Ready or not here they come—the new kids on the block. No, not the bubble gum, boy-band rock group of the '80s, but the new and improved next generation of workplace denizens in dire need of your welcome-to-Acme-Inc., here's how-you-do-your-job, new-hire best. Referred to variously as Generation Y, Nexters, the Internet Gen and Millennials, there is increasing evidence from generational researchers and on-the-ground reports that the newest group showing up at the personnel office is indeed as new and different a breed as the students of population, sociology and demographics have been prophesying it might be.
Economist and historian Neil Howe, co-author of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (Vintage Press, 2000), and co-founder of LifeCourse Associates, Great Falls, Va., has been studying the nuances of American generational differences for almost two decades. He sees a challenge looming for the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who by far dominate today's workplace (see chart, page 46).
"The Baby Boomers, who really never got that good at managing Xers, are going to face some noteworthy problems and some real opportunities with the arrival of the Millennials," explains Howe. Given the history of conflicts that characterized early workplace relations between Boomer and Xers (see "It's Just a Job!" Training, April 1994), it's no wonder Howe and others who specialize in generational conflict are alert to the potential for a new set of problems as the Nexters begin their working lives.
Nexters are "basically good kids," says Claire Raines, but they're showing up for work with pretty high and probably unrealistic expectations. "They see an article in the paper about this company that has a basketball court, one with a pool table and beer in the refrigerator and another one that gives you any day of the week off you want. They think that's just the way it is, and they're in for some surprises," explains Raines, a Denver consultant, and co-author of Generations At Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace (amacom, 2000).
Howe describes Nexters as extremely self-confident and sure of their competence, but because of the circumstances of their upbringing, they expect a more highly structured, "me-oriented" environment than exists in most organizations. "These kids are used to a lot of structure in their lives—chaperones, organizers, community coordinators," he says. "Their parents and teachers have always planned things out for them. They've had very little unplanned free time and aren't used to ambiguous situations and may not be very spontaneous."
As a result, says Howe, many come into the workplace expecting employers to give clear, concise directions and to have a detailed career plan complete with a timeline for raises and advancement. "Whoever is in charge is seen as 'in loco parentis' and is accountable for everything," he explains, "accountable for training, career planning and for providing a safe and risk-free work environment."
Carolyn Martin, a partner at Rainmaker Thinking, New Haven, Conn., and co-author of Managing Generation Y (hrd Press, 2001) agrees with the high expectation thesis: "They've been micro-managed by their parents and teachers all their lives and expect that in the workplace. At the same time, they don't see that as incompatible with an expectation of a $75,000 starting salary and a corner office in six months." Indeed, that attitude is already making for some surprises in training and HR departments.
A seasoned claims adjustment trainer in a well-known property casualty insurance firm—who would only speak with us anonymously—says he's astonished by his new trainees' brazenness: "We spend six months training them and after a few weeks in the field the phone calls start, 'Hey, when am I going to get promoted,' or 'Hey, when do I get training for my next job?' They act so insulted that they are going to have to do this same job for an extended period of time; that this is the job, not just some developmental field trip."
Consultants like Raines aren't surprised by the scenario. "They don't value work for work's sake," she says. "Work that isn't seen as a learning experience that leads to something better, is seen as a dead end to be avoided."
This attitude, says Howe, explains the trouble many organizations that traditionally employ teenagers and college students are having with staffing and attendance. "They say it out loud with no apologies. Jobs where you handle food or simply tote and carry aren't growth or learning opportunities and are to be avoided," Howe says. "And if they take such a job out of economic necessity they think nothing of not coming in for work if something better, meaning something they can learn from, comes up."
Rainmaker Thinking's Martin agrees that this "attitude of performance" exists, but in good trainerly fashion sees the situation itself as a learning opportunity. "Take that problem with the adjuster job as an example," she says. "The prevailing attitude of 'I've mastered it. I've proven my worth. What's next?' is an opportunity to help them stand back and look at the nuances that separate knowing the data and the procedures from being a real player in the big leagues. That's where the manager, or the trainer, can take on the role of experience enhancer, and mentor that person from tyro to master performer."
Mentoring works quite well with this group, Raines adds. "It works particularly well when a wise old Veteran is paired with a Nexter in a mentoring relationship. The Nexters kind of admire and respect the Veterans for what they have been through in life."
Not That Different?
Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking and author of Winning the Talent Wars (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), is well known for chronicling the work-life struggles of Generation X. When he turns his attention to the Nexters, he sees more similarities than differences, and he isn't convinced that the Nexters are expecting—or in need of—as much hand-holding, mentoring and coaching as some observers anticipate.
"Institutions are in a state of flux, so self-reliance and independence are more possible and more important than ever," Tulgan explains. "The Gen Y people are coming into the workplace during an unprecedented time of economic expansion. So, yes, they are more optimistic and positive than the Gen X people who fully believed they would end up financially worse off than their parents. The Xers aren't just independent, they're fiercely independent. The Gen Y people are much more relaxed and confident."
That said, Tulgan believes that Nexters are as independent and self-reliant as their Gen X predecessors, they are just more tolerant of close supervision and somewhat more accepting of the possibilities of life in a corporate—as opposed to an entrepreneurial—world.
This sense of self-directedness that Tulgan attributes to Nexters, greatly impresses Chris Rhan, a 26-year-old department chemist at Rayovac Corp., Madison, Wis. Rahn, who mentors Nexters coming into his department, was surprised by his charges' focus. "They desire a large degree of autonomy," he says. "It has worked out well to give a person a project with direction only in what we are looking for in the end result. It's nice to be able to give a person a project and not have to hold his hand."
