What Does Generation 'Why?' Really Want?

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Workers from Generation Y (those born between 1980 and 2000) might be comfortable texting, talking, typing, Skyping, Googling and Facebooking simultaneously—and feel anxious and disconnected when they aren’t—but they are much more than a generation of tech-heads. The youngest generation of workers seeks balance, meaning and purpose so they can live and work.

Although members of Generation Y can’t remember a time without computers, the Internet and 300 channels of cable TV, experts say the group has a number of other defining characteristics.

Claire Raines, a workforce effectiveness consultant, pioneer of generational studies and author of numerous books about generational issues, told SHRM Online that, “Generation Y values collective action. They’re goal-oriented, technologically astute, comfortable with diversity and very civic minded. The main cause of tension between Generation Y and other generations is misunderstanding. We need to get people talking about generational differences not in terms of right or wrong, but simply as differences. When we do that, we start tapping into those differences as strengths.”

Richard Harmer, a 30-year-old brand strategist who lives and works in Dallas, is one of the earliest members of Generation Y. When asked how generational differences manifest in his workplace, he recalls heated discussions with his boss over the comparative benefits of tightly produced, highly engineered media vs. organic, loosely produced media. “My generation doesn’t like smoke and mirrors or fluff,” said Harmer. “We see through complexity and falseness. We value authenticity.”

Flexibility Is Critical

Generation Y workers are less likely to be seduced by a high salary than the promise of flexible working conditions at a company that has a strong social ethic or higher purpose.

“The idea that my life starts at 5:01 p.m. is crazy,” said Harmer. “My generation values flexibility more than money because having a life outside of work is a big deal to us. We don’t want to work, we want to live. You can set machines to turn on and off at certain times, but people are different.” In his private time, Harmer mentors college graduates in work skills.

But workplace flexibility doesn’t just apply to office hours, according to Harmer. He believes that jobs need to be redesigned to allow for creative exploration and contribution. “I don’t believe this is just a Generation Y issue,” said Harmer. “Many talented people are stuck in set work roles, kept in place by irrelevant policies. They never get to experience their full potential.”

Raines agrees: “Generation Y workers are put off by dictatorial leaders, controlling systems and strict hierarchies of command. ‘Do it because I said so’ is often the fallback management model, but it’ll be less accepted by Gen Y than earlier generations,” she said. “Gen Y responds to learning, feedback, mentoring, talking about their potential. Let them use their technology to get their work done and allow them to customize their workspace.”

The Psychology of Generation Y

Understanding what makes a generation tick requires a look at the cultural context in which they grew up. According to Nicole Lipkin, a business psychologist, consultant and co-author of Y in the Workplace: Managing the ‘Me First’ Generation (Career Press, 2009), “There are a couple of key influences that affected Generation Y. First, parenting changed. It was the first time that children were generally encouraged to be seen and heard and to be decision-makers,” she told SHRM Online. “They were also told that everyone was a winner [and] that each of them could change the world and be anything they wanted to be. As a result, this is a generation with very high expectations.”

“Every generation also has an ‘end of the world’ feeling,” continued Lipkin. “During the formative years of Generation Y, we had the Columbine shootings and messages of environmental decline. And then, during adolescence, they watched the events of Sept. 11, 2011, on live television and the Internet,” she explained. “What you now have is a generation of people who don’t want to wait until they retire at 65 to start enjoying life and seeing the world. That’s why workplace flexibility is so important to them.”

Flexibility and High Performance Cultures

Yet some suggest that increased workplace flexibility is a burgeoning hallmark of high performance cultures and not simply a predilection of young people. Netflix, the organization which revolutionized the movie rental business, believes that flexibility, trust and autonomy are essential features of their high performance culture.

As Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications at Netflix in Los Gatos, Calif., told SHRM Online: “At Netflix, we embrace a lot of the characteristic values of Generation Y, but I don’t think the approach is a generational thing. Generation Y is an attitude. It’s an entrepreneurial orientation.”

Many companies manage increasing complexity by introducing layers of rules and regulations. But Netflix has opted to move in the opposite direction for its 600 salaried employees. Their logic is that rules and regulation are the natural enemies of creativity and innovation—qualities which Netflix values higher than employee conformance and error avoidance.

The company is vigilant about attracting and retaining the most talented workers of every generation by providing a highly flexible work environment. For example, Netflix no longer mandates or tracks vacation days, while their business expense policy amounts to “do the right thing by the company.”

“Our aim is not to control our employees. We want to provide them with the context they need to over-perform and succeed,” said Swasey. “We want people who challenge the thinking and who keep asking questions. This applies to every generation, not just Gen Y.”

“What we’re witnessing is not a generational thing,” agrees Lipkin. “This is a call for change in the business mind-set. Who doesn’t want flexibility in the workplace? Who doesn’t want to understand the context for their work? Who doesn’t want better work/life balance? The only difference is that Generation Y is finally saying what every other generation has been thinking.”

She encourages companies to think more carefully about who they promote into management roles. “It’s important to balance technical competency with a leader’s people skills and emotional intelligence,” Lipkin explained. “When you’re a manager or a leader, it’s your responsibility to work with people to figure out what their expectations are. Help them get where they want to go.”

Raines agrees, “We need to freshen up our old approaches. We need to think about what changes will better serve all members of our workforce. Find out people’s goals. Help them use the system—guide them toward their goals and toward performing well.”

Kylie Hughes is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.