Generation Y: How twentysomethings are changing the workplace

How twentysomethings are changing the workplace

They're young, they're keen and they're coming to a corner office near you. As the summer season kicks into high gear, the latest crop of twentysomething employees has begun to descend upon the workplace–and they're bringing with them an entirely new way of doing business.

While the arrival of the seasonal intern or the fresh-faced university grad may provoke dread in some employees–and relief in others–there's no denying that their fast-talking, multi-tasking ways make them a force to be reckoned with. Now, say several experts, they just have to prove they can cut it at the top.

David Foot, a Toronto-based demographer and author of the Boom, Bust & Echo series of books, says members of the echo generation–those born between 1980 and 1995–are poised to accomplish great things by taking advantage of flattened corporate structures that have made it easier to climb the executive ladder at a faster clip. “Lateral thinking is very important,” says Foot. “When these people get to the top, that'll be an advantage. The real question is whether they'll understand enough about the components of the corporation to be able to do it well. They've thought laterally across the top of subjects–they haven't drilled down into them.”

The ability to “jump around tasks” at breakneck speed, using technology that is ubiquitous with today's youth–BlackBerries, cellphones and PDAs–has also enhanced productivity and efficiency. “It's brilliant,” says Foot. “It's led to all sorts of abilities to multi-task that previous generations haven't had–that's the upside. The downside associated with that is the inability to concentrate over long periods of time on a single task.”

While their technical wizardry often draws awe in some quarters, it can also be disconcerting–and even annoying–to the less technologically savvy members of the baby boom generation (those born between 1947 and 1966). As a result, older co-workers are often quick to brand their twentysomething colleagues–also known as Generation Y–with many of the unflattering stereotypes associated with young people.

Yes, they're disloyal. Yes, they're rebellious. And yes, they're cocky–but no more so than their parents or grandparents were when they were the same age, argues Foot. “The characteristics often attributed to this generation are not different than any other generation when they were in their 20s–and that's one of the biggest myths out there,” he says.

What really sets this cohort apart, he adds, is the way they socialize, communicate and manage. Rather than sweat the small stuff, the echo generation is much more interested in the “big picture”–and in exposing themselves to as many different aspects of business as possible.

And they're definitely not afraid to speak up when it comes to getting what they want. “I'm not going to be the type of person that's going to sit around and do nothing if there's nothing to do,” says Tennyson Cho, a 22-year-old Queen's University commerce graduate who was recently hired as an analyst at Westwind Partners, a small Toronto-based private investment bank. While Cho says he's willing to put in the 80 to 90 hours a week that his job requires–after all, it's a rite of passage of sorts for many young Bay Street bucks–he has no qualms about admitting he plans to “learn as much as I can” and then move on in a few years to look for something bigger and better.

Unfortunately, it's exactly that kind of full-speed-ahead attitude that can earn members of the echo generation the scorn of some more seasoned colleagues. “They see these new young people who don't know anything–they haven't had any experience–and yet they seem almost Pollyanna-ish about the job,” says Claire Raines, a Denver-based generational consultant and co-author of Generations at Work.

Raines, who uses the phrase “millennials” to describe the newest generation of young workers, argues their pie-in-the-sky attitude is very much a product of their upbringing. Unlike the cohort before them–those born in the mid-1960s to the late-1970s who were later popularized by the media as “Generation X” thanks to Canadian author Douglas Coupland–this younger group was raised in a more nurturing environment that inspired more confidence and hopefulness. “They've been taught that life is going to be creative and challenging and collaborative and that that's the way work is going to be,” she says. “They come feeling much more positive and having a lot of high expectation for their jobs.”

Unfortunately, adds Raines, their enthusiasm is often greeted with skepticism or downright hostility. “Instead of realizing it's generational, at work we tend to make it personal,” she says. “So we say things like, 'She just isn't willing to pay her dues. She doesn't have a good work ethic or she's just way too much of a Pollyanna.' If we can begin to realize that some of this is generational, then it's a lot easier to talk about. We can have some humour so it's not so personal.”

Laura Roberts, a 24-year-old engineer-in-training for a Calgary-based oil and gas producer, says the sheer volume of work in Alberta's red-hot commodities sector has created plenty of opportunities for young engineers and geologists. But when it comes to whether there is tension between these young hotshots and their older, more experienced co-workers, Roberts is divided. “I think it depends on the person,” she says. “I've seen instances where people are in a position that's quite senior for their age, but if they're good at it and can actually perform, then it's OK. But I've also seen instances where [young] people progress and they're in over their head.”

Rather than fighting the generational divide, Raines says companies should do their best to embrace–and hold on to–the newest generation of employees. She says many companies are finally beginning to wake up to the unique needs of the millennials and have implemented mentoring and coaching programs to help welcome the echo generation into the corporate fold–often doing it on terms that are more meaningful to the way they work and function. “I've heard there are even some smart companies [in the United States] that are hiring teams of people–particularly in fast-food companies–to work on the front line,” says Raines. “So they might hire a team of friends and have them competing against another team of friends.”

John Stockwell, a Toronto-based recruitment manager for RBC Financial Group, says the bank hires about 750 students each year to work in its various divisions across Canada. He characterizes them as a “tech-savvy” bunch who are keen to make an impact on the organization and who value a “very clear progression track” when it comes to their careers. “I think the most important thing is the feeling of being able to make a contribution, really getting the opportunity to do something that has an impact,” says Stockwell. “One of the things that we notice about new graduates is that they're looking for a certain opportunity to have some ownership–that seems to be really important.” Stockwell is more guarded when it comes to speculating on any tensions that might arise when a group of summer students or newly minted grads are suddenly forced to mix with employees who are their parents' age. But he is quick to point out that both groups should take advantage of the opportunity to “learn from each other.”

John McCallum, a University of Manitoba finance professor who has been teaching young people for 32 years, believes the current generation of future leaders are well positioned to take the corporate world by storm. “They are stronger at communications. They have more respect for diversity and for how diversity of groups can add to the output. They are less judgmental, they are more focused and, in general, they have much better analytical skills,” he observes. “Necessity has driven them to have great skills and to keep a whole bunch of balls in the air at once–way more so than the generation of executives had to in the '60s.”

The only challenge now, McCallum adds, will be to keep up with them.