Traditionalists, Boomers, Xers, Gen Yers, Millenials. Everyone wants to label entire generations.  It sells books and provides comfort to managers who delude themselves into thinking that they have no responsibility for their employees’ behavior – it’s a generational thing. For example, here is an excerpt from a CBS “60 Minutes” report:

They were raised by doting parents who told them they are special, played in little leagues with no winners or losers, or all winners. They are laden with trophies just for participating and they think your business-as-usual ethic is for the birds. And if you persist in the belief, you can take your job and shove it.

 

… corporate America is so unnerved by all this that companies like Merrill Lynch, Ernst & Young, Disney and scores of others are hiring consultants to teach them how to deal with this generation that only takes "yes" for an answer.

 

The workplace has become a psychological battlefield and the millennials have the upper hand, because they are tech savvy, with every gadget imaginable almost becoming an extension of their bodies. They multitask, talk, walk, listen and type, and text. And their priorities are simple: they come first.

I have a couple of problems with this characterization of 70 million people. First of all, these so-called “millenials” (born after 1980) are not much different from my generation   the post-war “boomers” (born 1946 to 1964). We were accused of being spoiled by Dr. Spock, brash, undisciplined, heavily influenced by the new technologies of the time (e.g., TV), and distrustful of anyone over 30. The truth is that all workers have basically the same needs. They want to have an identity in something bigger than themselves. They want respect for who they are and what they offer. And they want to have a sense of control over their lives. It might be comforting to lump 70 million people into a category and then think that you understand them, but it won’t help you relate to the 25 year old who is standing in front of you complaining about a work assignment. That individual might be quite different from the latest generation of young people being disparaged in the press. That individual probably needs to feel respected for what she has to offer and probably wants to be given the opportunity to be self-directed in her work. That’s the same for all of us.

The other problem I have with the Gen Y designation is that the popular descriptions fit, if they do at all, only a small and privileged segment of all people that age. The usual references are to a worker who is college-educated, highly intelligent, growing up had two parents living at home, one of whom was a “soccer mom”, had the wealth to own all of the latest technology, and currently has no pressing spouse or parental obligations. What about the rest of America? Only about a third of young men and 40% of young women get college degrees. And 10% to 15% of Americans live below the poverty line while many more are the working poor. A large percentage of young people born after 1980 did not have the kinds of values-forming experiences commonly attributed to this generation, nor did they have access to all of the latest technology. We should not assume an individual born after 1980 is anything like the descriptions in the popular press.

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