Gen Y — Being Prepared or Being Precocious?

Barry is a supervisor at his engineering consulting company, a veteran with twenty-five years experience who, amongst other noteworthy accomplishments, has completed three mega-projects under budget.

Recently he was given the task of mentoring three new civil engineering graduates from well-recognized universities. What Barry thought would amount to a mutually rewarding experience has instead led to thoughts of taking early retirement.

"I can't stand their constant interruptions!" Barry explodes. "They seem to want to question everything I say. When I was a rookie, I would never dream of questioning a superior. Has no one ever taught this generation what manners are?"

Mary is in charge of a staff of thirty employees in the accounting department of an import/export company. Her firm handles over five hundred transactions daily, many of which involve a multitude of products which all have differing international tariffs. In order to keep things flowing it's critical that the department maintains a minimum of twenty-five people calculating correct invoices. One of Mary's challenges is when the seasonal winter rains hit her Seattle area; as the flu-season hits, then absenteeism rises. But by far her biggest headache is coordinating everyone's vacation time.

"When I first started in this department I was twenty-three," Mary begins, "and it was pretty clear that as I was at the bottom of the totem pole, I would get the last choice of when to take vacation. I didn't get any holiday time in the months of July and August until I had been with the firm for five years. This made sense to me because others had seniority," Mary explains, while her voice betrays her growing frustration, "but with our newest employees they don't seem to respect seniority. They not only seem to think they can take their entire vacation time off in the summer months, they seem to think they can choose which particular weeks are most convenient for them. It's like they can't see anything beyond their own comfort and convenience."

Larry deals with a problem related to Mary's, except he is in charge of scheduling rotating shifts of servers for three family restaurants. Most of these employees are high school and college students who are looking for part-time work, and presumably, extra money. Displaying a spreadsheet which shows which shifts are lacking workers, it becomes obvious that he is having the most difficulty staffing Friday and Saturday nights.

"I can't understand why some of today's young people even bother applying for this kind of job in the first place," he laments. "They say they need the money and they're willing to work shifts, but when push comes to shove, they won't commit to working weekends because their social calendar is more of a priority than the work they seemed so eager to get when they were interviewed."

Rolling his eyes, Larry lets out an exasperated laugh as he elaborates on the problem, saying "Then the ones that don't make themselves available when they're needed on the weekends are the first ones to complain when I don't schedule them enough mid-week. Don't they get it? Mid-week shifts are the most popular and the easiest to fill because the pace is much slower and there's way less pressure. Being scheduled mid-week is like being given a bonus. Why reward someone who isn't doing anything to justify a reward? These kids somehow think that the company should bend over backwards to serve their needs, when they don't seem in the least bit motivated to look after the company's needs!"

All three of these managers are justified in their frustrations.

Regrettably, they are not alone and neither are their challenges isolated in nature. A new brand of employee is joining the work ranks with a much different mindset that those neophytes who preceeded them from earlier generations. Born somewhere between the mid 70's and the early 90's, these newbies are called Generation Y, but their propensity to question colleagues, senior peers and especially those in supervisory positions has led to the nickname Generation "Why".

Senior employees bemoan that this generation is harder to teach, harder to correct, and sometimes just over all harder to stomach. There are several parameters that give credence to these perceptions by older workers, and contribute to what sociologists have labeled "intergenerational angst".

What marks this generation as being different (and therefore difficult) in the eyes of their elders, is that Generation Y comes across as being impatient. Besides being seen as a generation that constantly questions those who have considerably more experience, they have distinguished themselves by exemplifying impatience in several other fashions.

Members of Gen Y don't want to wait to put in their time before they can command their weeks of vacation in the middle of the summer.

Instead, they are just as likely to quit a job that doesn't concede to their vacations requests so they can have the time off they want, then look for a new job in September. Members of this younger generation are also impatient to be recognized for their talent and potential.

Coming right out of school, they see themselves as bringing the "latest and greatest" technological knowledge to the table, so they don't understand why they can't be promoted as quickly as they think they should be, or be paid the big bucks after some short probationary period. Lastly, but most predominantly, Generation Y sees themselves as being ultra prepared to take the work world by storm. They have an unfailing confidence in themselves which has been likened to a "Super Hero Mentality". Gen Y exudes an air that they can do things better, faster and smarter than the older generations who have not been as prepared (at least, in the minds of Gen Y) with the education and computer savvy that makes Gen Y see themselves as being invincible.

