HUMAN RESOURCES Words From the Ys – Leading the demanding dot-coms

James O’Brien is Wellington-based Y. To the extent that it’s possible to stereo-type an entire generation, James is quintessential white collar Y. He and his peers have also been collectively labelled the dot-coms, echo boomers, bull market babies, twixters and millennial/millennium generation. But address and manage James as the unique individual that he is if you want to engage him in the workplace. He already has better handle on his place in the world and the direction he intends to pursue than most who will manage him.
While debate continues over the exact composition of demographic groups, most people hold the Ys to have hatched within the baby bulge between 1979 and 1994. O’Brien entered the world in 1980, high school in 1994, university in 1999 and his first full-time employment in 2003.
It’s said that people resemble their times more than they resemble their parents. O’Brien and his peers have by necessity embraced constant change and adaptability as way of life. They spent their formative years surrounded by instability, seeing their parents coping with the impact of redundancy and downsizing.
Back when generation X entered the workforce, its members brought new level of individuality and independence to the workplace, taking more responsibility for steering their own career paths than those before. Managers had to work hard to keep employees engaged and many workplaces found the going tough, losing Xers on regular basis to their competitors.
Now, Ys are striding further along that path to independence. Technologically savvy and well educated, they are entering the workforce at time of worldwide economic growth and stability. O’Brien left university with double-major degree and post-graduate diploma. The world is his oyster. His choices are endless and he knows it.
Gen Yers don’t want balance in their lives, they insist on it. This does not mean they are lazy. They will put in extra time for worthy and necessary cause as an exception but not as the rule. Trish Fleetwood, careers adviser at Massey University’s Albany campus, sees students turn down jobs that would have involved considerable extra travel time. For this generation, lifestyle – in the past, often distant second best to the demands of employment – is the currency by which they live.
“It is extremely important to separate work and play,” says O’Brien. “Problem is, some of us have champagne tastes on beer budget. Our work needs to finance our lifestyles. There are times when work does require more commitment and that comes with the territory but to save myself from heart attack at 35 I make an effort to make the most of my free time.”
That’s not to diminish Ys’ drive for career success and security. As O’Brien says, while he currently puts work first, “these are the foundation years to my future so [I] want to build that well and establish myself in the field”.
For managers of Y employees, the key is not to abuse this concession. “I know of people [other Ys] who spend their nights and weekends at the office because they were handed work to be completed within unrealistic timeframes… ” says O’Brien. “I will work hard for something that will reward me either financially or with personal satisfaction but I will not tolerate being bullied into doing extra for someone else’s benefit.”
Employment flexibility – both in terms of time and place – is one way to support Ys’ need for balanced lifestyle. Indeed, it’s fair to say that employees of all generations are increasingly demanding flexible work practices. In Work Foundation study “Changing demographics” (UK, 2005) over 90 percent of respondents said they believed employers should invest money in changing working practices. Employers were correctly recognised as having the power to determine an organisation’s culture and how this supported workers to work flexibly and balance their work and other responsibilities. The Ys were more likely to want to work flexibly at the start of their careers, presumably to enable them to enjoy their lifestyles before life’s commitments encroached on them.
An earlier Work Foundation study “Great expectations: understanding the motivation of young workers” (UK, 2003/04) had found that today’s businesses are increasingly looking for younger workers to possess business and commercial awareness, project management, team working and communication skills. Such skills are already partially developed in many Ys who are often natural goal setters, in many instances starting to plan their futures – in their language their ‘destinies’ – years before their first job interview.
Fleetwood sees university students envisioning jobs that will allow them to achieve success, with strong preferences for vocations that will enable them to satisfy their passions. O’Brien has been at his first full-time workplace for just two years but is already thinking 10 to 20 years out. “I want to do what I can today, to help me tomorrow.”
Growing up during booming economy where information is available instantaneously, gen Yers are often accused of demanding immediate reward and gratification. And while many are anxious to get going with job, project or enterprise, O’Brien and many of his peers also have longer term outlook.
Both Fleetwood and Kay Ellis, senior consultant at Recruitment Solutions in Wellington, find Ys wanting to join companies that will add value to their CVs. “The glamorous industries are appealing and these often include the big companies,” says Fleetwood. ‘Gold dusting’ the CV, Ys look for organisations with reputation that will gild both them and their CV for the future.
They don’t just want to achieve, they want to be seen to achieve. Without meaning to be derogatory, Fleetwood labels the Ys the ‘look at me’ generation. O’Brien acknowledges that he wants people to notice what he’s doing and achieving – not only those in his office but also his clients and peers. As the most globally aware generation in history, Ys are natural network builders and appreciate the opportunities broad networks can provide for career progression as well as for lifestyle enhancement.
Both here and overseas, employees continue to give management the thumbs down with surveys repeatedly revealing mistrust and an absence of respect. In SEEK Intelligence “Employee satisfaction and motivation survey” (Australia, 2004) 63 percent of employees across all types of organisations surveyed said their management didn’t inspire trust. Sixty-four percent of those same respondents believed their management was not open and honest. These findings are in the context where the quality of management was also ranked as the most important factor people consider when looking for job.
Little surprise, then, that one of the biggest bugbears for Y is an employer who does not walk the talk. Fleetwood observes that this generation not only appears to have taken more responsibility for their own careers, but as group they have collectively become more ‘real’ than their predecessors. O’Brien describes companies as “just shells for people, usually with core values that they insist their employees work by… It’s the people that make the company, though. If they were bad… I would definitely leave.”
Ellis says she encounters Ys who indicate they will show respect only after they are treated with respect and adds they need “respect figure” from whom they can learn. She notes that Ys simply won’t take things at face value. They will question and refuse to accept “this is the way we’ve always done it” for an answer. The autocratic manager will blow proverbial gasket in the face of such an examination by supposed subordinate. To succeed with Ys, remaining autocrats must be retrained or replaced by more empathetic and consultative leaders.
O’Brien hopes for manager who “knows what I want to achieve and knows how to get me there. I hope for manager who can have fun and be sociable – not try hard – but then equally be professional when requi

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