From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Generation Y: Making Waves in the Workforce

Generation Y has inundated the nation’s workforce.  From all accounts, these young adults are smart, brash, willful, restless and narcissistic – hard to manage, but hard to manage without because they were bred into today’s technology. They are viewed like a special needs population, not ordinary young adults on the first rung of the occupational ladder. Insight into their motivation has become a hot commodity. It matches the job market for Y members.

A research project launched in March aims to uncover their needs and expectations, insight seen as vital for employers eager to recruit, retain and manage them.  

The project named OXYGENZ was launched by real estate and facilities management company Johnson Controls. In an online survey it will investigate how, where and when young people wish to work.

At, survey participants will be able to build a profile of their ideal workplace that they can share with friends and other survey respondents around the world.

Expert opinion about Gen Y to date has left little unsaid. Y member are often called upon to state what they want, but much of the opinion is based on supposition – with older generations talking about young working adults in the third person. Observations almost invariably start with, “They need …”

With the idea that this is the time for more insight based on “I  want, … ”, the survey asks participants about their individual preferences for design, technology and location in the workplace. The survey was developed by the Global Workplace Solutions of Johnson Controls in partnership with Haworth, a designer and manufacturer of adaptable workspaces.

Answers from surveys like these could be money in the bank for companies that outfit the Gen Y workplace, so it isn’t surprising that furniture designer and manufacturer Steelcase Inc. has also spent money on Y research.

A Pew Research Center poll, published in USA Today in January 2007, traveled over ground similar to the OXYGENZ survey.

Market pressure drives the quest for insight, according to Guy Holden, Vice President and General Manager of Johnson’s Global WorkPlace Solutions. “For the first time ever, four generations are working side by side,” he explained. “As the baby boomers of the 1950’s start to retire, businesses are facing a fundamental shortfall in talent.  Providing a stimulating working environment is going to be a key factor in the war for future talent. The knowledge gained from the survey will play an important role in helping us advise our clients on preparing their workplaces to attract Generation Y and support their long-term business success.”

The survey results, due in the Autumn of 2008, will fall on receptive ears because of that market pressure. Business Week reported in May 2005 – and there is no reason to suppose the situation has changed since – that companies are finding it harder to hire and retain younger people, and applications at business schools are plunging. It said the problem is “causing hand-wringing among top executives at corporations and creating worry lines in the foreheads of deans at business schools.” 

A recent report in Defense AT&L Magazine, published by the United States Department of Defense,  bares the US Navy’s eagerness to fill its ranks with Y members. It describes the young adults as the “hottest commodities on the job market.” Much of the article praises characteristics that feed the demand.

NASA is another employer eager for Gen Y recruits. George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space advocacy group, worried aloud for NASA during discussions at the 3rd Space Exploration Conference and Exhibit in Washington DC in February: "As we embark on … a two decades or more program, will the younger generation both support this as we go forward … and will the workers be there to carry that program out over the coming years?"

The members of Y represent the space agency’s intake of inventors, scientists and astronauts for exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond, according to an article published in March in the Space News Business Report. But it seems the generation isn’t much interested in Space.  Dittmar Associates Inc. of Houston has carried out field research, surveys and polls to assess public perceptions of NASA and its exploration aims. They found that Y is “fairly disengaged from the space program and does not view it as part of what they do,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, the company’s president and chief executive officer, told Space News. She explained that Y “lives on the Internet where geographical boundaries have no meaning. Therefore, why should that distance between here and the Moon have any meaning? It’s just another place."

There are other distinctive traits. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics dissected them at length in "The Millennials: Americans Born 1977 to 1994." 

Much-quoted Y expert Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, describes Y as “the most narcissistic generation to date, a group of ‘uber-stroked kids’ who, as adults, are demanding from their employers the same supervision and self-esteem building their parents gave them.”

"They’re like Generation X on steroids," he told USA Today. "They walk in with high expectations for themselves, their employer, their boss.  Tulgan, who co-authored “Managing Generation Y” with Carolyn Martin, leads training sessions at companies on how to prepare for and retain Y. 

He notes that Y thrives on change.  Its members don’t expect to stay in a job, or even a career, for too long — they’ve seen the scandals that imploded Enron and Arthur Andersen, and they’re skeptical when it comes to such concepts as employee loyalty. And Tulgan says they don’t like to stay too long on any one assignment.

