Will the current economy make Gen Y “get with the program?”

March 3, 2009

The discussion topic I hear a lot about Gen Y lately seems to be how they’ll react to our current economic climate.  Will they ignore it, pretend it will go away, or change their attitudes and expectations about the workplace and their role in it.  What these folks are really asking is whether this will get Gen Y’s to “grow up” and start to take work more seriously – to not view this first job as an enrichment opportunity, to recognize that their manager is their manager and not a peer, and to stay in their job even if it isn’t perfect or if they have an opportunity to “go to Europe.”  That’s what they’re really asking.

Here’s what I’m starting to see and what I expect will happen.

In short, Gen Y’s may be less choosy about the jobs they accept or the positions they stay in, but they won’t be able to outrun who they are.  They might accept a position that doesn’t offer time and place flexibility, or doesn’t pay as much as they’d like, or isn’t what they’re really interested in, or has a command and control management structure.  They’ll convince themselves that it’ll be OK and that they need to shift their expectations.  They’ll be able to do that for a while.  But, if the job and culture are not satisfying, eventually who they really are and what they really want from a job will overcome why they made the decision in the first place, and they’ll either leave or worse, just check out.

It’s not just Gen Y.  This kind of thing happens to everyone.  Below is a Gen Y example followed by my example.

Lack of Time/Place Flexibility loses a company a great hire that they’d invested in

I recently met with a former student who has started an amazing not-for-profit called Construction for Change http://www.constructionforchange.org/.  His story of the job he left went something like this. 

“I took a job in the field I wanted.  The work was interesting, I was getting great opportunities and I was learning a lot.  But they required all the work to be done on site and there was an expectation of 9 – 12 hour days.”


“Was it the kind of work that needed to happen on site and was there so much of it that it required all that time?” I asked.


“No and that’s what bugged me.  I wouldn’t have minded putting in the hours if it really needed to take that long.  But it didn’t.  And needing to be on site all the time left me with no flexibility to get other things done.  I had this not-for-profit idea that I was really excited about and needed the time to work on.  I know I could have done both effectively, but not if I had to be on site for so many hours a day.  I knew it was a tough job market.  But, after a year and a half I left that job anyway.  I now work part time for a different company and part time on my own not-for-profit.  I’m much happier and I’m building something that’s really important.”

Saying it’s OK (to your hiring manager and yourself) in an interview is easier than living it everyday

Many years ago I was being interviewed for a job I really wanted.  One of the downsides of the position was that it reported to two people.  I’d had that situation earlier in my career and never felt comfortable with it.  But I loved the company and really wanted the job, so I accepted the position and told myself that I’d learn to live with the dual reporting relationship.  Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad this time.  Well, I was right and I was wrong.  I did love the company and also loved the job I was in.  It had that perfect balance of leveraging my strengths and providing opportunities for me to grow in new directions.  But the dual reporting relationship was driving me crazy.  My performance was suffering.  I was becoming crabby and snippy to the people I was hired to support, and resenting any recommendations made by one of my managers who had now become a good friend.  It may seem petty, but I resented that I had to report to this person who I viewed more as my peer. 

Just at the frustration point where I was considering leaving, the person I considered more peer than manager announced that she was leaving.  I took on her responsibilities and continued to report to my other prior manager.  I was saved from a series of uncomfortable conversations (“You knew this was a component of the job and said that you were fine with it . . . “) or from having to decide whether it was worth leaving over.  But, the bottom line was that I knew before I took the job that it would probably bother me.  It was acceptable for a while, but I couldn’t sustain the unnatural acceptance long term.


I recently conducted a “Give & Take” session at a University.  In the past when I asked student what they dread about entering the workforce (after a discussion of what they were excited about)  the response had generally been around lack of flexibility and constraints on their time.   Now what they dreaded was having to take a job they didn’t want. 

So, my projection is that Gen Y’s approach to work in this economy is that they may accept jobs they don’t really want telling themselves they’re doing what they have to do.  But when it comes to the day to day acceptance, they may be somewhat more tolerant initially, but will eventually leave or check out if the work and the work environment are not stimulating and not supportive.

