Generation Me at Work
The young applicant seemed so promising on paper. When she arrived for the interview, however, she was holding a cat carrier—with the cat in it. She set the carrier on the interviewer’s desk and periodically played with it during the interview. She did not get the job.
Another job applicant took a call on his cell phone 15 minutes into the interview. A third brought his father with him. These are, apparently, not isolated examples. A 2013 USA Today story notes that such behavior is gaining notice across the country: “Human resource professionals say they’ve seen recent college grads text or take calls in interviews, dress inappropriately, use slang or overly casual language and exhibit other oddball behavior.”
Some blame new technology for this apparent lack of social skills, but it goes deeper than that. Raised on “just be yourself,” GenMe doesn’t always process the need to change behavior depending on the situation. If it’s good for them, they assume it’s good for everyone else—even in an interview. Jonathan Singel, director of talent acquisition for Avery Dennison, favors this explanation. GenMe’s parents, he observes, said, “You’re perfect just the way you are” and “Do whatever you’re comfortable doing.”
As you know from the previous chapters, his observation is consistent with the numerous studies showing GenMe’s lower need for social approval and higher individualism. That’s not all bad. We have GenMe—and the individualism that gives them their name—to thank for casual Fridays (or casual every-days). Hierarchies are flatter, with bosses more likely to treat employees with respect and explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. Companies realize that time off and work-life balance make for more productive employees. The key is for all of the generations to find the strategies that accommodate GenMe’s preferences—but that also preserve the bottom line. With Boomers rapidly retiring and GenMe set to be 40% of the workforce by 2020, the time to do this is now.
The first step is to get the right information on how the generations differ. You’ve already learned about the generational differences in personality and behavior, and some of those translate directly into the workplace. But what about attitudes toward work? What does GenMe want out of a job that’s different from what Boomers or GenX’ers wanted when they were young?
Many popular press articles, consultants, and books on generations at work have tried to answer these questions. However, few are based on data comparing the generations—unfortunate given the emphasis on evidence-based management. Some describe the events each generation experienced and then guess how that will affect their attitudes toward work, rather than actually measuring attitudes. Other books interview managers who reflect on the changes they have witnessed in the workplace. That’s problematic, too, as perceptions are easily warped by fading memory, aging, and flawed recall. Most people have an overly rosy memory of what they were like when they were young employees—I was never late! I always did exactly what my boss said! Other authors who interview young employees can tell managers what young employees want, but that tells us little about generational differences.
Perhaps this is what young employees have always wanted, so recruiting and retaining strategies can stay just the same. Interviews are also notoriously subjective—how does the author decide which parts of the interview to highlight? Often that depends on what point the author is trying to make, which introduces bias right off the bat.
A more objective approach is to use standard questionnaires that measure work attitudes, which ask people to respond to standard questions and result in a numerical score. Researchers often use such questionnaires to survey a large group of workers at one time. This has the advantage of more objective measurement, but any one-time survey has a big downside: it’s impossible to tell whether any differences are caused by age or by generation. For example, if more GenMe’ers than Boomers say they want a lot of time off, that could be because young people have always wanted time off, or because GenMe’ers like time off more than Boomers did when they were young. If it’s just being young, GenMe will grow out of it just as every generation before them has grown out of some notions of its youth. If GenMe’ers preferences are due to their age and not to their generation, the same recruiting programs that worked for young employees 15 or 30 years ago will work now.
Given these issues with one-time studies, it’s clearly best to study generational differences in work attitudes with an overtime study—one that has sampled people of the same age at different points in time. Until recently, only one or two studies had used data like this, and none with a large or nationally representative sample. Fortunately, the nationally representative Monitoring the Future Survey of high school students has measured work attitudes and desired job characteristics every year since 1976. That made it possible to trace work attitudes from Boomers to GenX’ers to GenMe’ers among those getting ready to enter the workforce. Because everyone was the same age, this dataset clearly shows the generational shifts in attitudes toward work without any concern that differences could be due to age.
Along with my coauthors Stacy Campbell, Brian Hoffman, and Chuck Lance, we published the results of this analysis in the Journal of Management. The results of the study fall into four primary categories: leisure and work-life balance; helping and finding meaning; money and status; and high expectations and impatience. In some cases, the data confirm the perceptions of managers and journalists about what GenMe (also called Millennials) values at work. In other cases, the data suggest that common perceptions of GenMe are wrong. I also feature data from one-time studies when their results concur with the over-time data. However, always keep in mind that any differences in a one-time study could be due to age and experience instead. Each section includes concrete suggestions for managing this generation—or, if you’re GenMe yourself, for finding a match between your expectations and the reality of the workplace.
LEISURE AND WORK-LIFE BALANCE
New York investment banks such as Goldman Sachs were known for working young employees hard. Analysts were hired straight out of college on two-year contracts, paid around $100,000 a year, and expected to work 100 hours a week. Until now. In October 2013, Goldman Sachs began discouraging young analysts from working weekends. Instead of two-year contracts, they are permanent employees from the start. Why the change? Many young employees were leaving for private equity funds and start-ups, so the company’s “junior banker task force” suggested ways to keep young employees from quitting.
Chegg, Inc., an online textbook-rental company, had a similar experience—many of its young employees left the company after a year or less. In their exit interviews, GenMe workers said they wanted to be more involved in projects, wanted more time off, and wanted to be able to work wherever they wanted. The company moved quickly to change things, giving younger workers more important roles in projects and instituting unlimited paid vacation. It worked: Turnover among GenMe employees fell by 50% a year for two years.
In our over-time analysis, the largest generational difference appeared in the importance of work and views of work-life balance. More in GenMe said they “worked to live,” unlike the Boomers, who “lived to work.” In 1976, 3 out of 4 (74%) high school senior Boomers said they expected work to be “a central part” of their lives, but by 2012 only 2 out of 3 (66%) felt that way. Under 1 in 4 (23%) Boomers agreed that “work is just making a living,” but 1 out of 3 (32%) GenMe’ers thought so in 2012.
GenMe is also more likely to say they wouldn’t work if they had enough money (28% vs. 23% in 1976). In a small over-time study of adult workers, those in the 2000s (versus the 1970s) were significantly less likely to agree that “rich people should feel an obligation to work even if they do not need to” and “work should be one of the most important parts of a person’s life.” Catalina, 20, reflects, “My generation views work as if it does not matter. It is not taken as seriously as it should be.”
More in GenMe said it was important to have a job with a lot of vacation time, that allowed them to work at an easy pace, and that left a lot of time for other things in their lives. Fifty-three percent of GenMe in 2012 agreed they were “willing to work overtime to do a good job,” down from 60% in earlier years. In one study, college career counselors named “flexible schedules” and “want balance of life and work” among the top three characteristics GenMe wants out of a job. Bill George, a professor at Harvard Business School, says that his students “want an integrated life” and “are committed to having life the way they want it.” How you interpret this trend is a matter of perspective. Americans take much less vacation than most Europeans, who place more value on enjoying life. Perhaps GenMe is taking a page out of that book, wanting to focus on things other than work. Balanced workers may also be better workers. On the other hand, people have to earn a living—and recall that 82% of GenMe thinks it’s important to “be very well-off financially.” So how is GenMe going to achieve these riches while working fewer hours? That’s unclear.