Nor has Rhan found Nexters to be shy and retiring, observing that when they are subject to close supervision or to following established procedures they speak up. "Rather than just accepting how something is done, they ask why," he explains. "This has helped us change our processes and procedures to be more effective."
It also fits with another Tulgan observation: "Nexters want to be taken seriously, from the beginning. Don't treat me like a kid. Don't treat me like an intern. Treat me like a colleague."
If Kate Ward is any example, Nexters definitely don't lack self-direction and determination. Ward, a 22-year-old 2000 graduate from Millikin University, Decatur, Ill., went from college and a part-time bartending job to a position as an e-commerce analyst with a high-tech, logistics management start-up in El Segundo, Calif. And the pace came as quite a surprise for her. "It's basically one big balancing act," she says. "You have to learn to prioritize and stay organized. The strain is mental, physical and emotional all at once."
Just the same, Ward thinks she has mastered the art of work, and she credits her college experience with preparing her for the unexpected rigor. "If you are active at all in college you get a taste of what it's going to be like," she says. "They hand you a syllabus and schedule, and you have to learn to make some tradeoffs and some concessions to get it all done. I just applied the same thing to my work."
Is There a 'Me' in Team?
If Gen Xers are the epitome of You, Inc., an ethic that says, "To thine own self be loyal—all others take a number," the Nexters seem to exude a collaborative "leave no one behind" attitude.
"The team is very important to this group," observes Howe. "Millennials are used to being organized as teams to get things done and being evaluated as a unit, getting a group grade for a project or assignment."
Raines agrees with this assessment adding, "They've been trained to think inclusively and collaboratively—and to be sure everyone is involved and that everyone does their part."
There are several important implications to the collaborative impulse. Howe believes organizations are going to have to revisit the ways people are evaluated and paid—and take care in singling individuals out for special treatment. "Millennials really resent the way Xers wheedle special little perks and deals out of the company," he says. "They don't mind the idea of being evaluated, and paid, as a group. They prefer standardization to predatory competition among colleagues. They don't think it's fair."
However, that impulse for fairness can have some unexpected side effects. Don't be surprised if you hear from a disappointed employee's parent. In fact, several of our experts report such occurrences. Raines recounts: "The parents seem to see it as no different than challenging a bad grade in school. A supervisor in a Florida hotel I was working with hears from the parents of 18- and 19-year-old employees when they think they aren't being treated fairly or didn't like something in a performance review."
Of that peculiarity, Howe obs-erves, "The parents are Baby Boomers and their kids are perfect, aren't they?"
That idea of fairness or fair play in the workplace is a top priority for Nexters. Seeing peers treated better—or worse—than they themselves are treated will put them on edge. "They are very uncomfortable when they see someone violating the ethical conduct code. In school, they learned to avoid cheaters and shirkers, and they believe rules are rules. They expect bosses to enforce them and not bend them," says Howe.
That collaborative nature can be a little unsettling particularly to Boomers who are used to a clearly defined job focus. Nexters expect to be hooked up with colleagues on the intranet and Internet, and to be in constant contact via computer and cell phone. And collaboration assumes communication—lots of communication, says Howe. "They expect to be in constant communication with their extended network. The cell phone and beeper are natural appendages to the body. And they are as likely to be calling Mom as a colleague."
Contrary to popular opinion, Nexters don't live on the Internet; they just consider it another communication medium. In fact, Nexters spend just 13 hours of free time a month on the Internet, according to a study by Nielsen Media Research, New York. Furthermore, Nexters' "TV-time to Web-time is about 7 to 1, in favor of television," according to Frank Gregorsky, publisher and editor of the "Love Those Millennials" newsletter.
Enthusiasm for Learning
Nexters are surprisingly sensitive to, and enthusiastic about, situations and assignments they deem as learning opportunities. Rayovac's Rahn says, "Opportunity for growth and learning, the ability to be innovative in their job and the chance to work on developing new systems and processes seem very attractive to them. Salary and wages seem secondary."
Both Howe and Tulgan have picked up on this enthusiasm for learning and the importance learning plays in Nexters' decision-making about the jobs they accept and what it takes to retain them. Both experts advise managing Nexters as "paid volunteers." Tulgan's advice: "You have to roll up your sleeves and really get to know them, what turns them on, what they want to develop competence in, and what motivates them. It also doesn't hurt if you are a little flexible—like letting them pick assignments from time to time, maybe bring their dog to the office and relax the dress code a little."
Ward makes it clear that the learning opportunity was a big factor when she decided to take her first job. "My No. 1 consideration was the people," she says. "I really wanted to work with people I click with. But after that, it was the amount of knowledge present. There is so much to learn and so many great people to learn from. I can really spend time developing areas that are of interest to me."
It's clear that these new kids on the block are, well, a little different from the previous generation—just as it was different from its immediate progenitors in the workplace—and it's going to take some adjusting to help them fit into the constantly evolving organizational tapestry. Oh, and if in the back of your mind you are hoping that the most recent economic turns can save you from those adjustments—just uncross those fingers. As of today, the simple facts of demographics, those same demographics that have created the generational differences of yesteryear are negating that faint hope.
Government figures reveal that government workers are reaching retirement age at double-digit pace. The average U.S. registered nurse is 46 years old. And about half of the licensed, public school teachers in America are within five years of retirement. And yet, it's still a seller's market for talent. Our challenge is to make the work-a-day world as comfortable and compatible as we can for every one of those talented, soon to be associates.
Ron Zemke is senior editor of Training. firstname.lastname@example.org