These are some of the things that today’s young people are telling us in interviews:
Young people today don’t look at a large, established organization and think, “I wonder where I’ll fit in your complex picture.” Rather, they look at an employer and think, “I wonder where you will fit in my life story.” Every step of the way, twentysomethings want to find a work situation they can fit into the kind of life they are building for themselves.
They have very high expectations, first for themselves, but also for their employers. And they have the highest expectations for their immediate bosses. Today’s young workers respect transactional authority: control of resources, control of rewards, and control of work conditions. Because they look to their immediate supervisors to help them meet their basic needs and expectations, they freely make demands of them.
Precisely because today’s young people seem to both disregard authority figures and at the same time demand a great deal of them, leaders and managers often find them maddening and difficult to manage. Meanwhile, the truth, of course, is more complicated.
Since I began this quest as a lone voice calling attention to young people in the workplace back in the 1990s, many so-called experts have jumped on the bandwagon of tackling the challenge of “managing generation _________” (fill in the blank… X, Millennial, and now Z). But nearly everyone I know of is simply reinforcing prevailing misconceptions about each successive generation.
Here are the 14 most common myths about young people and their approach to work and career:
Reality: They can be very loyal. But they don’t exhibit the kind of loyalty you find in a kingdom: blind loyalty to hierarchy, tight observance of rites of passage, patience for recognition and rewards. Instead, they offer the kind of loyalty you get in a free market—that is, transactional loyalty (whatever you can negotiate). This is the same kind of loyalty you extend to your customers and clients. We call it “just-in-time loyalty.”
Reality: They are so eager to prove themselves—to you and to themselves—that they will do anything you want them to do. But they won’t do the grunt work, or anything else, if they start to fear that nobody is keeping track of what they are doing and giving them credit. They are not about to do the grunt work in exchange for vague, long-term promises of rewards that vest in the deep distant future.
Reality: They may not have the same shared knowledge base that people with a certain level of education used to take for granted, but they walk in the door with more information in their heads and more information available at their fingertips than anyone ever has before. They think, learn, and communicate in sync with today’s information environment.
Reality: If they are “into” the mission, they’ll take charge if you let them. Otherwise, if you want them to “get into” the work, help them hit the ground running as fast as possible. They’ll want to identify problems that nobody else has identified, solve problems that nobody else has solved, make existing things better, invent new things. They’ll want to make an impact.
Reality: Young people don’t want to be humored; they want to be taken seriously. But they do want work to be engaging. They want to learn, to be challenged, and to understand the relationship between their work and the overall mission of the organization. They want to work with good people and have some flexibility in where, when, and how they work.
Reality: If they actually care one bit about the job, they want managers who know who they are, know what they are doing, are highly engaged with them, provide guidance, help them solve problems, and keep close track of their successes.
Reality: They want managers who will spend time teaching them how to do their work, get the resources they need, and help them avoid unnecessary problems.
Reality: Young people’ career paths will be erratic and eclectic, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be progressive and developmental. Theirs will be what we call a self-building path made up of learning, relationships, proof of their ability to add value, and lifestyle flexibility. Instead of climbing a ladder, they are making a tapestry.
Reality: Of course, money and benefits matter to them. They want to get the best deal they can get. In fact, they are usually quite savvy about comparing what each employer offers. But money and benefits are only a threshold issue. If you offer money and benefits that are competitive with other comparable employers, then you can keep the conversation going.
Reality: Again, money is a threshold issue. If they are asking for more, what they are really asking is, “What do I need to do to earn more?” Once you meet the threshold of competitive money and benefits and “this is how you earn more,” young people care about five other things: schedule, relationships (especially supportive leaders), task choice, location/workspace, and learning opportunities.
Reality: They do respect their elders. They are closer to their parents than any other generation has ever been! But they want respect too. Their parents, teachers, and counselors have always treated them with respect, so they feel they deserve respect from their managers, too. Bottom line: they respect what you bring to the table and they want you to respect what they bring to the table.
Reality: From computers, they want to learn stuff that is easy to learn from computers. But they absolutely need the human element to do their best learning. They learn best from a combination of the human element—coaching, direction, guidance, support, shared wisdom—and the powerful capacity of menu-driven information systems to guide them through the tidal wave of information available at their fingertips.
Reality: You can turn them into long-term employees. You’ll just have to do it one person at a time, one day at a time.
Reality: Of course, they can be good managers. They just have to learn the basics and then practice, practice, practice.