For manager of Gen Y, same rules as in my past blogs still apply.  As I wrote in “Gen Y Retention in a Tough Economy” http://onboardinggeny.com/gen-y-retention-in-a-tough-economy/ retaining employees is only valuable if those are happy employees. Retaining unhappy employees is worse than losing them.  Take a good look at your positions, policies and culture through Gen Y glasses:
     Time Flexibility
     Place Flexibility
     Dress Code
     Feedback Frequency
     Promotional Frequency
     Respect for employees
     Access to Internet
     Access to Social Networking tools
     Current technology tools
     Variety of Tasks
     Opportunities to work on “goodness” projects
     How closely work is tied to what’s important to the business
     Working with people your own age

Remember that many of these things are important to all the generations you work with, not just Gen Y.  This assessment is helpful in two ways:

First, think about what you can change and what you can’t.  What you should change and what you shouldn’t.  And make sure you know the difference between the “nice to have” and the “must have” issues that will make your Gen Y’s so unhappy that they check out or leave.  A recent Harvard Business Publishing Management Tip entitled “Switch to Task-Based Job Assignments” references a great article called “Think Task, Not Time” written by Tammy Erickson almost two years ago  http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/erickson/2007/03/think_task_not_time.html?cm_mmc=npv-_-MGMT_TIP-_-JAN_2009-_-MTOD0116.  It still resonates today and provides an example of something businesses can do today that will be appealing not only to Gen Y, but also to other generations in the work force.  Other thoughts on how Gen Y is not so different, but more extreme can be found in http://www.ere.net/2009/02/27/the-hidden-gift-your-gen-y-employees-are-offering-you/.

Second, as you do your recruiting (if you’re doing any recruiting) reference this list (and whatever else you’ve added to it) as you interview your potential Gen Y employees.  Figure out which of these issues are really important to each candidate and see where your company stands on those issues.  If you’re too far apart on the issues that matter, it’s probably not a good fit, no matter how much the candidate insists it will be OK.  That said, some new employees will change their mind on things.  Remember that for many college students, this will be their first “real job” and they are just starting the process of learning what’s really important to them.  As I mentioned in Manager/Employee Sweet Spot, http://onboardinggeny.com/manager-employee-sweet-spot/ sometimes they don’t know what kind of work will interest them since they haven’t had the exposure yet.  It will make a patient and skilled interviewer to determine the job aspects that a prospective employee may see as negative initially, but adjust to, and those issues which will eventually become so bothersome that it will cause the new hire to check out and leave.  It’s a fine line.  Look carefully and think carefully.


Gen Y’s, three things for you.  First, use the list above as a starting point in figuring out your work values.  Add to the list anything else which is important to you and remove things that are unimportant.  Then think carefully about which of those are easy for you to be flexible on and which as more important to you.  Stack rank them if it helps.  If the job you’re interviewing for meets your top criteria, but not your bottom ones, no big deal.  Go for it.  But, if it is very inconsistent with the things on the top of your list, you really need to think about whether those are things you can accept long term. 

Second, keep in mind that full time work will be different from what you imagine, and that your ideas and what’s important to you will shift over time.  For example, I once thought the commute to the Wall Street area from the Upper East Side of NY would be truly miserable.  But I took the job anyway because I needed the skill set it would provide.  I have to admit, I took the job telling myself I’d continue to look for other jobs in “midtown.”  Turns out, the longer commute on the bus gave me more time to read and prepare for my day.  And, I met some wonderful people, one of whom, over 20 years later, is still a treasured friend.  So, I’m glad I took that job and the thing I thought would drive me crazy didn’t.  Also, things in a job will change over time; a manager you don’t care for will move on, a project will be cancelled, a new strategic direction will be initiated etc.  Fine lines, tough choices, and really thinking about what’s important. 

Third, if you’re already in a job that is not as satisfying as you’d hoped, PLEASE recognize that this economic downturn is real. Don’t view your job as disposable.  You will need to recognize that no job will be perfect and that you have a lot to learn, not just from the tasks of your job, but also learning how the organization works and learning about yourself.

Over the years I’ve counseled many students who were disappointed with summer internships to think about other things they can get from the experience and to focus on making the changes they could.  Most ended up with a fulfilling experience.  They were glad that they “stuck it out. ” They found they gained important skills from work that was less interesting than they’d hoped, but more nuanced than they’d come to believe.  And they recognized the valuable experience they got by learning that careful dance of working with their manager to continue to do the work they were hired to do, but migrate their role to other areas of interest.  At the end, they got more out of the experience than they ever imagined.

In this economic environment, it’s may be far easier to make your current job better than to find another job that meets your criteria.  This is not a time for knee-jerk reactions.  It’s time for careful consideration about what you want, what’s available, and what’s really important to you.


3 Responses to “Will the current economy make Gen Y “get with the program?””

  1. Stacey Derbinshire on March 3rd, 2009 8:45 pm

    Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!

  2. Sue Edwards on March 4th, 2009 3:42 am

    Great article…I will post a link to the article in our LinkedIn Group- Onboarding Best Practices. Thanks,

    Sue Edwards
    President, Development by Design
    Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/onboardingcoach

  3. Karen Wilson on March 5th, 2009 1:19 pm

    This is such a timely article! Very well put and applicable. I like the list..I am currently interviewing for a sales position and plan to incorporate the list as a ranking excercise. I think this will help me determine a potential candidate’s perception of what they need to be happy. In addition, I have a Gen Y employee and certainly want to retain him. Thank you!

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