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Generation Y

The Generation Game

- the four contestants in the workplace

X, Y, …Z?

Here’s a thought: successfully managing people is about knowing what you want from them, what they want from you, and then finding ways to make those two sets of needs as complementary as possible.

Here’s another: “There was no respect for youth when I was young, and now that I am old, there is no respect for age – I missed it coming and going.” – J.B. Priestly

The issue of different generations not understanding each other coupled to the need for managers to understand those they manage has spawned any number of management books and articles over the years. Most recently, the focus is very much on Generation Y (also referred to as Generation “Why?”) – a quick search at Amazon.co.uk brings up 4,735 books devoted to understanding this latest age range to enter the workplace. A dozen or so years earlier, the mystery to be solved was Generation X but the Xers aren’t such hot news any more; it’s not that the mystery has been solved necessarily, more that the march of time means that Gen X is now in management – they’re the ones buying the books about Gen Y.

Opinions and research vary on the exact dates (and names) of the generations to be found in the workplace; broadly speaking they are:

Veterans* born 1939-1947 11% of the UK workforce**
Baby Boomers born 1948-1963 30% of the UK workforce**
Generation X born 1964-1978 32% of the UK workforce**
Generation Y born 1979-1991 27% of the UK workforce**

*also often referred to as “Traditionals”

**percentages from the year 2008

(Generation Z – also known as the iGeneration – is only just starting to enter employment and its working characteristics have yet to be fully identified or researched.)

The point is that the formative experiences, world events, social and economic climates, and levels of technology at the time of entry into the workplace differ for each generation and this leads to different sets of values and needs, especially when it comes to loyalty, careers, service mentality, work-life balance and so on – all important people management issues.

The Veterans allegedly prefer clarity and structure on roles, responsibility, hours and hierarchies; they want to be of service, are extremely loyal to the organisation and expect loyalty in return.

Boomers want a work-life balance, believe that length of service is an important factor in reward and recognition (paying one’s dues) and like their employer to show some social responsibility.

X apparently thrives on feeling challenged, is loyal to colleagues rather than to the company, and enjoys a flattened or absent hierarchy with blurred lines of responsibility. A career is a personal thing and not always tied to a single employer.

Gen Yers like to blur the lines between socialising and work and see their colleagues as their social network; their career tends to be a game of hopscotch and more than the other generations, Y is more likely to value the whole benefits package rather than just the monetary element.

That different generations want different things out of life (and out of work) is something that most people (and managers) find easy to accept; especially when they are looking at a generation different to their own. The problem is that this is quite seductive thinking. Labelling each generation can be a very convenient way for managers to convince themselves that they are catering to all needs. However, if you take a look at the drivers of people your own age (your own generation, in other words) you’ll see just as much variety as you will conformity.

It can be a particular trap when managing SMEs. By definition, the workforce is smaller and so that 27% of the workforce that is Generation Y translates into perhaps 20-40 individual people. When you look more closely at the variety of what those individuals actually want out of a job and a career, the risks in defining them with a single label become apparent. Ultimately, generational differences are clearer when you’re dealing with large enough groups of people.

Whatever the size of your business, research into the generations offers some fascinating insights into what people value from an employer, but the smaller the workforce the bigger the caution with which these insights should be applied in practice – managers in SMEs need to bear in mind the value of managing people as individuals.

(If you want to know more about recent research on the different generations in the workplace, try the CIPD report, “Gen Up: how the four generations work”.)

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