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Five myths about younger workers

By Aaron Green, 12/17/2007

In my professional role, I have access to quite a bit of information on younger workers, sometimes called Millennials or Gen Y, those born after 1980 who are new to the workforce. My staffing firm interviews over 10,000 candidates a year, many of them in their twenties. I regularly get feedback from clients and from the employment industry. And, I personally manage many younger workers.

Over and over again I have heard five myths about younger workers. Like any myths, the five I hear repeatedly are grounded in a bit of truth. But the myths don't tell the whole story. Here's my perspective:

Myth #1: Younger workers who were nurtured on a steady diet of self-esteem are self-centered employees who can't survive traditional hierarchies or managers who aren't willing to inflate their egos.

Truth: It may be that the traditional hierarchies and unenlightened managers are the ones who can't survive. That said, too much praise may have left some younger workers with inadequate skills for dealing with workplace relationships. The younger workers are not the problem. Rather, the solution is that managers need to do their job by teaching and managing. By teaching employees new skills, managers help younger workers avoid frustration that could lead to poor performance. Younger workers often clamor for quick feedback, meaningful involvement and pumped-up recognition. So give it to them! Over-communicate, articulate a career path and help them see their job as a career investment. Get creative about praise and rewards for projects well done.

Myth #2: Job loyalty is a thing of the past. Younger workers job hop more than any other generation.

Truth: Clearly there is a degree of truth to this myth. Employees are less loyal to employers and likewise employers are less loyal to employees. Experts say that at age 22 only 12% of the workforce knows what they want to be doing for a career and the majority of twenty-somethings job hop every 18 months. But companies can achieve control over their employee loyalty and retention. Savvy managers will adapt and offer younger workers increasingly challenging assignments or projects that teach new and different skills. To retain employees, companies need to invest heavily in developing their employees. In an article I published on this site last year about hiring recent college graduates, I mentioned the importance of highlighting your company's social responsibility and offering young workers a career path, not just a job. For instance, take a look at what some of the big accounting firms are doing to lead the way in retaining young workers. They provide new employees with a mentor, they rotate responsibilities frequently, they provide more flexibility in their work schedules, and they even allow employees opportunities to volunteer on company time.

Myth #3: Younger workers spend too much time online, connected to their iPods, or instant messaging their friends and not enough time engaged in their work.

Truth: I hear this criticism often and I find it misguided. Employers should focus on motivating their employees and managing all staff for optimal performance, then judge the results. Since work was invented, there have been opportunities to goof off. New technologies are not to blame for employees who shirk their responsibilities. Before there was instant messaging employees could talk on the phone about personal matters, play solitaire or even write each other letters. Let's face it, even the best employees spend at least a bit of time on personal, non-business matters while at work. Rather than enforce blanket policies that risk alienating productive employees, focus on performance-related issues. If a particular employee has too much unproductive time, try motivating them. If that does not work, follow traditional management tactics to deal with the situation. Don't unplug or monitor the technologies. You will only alienate your good employees.

Myth #4: It's difficult to motivate younger workers who don't share their managers' or boss's values.

Truth: Whether the differences are age-related, cultural or due to some other demographic difference, managing diverse workers doesn't have to be more difficult. A good manager will attempt to understand the differences and then use their skills to motivate and manage younger workers to achieve top performance.

Ask younger workers what they value most in their career and you may be surprised to learn that many value balance in life. Personal growth and workplace flexibility are more desirable than status, especially if the latter means sacrificing personal relationships. Their idea of climbing a ladder to success is different from that of previous generations. However, managers who take the time to understand younger workers' values and motivations will be successful at finding areas and ways for them to contribute, charting a growth plan, and helping younger workers feel like valued employees.

Myth #5: Younger workers are impatient. Excited by the booming economy and job markets that we've had since they entered the workforce, they all want to start out as CEO of their own company and don't want to pay their dues to get there.

Truth: It's true that since they entered the workforce, Gen Y has known only boom times and this has led many younger workers to be idealistic about what's possible. Some are able to write their own ticket in many ways. But instead of viewing this attitude with cynicism, managers should harness it and use it to motivate their employees.

As I mentioned above, younger workers have a different perception of how to climb the career ladder and they don't see the value in working extremely long hours at the expense of family, personal relationships and interesting hobbies. Some start their own companies or skip the heavy dues-paying industries altogether. That's not to say that all younger workers think they don't need to spend a few years learning the ropes and doing "grunt work." As a manager, however, it's more effective to position these jobs as "opportunities to develop skill sets" or to "build your brand." Both are more positive ways to imply the same message.

If you are a manager in a large firm, create projects and encourage younger workers to perform by lauding their success and giving them more challenging projects. If you work in a smaller firm, emphasize the access to more higher-level and strategic work that younger workers get. Managing today is about re-thinking standard concepts of advancement. Encourage younger workers to take responsibility for themselves and create their own benchmarks, which can be used for measurement on performance reviews.

As twenty-somethings enter the workforce, they bring skills, outlooks and ideals based on the economic, social and cultural experiences they've had so far in life. As managers, many of us need to rethink the standard motivation and retention tools we've used in the past and update our communication and management practices to harness the value these younger workers bring to our workplaces.

Photo gallery: Five myths about younger workers

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