Perception vs. Reality: 10 Truths About The Generation Y Workforce

Randall Hansen
by Randall Hansen   Career Advice Expert 

Advice for both employers and Gen Y workers and job-seekers on dealing with negative perceptions and misconceptions about Generation Y, the Millennials.

It’s important to preface this article by stating that people are individuals and that while it is sometimes efficient for experts to place people into generational groups for analysis, in the end, even with certain common traits and behaviors, individuals must be judged on their own merits.

That said, as a new crop of college graduates hits the workforce, it’s important — both for the job-seekers and for prospective employers — to read this article. For the college grads, it’s helpful to understand how hiring managers and future co-workers may perceive them. For hiring managers, it’s useful to cut through stereotypes and misconceptions about this generation.

Generation Y. The Millennials. The Tech/Net/Digital Generation. Boomlets. Echo Boomers. We’ve given this generation of people — roughly those born between the late 1970’s and the late 1990’s and 72 million or so strong — many names, but none so hurtful as the Entitlement Generation. They’ve also been called arrogant, self-centered, and possessing a short attention span.

This article, playing off the infamous Rolling Stone campaign, discusses 10 perceptions of Generation Y workers — and then corrects or adjusts those perceptions with the reality behind each. Also included in each of the 10 misconceptions is advice for both employers and for Gen Y workers and job-seekers.

Generation Y Perception: Spoiled/Entitled

Reality: To an extent, the folks in this generation do have a sense of entitlement, but it’s not an entirely inherent personality flaw but partly the fault of Baby Boomer parents who coddled their children, constantly telling them how special they were and that anything they sought was possible, and rewarding them for every little thing, providing trophies and prizes simply for participating. These parents stunted their children’s growth by proactively removing all obstacles and potentially negative experiences.

So, yes, on the surface Generation Y workers appear entitled.

The key for employers is approaching younger workers differently, providing constructive criticism that reflects confidence in them.

Generation Y workers must realize that their bosses are not going to be like their parents, and that part of growing as an employee is learning from past mistakes and accepting constructive criticism.

Generation Y Perception: Lazy

Reality: Technology has allowed this generation to multitask and find shortcuts in achieving tasks. Texting, instant messaging, social networking, and Web surfing have all made Generation Y workers more competent, efficient, and productive (if not sometimes overwhelmed).

The key for employers is to accept that there may be multiple ways for workers to accomplish their tasks.

Generation Y workers may need to demonstrate that they are working just as hard as everyone else, but perhaps simply performing the job more efficiently.

Generation Y Perception: Poor Work Ethic

Reality: Generation Y is the first generation to expect — from day one — employers to realize there is more to life than work. Just as many Baby Boomers are now discovering later in their careers, Generation Y sees work as a means to enjoy life — and life comes first. They have a strong work ethic — just not in a 9-5 sort of way. Generation Y wants work to be fun and flexible because the line between work and life is seamless. (In other words, there is no such thing as work-life balance because it’s all just one thing.) Generation Y also follows a mantra of working smarter, not harder.

Generation Y is the first generation to expect — from day one — employers to realize there is more to life than work.

The key for employers is offering flexible work schedules, adjusting the belief that workers need to “put in the hours at the desk” to be effective, and developing a work culture that is pleasant and positive.

Generation Y workers may need to readjust some attitudes about work, especially for entry-level positions in which workers have traditionally been expect to work long hours to earn their due.

Generation Y Perception: Little Respect for Authority

Reality: While some people refer to this cohort of people as Generation Why for a reason, it is not so much an issue of a lack of respect for authority as much as it is that this group has been raised by their parents to question everything and raise questions when they don’t understand something. This generation is very independent and not afraid to challenge the status-quo. Many in Generation Y want a relationship with their boss like the ones they have with their parents. It’s not that these folks have little respect for authority; on the contrary, they feel employers do not respect them.

The key for employers is realizing that asking questions can often lead to answers and solutions that are actually more efficient and effective. Unlike with any other set of workers in the past, employers must also provide more autonomy — and trust Gen Y workers to complete the work.

Generation Y workers should learn to choose battles carefully, not question every single decision made, and give employers a chance to adapt to their style of work.

Generation Y Perception: Too Self-Centered and Individualistic

Reality: This iPod Generation (named such because iPod commercials focus on individuality while selling the product to every Gen Y) works well in groups and teams — especially with people their own age — but they also have been taught the value of individuality and independent thinking. They see themselves as unique individuals — not tied to any specific labels. And unlike any previous generation, these workers do not plan to let their jobs define who they are.