Is the problem one of differing social graces, or is it more a question of different social conditioning? Its one thing to exude confidence so that one's superiors perceive you as being prepared, but it's another thing when this flashing bravado backfires and your superiors perceive you as being precocious.

Barry might have a point about his young protégés benefitting from a short course on manners, but from his pupils' perspective, they might argue that they're not being arrogant, their being inquisitive.

Mary might be justified when she complains that younger employees don't honor their seniors with their demands for prime time vacation slots, but a short course in intergenerational sociology would give her a better cognitive understanding of why these rookies don't venerate the veterans.

It has to do with the factors which influenced the personal development of Gen Y as a result of their social conditioning during their early childhood and teenage years. In particular, there have been two relatively new influences in child development that didn't exist forty years ago.

The first involves a decision by Baby Boomers parents to reverse a traditional mode of parenting which Boomers decided was both negative and archaic.

The second influence was to create a new parenting method aimed at accentuating the positive rather than negative. Believing that positive feedback would establish a healthy, nurturing environment, the new parenting method would presumably create a greater sense of self-image and self-confidence in the lives of their children.

The negative influence which Baby Boomer parents rallied against was the traditional belief that "Children should be seen and not heard" but in their parenting role reversal, Boomers didn't just permit their children to speak out and express themselves, they actively encouraged this behavior.

Whether in private or public settings, parents of Generation Y were eager to hear whatever their children were thinking or feeling. This new parenting mentality espoused a freedom of speech that was in direct conflict with the child rearing discipline of their elders. When their parents and grandparents chastised the Baby Boomers for breaching this long held child-rearing protocol, the Boomers had two trump cards that helped them dispel what they perceived to be a Victorian-era dogma.

First, there were 93 million of them born in a period of less than twenty years, creating a sociological "voice" that was hard to ignore.

Secondly, Baby Boomers were educated in colleges and universities in numbers unheard of in past generations. Influence from higher education supplanted the advice of their elders, as Boomers would argue "You've never been to college".

Accordingly, the new parenting trend with Baby Boomers was to encourage their children to speak their mind. So Gen Y did. Rather than allow their children to be conditioned to accept things at face value, many college-educated Baby Boomer parents trained their children in such a way so as to encourage their kids to explore their surroundings, ask questions, and gain their own insights. Part of this new tradition also involved allowing children the freedom to challenge conventionality, with the expectation that any convictions their children developed would be understood, rather than force-fed. This part of Gen Y's upbringing was due to their parents having also questioned conventional wisdom, such as the draft and the war in Vietnam.

On the surface, this new mentality in child-rearing represented a healthy change. By asking questions, one gains a deeper understanding. Wisdom is developed via an amalgam of knowledge and understanding, so asking probing questions for the purpose of gaining understanding was something for which Boomer parents could justifiably applaud themselves.

What has caused angst with senior employees when it comes to instructing, coaching and correcting newer employees, is that Generation Y has been conditioned to question almost everything. What is supposed to be a mechanism for gaining understanding, all too often (in the minds of supervisors and managers) comes across as a means of questioning authority. It's hard to criticize Gen Y for asking questions, but it's certainly not inappropriate to criticize disrespect.

The angst between the generations is just as much a lack of communication, as it is a lack of social tact. Both factors are attributable to a lack of training. If a Gen Y worker didn't want to appear precocious in the eyes of their senior colleagues when they believed they had a better solution for some system or protocol, they could help themselves by applying some strategic communication. Rather than saying "Here's a better way" they might be wise to preface any comments by first appealing to their senior's experience by saying "Help me to understand this".

As communication is a two-way street, senior employees can help diffuse their own frustration and this intergenerational angst by applying a bit of psychology. If experience is indeed the best teacher, then humility is the best form of presentation. When a senior employee or supervisor sees a younger worker making a mistake and corrects it, they need to bear in mind that their young co-worker may have had very little exposure to receiving personal criticism. A Gen Y subordinate may therefore have a default mode in their thinking, whereby any correction could be interpreted as an accusation that they have a character flaw. So Gen Y responds defensively. A senior employee could therefore preface their mentoring by taking a humble approach to the correction that's required, by saying "Can I show you something that I learned a while back that made this part of the job easier and typically led to me making less mistakes? This kind of approach could not be interpreted as being degrading to the younger worker, but instead, offers the junior employee an option: either listen to the correction and gain knowledge, or dismiss the value of the correction but then risk making mistakes by remaining in a state of ignorance.

