen Y? Essentially because I think we’ve been lead to believe something which is only a half truth. A lot is being said in the sphere about how we have to prepare for and understand Generation Y. Here’s the thing, I’m not convinced.

Over the years, there have been many a workplace theory that we have meant to give due consideration to. But there are some basics which have always been true. Management has always needed to understand what makes a good leader/manager. Giving your employees a range of benefits has always been an important retention strategy. Having a corporate social responsibility strategy that you actually follow through will always provide a strong brand image.

This theory on generational differences suggests that this Generation Y is meant to be a force of change in the workplace that we cannot ignore the importance of. There’s a lot of information regarding Generation Y and what defines them, a lot of which I won’t bother going into and will assume my readership is either aware of what the theory suggests or knows how to use Google.

It’s really only over the last few months that I’ve had some niggling doubts about what is being suggested about Gen Y. I don’t believe we need to change our approach for this Gen Y. I think we’ve been dealt a red herring.

I believe that although Gen Y do present a difference in attitude to work, this is by no means unique to them. Gen X presented an equal challenge to attitudes to the Baby Boomers. Gen Y are not a special bunch. They’re approach to the work environment and their expectations about what they can achieve are perfectly in line with what they have been lead to believe.

Global economic crisis and subsequent actions aside, Gen X have laid out a very bright picture for any ambitious Gen Yers. In doing so, the playing field that is a career is now a very different beast. 2-3 years in post and people think about moving on. That’s not unique to Gen Y, that’s national commerce saying – there are a vast array of opportunities that await you, and you can cherry pick any of them. We’ll take on the best – not just Gen Y. The level of connectedness technology now offers means you can build networks like never before. That’s not something Gen Y naturally know how to utilise – they still rely on guidance from Gen X on how to do it. The information available at your fingertips means you can go forth and make yourself a knowledgeable contender in any market. Gen X have provided all that information, and are the ones who know how to manipulate it so that Gen Y can access it.

Before I follow that track too long, this isn’t a rant against Gen Y, it really isn’t. Instead it’s a rant against generational theory. I believe that in fact what we’re witnessing is the beginnings of a new way of working for everyone – and it’s all due to the advances in technology. Not the attidude changes of generations – that will be a constant every generation will have to face.

This is still a working theory but it goes something like this. Those who will be successful in the age we are in now, will be those who understand digital, how it connects to daily life, and how to make each of those interactions meangingful and beneficial for mankind. They will have an appreciation for the need to help people not only in their own country, but the world – because they either see the moral benefit of doing so, or because they can grow an ethical business that achieves this. Brands will no longer determine what messages to believe, they’ll respond to the messages they’re being given. Marketing will take on a whole new meaning – technology means you can now see someone’s Foursquare check-in and as such send them direct and relevant offers that they will respond to. Workplaces will continue to experiment and find different ways of providing a flexible working lifestyle – opportunities aplenty for fresh thinking and innovation about the way we work. Politics will continue to be faced with challenges of power and greed, and no amount of goodwill will take away this powerful draw.

I don’t believe any of that will be provided by Gen Y. Gen Y are of course important for the successful future of business and life, but they aren’t the Messiahs of the future. There may be the minority who will make unexplainable and unbelievable success. Just look at Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Three very different people of their generations, and today three of the most well known influential figures ever. Okay Gates is technically a Boomer, but he’s close enough in age to be a Gen Xer.

What I’m trying to say is, we shouldn’t be catering for Gen Y as they provide nothing new. We should be catering for a new way of interaction and engagement. I’m going to suggest some ways to think of this with some names that come to mind presently:

– Traditionalists – these are folk who are not interested in accepting change, the cynics of society who claim global warming is a myth, that social media is a fad and that green is not a feasible way of living. They’ll be used to the changes in technology and society but only because they have no choice. They won’t care about moving careers because they don’t believe in careers.
– Digital Heroes – these are folk who get and understand the best way to use all things digital. They’re acceptant of what’s changing in the world and how to adapt to that. Life is about engagement, fulfilment and positive behaviour. They will care about progression and success.
– Mavericks – these are folk who will challenge society and everyone they come into contact with. Life is about intellectual pursuits and a truly beautiful future. They won’t accept the status quo because they won’t believe that we’re truly being innovative or producing anything which pushes boundaries. Careers will be insignificant for them.

Sure I’m being no better than the generational theorists or palm reader or horoscope writer in making claims about the future and how to interact with different people, but I do believe that what I’ve described above is a more accurate and meaningful way of thinking about the way we currently work and will likely work in the coming years.

UPDATE:
I’ve seen some other posts today that resonate with my post today very strongly. It seems, this may truly be a bit of pop science which has very little research to be meaningful. The interesting thing for me is this. It seems consultancies and Gen Y advocates are just as guilty of over-generalising as the businesses that are believing the hype. Yes, the attitudinal differences between generations are vast, no this isn’t new, in fact we should be more worried about what’s going to happen with email compared to social networking tools.

Here are links to sites blogging about the same thing:

From Mervyn Dinnen on The Original Flexible Workforce

From Flipchart Fairy Tales on Millenial mumbo-jumbo

From TheHRD on Generation Y

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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