The key for employers is finding the right mix of individual and team projects that allow these workers to grow professionally.

Generation Y workers need to realize that almost all work will be some combination of individual assignments and teamwork with people of all backgrounds and ages.

Generation Y Perception: Overinflated/Unrealistic Expectations

Reality: While this generation may be more anxious than others to rise quickly to the top, it’s less about unrealistic expectations than it is about being better prepared for work than previous generations — with perhaps a touch of the need for instant gratification thrown in. This generation also has no interest whatsoever in working in a cubicle — not because it is beneath them, but because they feel advances in technology should let them be able to choose to work from home, Starbucks, or anywhere there is a Wi-Fi connection.

While this generation may be more anxious than others to rise quickly to the top, it’s less about unrealistic expectations than it is about being better prepared for work than previous generations

The key for employers is to redesign and rebuild some of the old career ladders that were destroyed with the flattening of organizations and greatly expand telecommuting and remote working arrangements. Gen Y workers need to see a progressive promotion path or they will move on to the next employer.

Generation Y workers should learn to pace themselves and gain the necessary experience and skills before expecting a promotion to the next level.

Generation Y Perception: Not Committed to Work

Reality: This generation is the most educated workforce ever, and partly because of this level of education, Generation Y workers believe their work should have meaning. These folks quote from Office Space and have a mistrust of management. More than ever, these workers are seeking greater fulfillment and are only willing to work hard at jobs that provide it.

The key for employers is changing the way they view work and employees — and it may also mean that to keep Gen Y workers, they may need to not only develop better jobs, but also consider strong corporate values and corporate volunteering programs. Employers also need to clearly show how the work Gen Ys complete directly impacts the organization’s success.

Generation Y workers should conduct more research on prospective employers to find organizations that not only have meaningful career paths, but also share some of the same values.

Generation Y Perception: No Loyalty to Employers

Reality: Because of more work experiences and greater education, Gen Y workers are simply more mobile, making it easier to move from one employer to another if they are unhappy with the work. They were also raised during a period of great downsizing and rightsizing, and many witnessed the grief and frustration their parents felt when being laid off — and they do not want to experience that emotion. These are also some of the reasons why many Gen Y workers are diligently planning to start their own businesses.

The key for employers is to develop a stronger commitment to keeping employees — even in bad economic times — and also to do a better job in training and retaining workers, possibly including such benefits as sabbaticals, professional development opportunities, and other options for Gen Y workers seeking deeper fulfillment.

Generation Y workers should try to not be so skeptical about the motives of employers and learn to trust them more while continuing their professional development as a hedge against any downturns.

Generation Y Perception: Lacking in Social Skills

Reality: Generation Y are some of the most social of any generational cohort; it’s just that they communicate and socialize much differently from the rest of us.

The key for employers is to realize and accept that people communicate differently and to embrace the new techniques while also teaching the Gen Y workers that business sometimes still needs to use traditional methods of communication.

Generation Y are some of the most social of any generational cohort; it’s just that they communicate and socialize much differently from the rest of us.

Generation Y workers need to use those excellent communications and diversity skills to learn to socialize and communicate with people of all ages and backgrounds.

Generation Y Perception: Needy

Reality: Okay. The reality here is that Millennials are indeed pretty needy. Again, though, it’s not really their fault as their parents basically trained them that mom or dad is just a phone call away. In fact, there are stories of Generation Y job-seekers taking a parent along for the job interview or to help negotiate the job offer.

The key for employers is to realize that this generation — at least when they are new to the workforce — need a bit of special care and handling. There’s no way they can go months without a review; they need constant (and not too critical) feedback.

Generation Y workers need to realize that the reality of the workplace is that it’s not like home or college — and that they are expected to do an excellent job without always wanting praise and being told that how good their work is. Finally, Generation Y workers need to tell mom or dad that it’s time to stay home so they can learn to fight their own battles.

Final Thoughts About Gen Y Workers

In the end, of course, every person — every worker — is judged on his or her merits, not on generalities or misconceptions. Still, based on the research and anecdotal evidence, it may be a bumpy ride for both employers and Generation Y workers in the years ahead.

Maybe you’re not a millennial, but when was the last time you updated your resume and cover letter? Take a look at our useful guides to learn the most up-to-date tips

About the Author

Career Advice Expert

Randall Hansen Career Advice Expert

Dr. Randall S. Hansen is the founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the web, as well CEO of Dr. Hansen is a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles to his name. He is frequently quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country; he is also an educator who has taught at the college level for more than 15 years.


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