Generation Y let down by schools and managers

Jun 18 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The recession is not the only disadvantage facing young people entering or trying to get ahead in the jobs' market. They are also being badly let down by the school system and by entrenched negative stereotypes within the media and the boardroom.

According to new research from the UK's Ashridge Business School, Generation Y school-leavers and workers, or those aged 27 and under, not only have the worst economic conditions in a generation to deal with but also media hype about them being spoilt, work-shy and demanding, negative preconceptions from employers and a school system that is failing to prepare them properly for the world of work.

Its poll of 133 people within 59 companies found that, while Generation Y workers were indeed challenging and demanding, they were not any more so than previous generations were or had been.

What's more, there was often a sense of generational envy in the negative stereotyping, with older generations sneekily admiring the way they were behaving yet envious that they had not been allowed to do so when they were at that age.

The idea that Generation Y workers were work-shy was also questioned. Such younger workers were in fact often deeply ambitious and motivated, but more in terms of their own self-fulfilment rather than in terms of attaining a specific job title or kudos.

They were also keen to learn, but in a digital, always-on world they wanted mixed modes of delivery and more personalised learning.

They also tended to be more adaptable than were often given credit for, and were able to get on with older generations perfectly harmoniously and were not intimidated by their bosses, the study found.

What's more, even the casual labelling of generations as X and Y and so on was overly crude, the research argued.

These generational boundaries of about 20 years did not accurately reflect or represent the backgrounds and behaviours of each generation.

In fact, Generation X Ė or those born after 1961 but before 1981 Ė and the post-war Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s were better represented by being split into narrower 10-year cohorts, something that was likely to become true of Generation Y as they became older.

Many of the attitudes and behaviours of workers, irrespective of their "generation", were more a reflection of their age rather than reflective of wider generational trends, the Ashridge study argued.

Where the education system was failing this up-and-coming generation the most was in not giving them the communication skills they needed to cope with the modern workplace, it suggested.

Similarly, numerical skills, approaches to learning, creativity, working with others and attitudes to rewards and development instilled in school often left much to be desired, it argued.

Nevertheless, the core attitudes and behaviours of Generation Y were confidence, ambition, self-awareness, communication, resilience and maturity, it added.

Intriguingly, while Generation Y workers were very adaptable in terms of technology, the preconception that they are all technical geniuses was wrong.

In fact, their technology skills were as varied as any other generation, although it was true that they tended to use social media more than any other generation.

But Generation Y workers did often have poorer self-awareness compared with previous generations, the study suggested, meaning they might be unaware of their impact on others, something that could result in a rising levels of friction.

While their intentions would often be well-placed, their communication approaches and behaviours could sometimes put them at odds with the older generational conventions of the workplace.

They tended not to be risk takers, with family and friends playing an incredibly important role in their lives.

The notion that they were often driven by global environmental concerns was also questioned by the research. While many Generation Y workers were aware of it as an issue, they often acted based on other priorities in their lives.

When it came to technology, one of the biggest issues often raised by managers in dealing with Generation Y workers, there was clearly frustration in the sense that many managers assumed Generation Y workers were constantly on Facebook or their mobiles, when often it was more underlying workplace and management issues around motivation and engagement that were to blame.

As one (older) respondent put it: "All of these young people aren't going to be constantly looking at Facebook. And if they're disengaged and de-motivated then they'll find ways to waste their time and it doesn't have to be via the internet."

Another highlighted the continuing technology gap between many managers and their younger teams. "They [Gen Y] want full virtual access, they don't want unnecessary meetings. They don't want to 'track changes' on a document; they all want to work at the same time on a document in Google. So you think that the solution is to ban these types of systems but Gen Y want to understand why they are banned when in fact they are more effective," they said.

But another added that simply banning access to social networks was not the answer. "We've banned Facebook. But actually I don't think that's the right thing to do because you've cut off a method of communication. Sometimes you need to think about the right way to target the different people you've got," they said.

Carina Paine Schofield, research fellow at Ashridge, argued that, a lot of the time, it was "the system" that was letting down Generation Y workers, not inherent generational issues.

"Generation Y appear to have been driven by a 'no-fail' education system combined with 'helicopter parenting', where parents hover over their children, rushing in to prevent any harm or failure occurring," she pointed out.

"Their learning has been exam and result focused and consequently Generation Y is not interested in learning unless there is an immediate benefit to it," she added.

"However, this generation pushes boundaries in the workplace, casting fresh eyes over universally accepted processes and everyone appears to benefit from the type of mixed learning modes that Generation Y demands," she concluded.