He describes Y members as a generation of multitaskers that can juggle e-mail on their BlackBerrys while talking on cellphones and trawling online. And they believe in their own self worth and value enough that they’re not shy about trying to change the companies they work for. 

An observation that turns up frequently is that the moment Y members get bored at work, they’re out the door for something fresh. "Their loyalty is to themselves, not to any company," explains Stephen Thomas, vice president of Nation Hire, a California staffing company. Thomas coaches employers to think from the Generation Y perspective.

Author Tulgan and other Y experts see the want of loyalty as a reflection of the times. Routine corporate downsizing and restructing episodes of the last decade have left their mark on Y. The generation doesn’t expect job security and or loyalty from employers.

“Rude” appears in one form or another in many descriptions. Michele Himmelberg of the Orange County Register reported in May 2007 that Y members have been driving some college professors mad, and are now streaming into the workplace. Robert Davis, a film professor at Cal State Fullerton for 20 years, told the California newspaper that grades in his classes have been dropping, attitudes of entitlement skyrocketing and common decency disappearing. "These days,” he added, “students think nothing – nothing – of walking in and out of classrooms during lectures, answering their cells, text-messaging, eating full meals [and] chatting [during class]."

"Generation Y is much less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management still popular in much of today’s workforce," says Jordan Kaplan, an associate managerial science professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn in New York, in the USA Today article. "They’ve grown up questioning their parents, and now they’re questioning their employers. They don’t know how to shut up, which is great, but that’s aggravating to the 50-year-old manager who says, ‘Do it, and do it now.’"

Professor Davis’ comment is a reminder that managing Y in the workplace can be as challenging as recruitment and retention.

Praise of Y in the AT&L Magazine article reveals some of the attractions of Y for the Navy, but it doesn’t minimize the challenges: "When Generation Y made their initial foray in the workforce, their positive reputation was built early because employers loved their energy, drive, and skills.  However, many managers were a little taken aback by what they perceived as a short attention span and reluctance to perform tasks that lacked depth. And the article observes that “managers and employers are having an extremely difficult time understanding how to incorporate [Gen Y] into the work environment.”

Eric Chester, a former teacher turned Y expert, observed at an annual Best Practices conference in Florida in 2003 that “young folks with tattoos and body piercings dense enough to resemble a walking tackle box” are pouring into the work force.  Quoted in an article in the Seattle Intelligencer newspaper in December 2003, he said, “Those kids from the late 1960s and 1970s now pushing into their 30s seemed different enough from their parents, but Generation Y …  may as well have landed here from Mars.”

The observation begs the question of why so much effort is being applied to understanding and accommodating the needs of what seems to be a high-maintenance and rude alien species.

The expert consensus is that techno-savvy gives the generation its appeal to employers. Chester characterizes Y as “ the most technology-fluent, multitasking, adaptable and team-oriented group of workers in U.S. history.”

A report from WBUR radio station in Boston that aired in May 2007, "Generation Y at Work," observes that some managers don’t know what to do with Y, but others managers say the generation "may end up the highest-performing workforce in history.”

The Defense AT&L article outlines other attractions of Y, lauding the generation for its “optimism, education, collaborative ability, open-mindedness and drive.” It notes that Y is more affluent, more technologically savvy, better educated and more ethnically diverse than any previous generation. “They’re always looking to develop new skills and embrace a challenge. They strive for success, and therefore measure that success in terms of what they’ve learned and the skills they’ve developed from each experience.”

All indications are that wide success at recruiting, retaining and capitalizing on the innate potential of Gen Y – while coping with its characteristic liabilities – will have a significant impact on the workplace.

“How they behave on the job will produce mightier waves than the prior generation, X, because of sheer size,” explains reporter Himmelberg. “Gen Y makes up 20 percent of the U.S. population, and it supplies a labor pool that soon will grow old and thin as 78 million boomers begin to retire.” 

The USA Today article notes that understanding Generation Y is important not just for employers. “Older workers –that is, anyone over 30 – need to know how to adapt to the values and demands of their newest colleagues. Before too long, they’ll be the bosses.”

Sources: Johnson Controls; Steelcase Inc.; Seattle Intelligencer; Defense AT&L; Business Week; Space News Business Report; USA Today; Orange County Register

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-04-02.