Further to gaining wisdom, there is another ingredient that needs to be amalgamated into the concept that "knowledge, plus understanding, equals wisdom". The missing ingredient is experience. Regrettably for the members of Generation Y, this missing ingredient is all too often "why" they find themselves being an irritant to their elders on the job. Mastery comes from practice, and practice involves smoothing out the mistakes. The mistake that Generation Y tends to make, is that they don't see themselves as "making" mistakes. This only fuels the accusations of older employees who regard this mindset as arrogance.

We can identify the source of this prevalent belief of infallibility by watching young contestants during auditions in the hugely popular talent shows. Producers interview contestants before they face the panel of judges and each contestant boldly exclaims their confidence that they are going to be "discovered" as the latest and greatest star in the heavens. Then the audition occurs. This is where the judge's panel provides a new "experience" in the life of the young wannabe – constructive criticism. The contestant is devastated, because they don't know how to cope with correction when all they've ever heard is congratulations. Often, the panel provides some ray of hope, suggesting the contestant get further training, put in more practice, and then come and audition at a future date when they have honed their skills.

But the contestants which producers love to profile are the ones who chafe at the panel's expertise, and violently dismiss the counsel that they need experience. This kind of behavior can actually serve to enhance the sociological conditioning of television viewers from Gen Y, because they see one of their own "defending themselves" against the powers that be.

Not all viewers will share this sentiment, however, as millions of viewers are more likely to see the deeper issue; namely, the self-deception and dysfunctional arrogance of these wannabes who challenge the panel's conclusion. Having been heralded all their lives as being shining examples of near perfection, it's a pretty heavy blow to their pride to see their shining star come crashing to earth. Those who respond the most violently are really simply acting in self-preservation of their ego and self-esteem.

This shouldn't be surprising, as bolstering self-esteem was the whole purpose behind Baby Boomers encouraging this next generation to speak it's mind. It's just that without having had any feedback other than "Wow, what you're doing is amazing!" when these young would-be stars speak their minds on national television, it's more like "Wow, what you're doing is so embarrassing!". You can't blame the producers for showcasing what amounts to self-inflated, egocentric visions of grandeur, because after all, this makes for good TV. It's all about ratings. Cheer or jeer. As a society we love to cheer for winners, but as we all suffer from this condition called human nature, we just as enthusiastically jeer the losers. It's that same self-defense mechanism. We will attempt to preserve our own ego by booing the chumps because it makes us feel better about ourselves. It's just much easier to boo someone who appears arrogant or conceited.

Many members of Generation Y create their own problems by making themselves out to be experts, when they are oblivious to the lack (and the value of) experience. Senior employees who have put in their time and paid their dues can be sympathized with when they express frustration with the "new hires" who see their reflections as near perfection. Human nature is such that when arrogance meets experience, the older, more experienced workers may simply choose to let the younger members have their way. The rationale is, if Gen Y won't accept instruction and correction, then by giving them enough slack, these younger members will ultimately have enough rope to hang themselves.

So do members of Generation Y question those in authority out of precociousness, or are they merely asking questions to gain understanding? The key word is understanding. If senior workers understood how their younger peers have been sociologically conditioned, they might find themselves being more sympathetic, rather than apathetic, towards their colleagues' potential for success or failure at their new job. If Generation Y made a point of examining the sociological influences and conditioning that can help them understand why they act the way they act, then reasonably they would make some healthy alterations in their mindsets and expectations.

As they come to understand how their conditioning can be detrimental to their career advancement, Generation Y might learn to recondition their social and workplace interpersonal dynamics by asking their peers the more inclusive question "How do you do that?" rather than the more confrontational approach of asking "Why do you do that?".

Generation Y may be impatient to be recognized for their talent and potential, but if they want to be respected for the qualities they bring to the table, they have to understand that this respect comes from those who are senior to them. By posing inquiries in a way that respects experience rather than challenging authority, even a few subtle communication changes could go a long way towards fostering synergy with the Barry's, Mary's and Larry's of the workplace, rather than fuelling antagonism.

Maybe then their label would change from Generation "Why?" to Generation "How?".

In Part 2 of this series, we'll examine the second (and more positive) sociological trend which has influenced the personal development of Generation Y, explaining how this trend has created miscommunication and misunderstanding that contributed to intergenerational angst in the workforce.

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