Generation Me and the Workplace

Over the past several years one of the hot topics among mangers and human resource professionals has been generational differences at work. A lot of the chatter has focused on the integration of GenY into a workplace dominated by Boomers and GenXers.

To get some unique insights into the myths and realities of generational differences at work, I spoke with Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of the book Generation Me. In order to gain some insight into generational differences in the workplace, Twenge and her colleagues recently published a study in the Journal of Management where they analyzed a comprehensive data set consisting of ratings of workplace values by high school seniors in 1976 (Baby Boomers), 1991 (Generation X), and 2006 (referred to as GenMe in the study and also known as Generation Y, or Millennials).

Twenge and her colleagues found that the value for more leisure time has consistently increased across generations while the value for social (making friends at work) and intrinsic (interesting and creative work) rewards at work is significantly less important to GenMe than their GenX and Boomer counterparts.

Interestingly, the value for altruism as part of the work experience has not significantly changed across generations, a finding that is counter to the many claims that GenMe is more civic minded than previous generations. For the most part, these changes have been linear over time. The changes in work attitudes have trended in the same direction from generation to generation. Here are some tips from Twenge for managers to keep in mind when managing and working with GenMe.

Give the Gift of Time: There is little dispute that the U.S. is one of the hardest working countries in the word and the "live to work" mentality of the Boomer generation certainly solidified this reputation. However, the value for leisure has increased substantially across the three generations examined in Twenge’s research. According to her recent study, the number of GenMe respondents who rated having more than two weeks vacation as “very important” and wanted “a job with an easy pace that lets you work slowly” was nearly double that of their Boomer counterparts at the same age. The takeaway for managers is that time off can be a valuable reward. In a time were budgets are being slashed and raises are rare, giving young employees the gift or more personal time can be a powerful motivator.

Remember, Altruism is Timeless: One of the more fascinating findings from Twenge’s research is the fact that altruism is no more important to the GenMe crowd than their predecessors.

In fact, the study found that “GenMe placed slightly less emphasis on 'a job that gives you an opportunity to be directly helpful to others’ than Boomers did at the same age.” Thus, the notion that managers should utilize social responsibility programs and volunteerism as an attractant solely for young candidates is a myth. Social responsibility is, and has always been, important to Americans across all generations.

Facilitate Social Contact: When it comes to the workplace as a source of social contact, the GenMe respondents rated the need for social interactions at work as less important than both GenXers and Boomers. This may be due, in part, to the fact that GenMe is the first truly-wired generation and as a result, they have mastered the use of social media as a tool for developing and maintaining relationships. The workplace is no longer as important of a driver of social interaction as it once was.

However, social interaction at work is still an important driver of employee engagement and should be emphasized by managers. Dr. Twenge suggests that managers place new GenMe employees with internal mentors of their same generation, but who have a few years of experience in the workplace. The idea is to facilitate a sort of peer mentoring and help drive more engagement between colleagues.

Understanding generational differences is always an important part of effective management. With Boomers staying on the job longer as more GenMe workers come onboard, understanding what motivates this new crop of American workers will be critical to business success. Unfortunately, popular publications and large companies have been quick to make assumptions about how to best accommodate GenMe workers. Twenge suggests that managers and human resource practitioners really take the time to understand actual differences in work values versus myths and develop strategies accordingly.

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.