Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why Ask Gen Y?

In the 1980s and early 90s -- on the way to the 21st Century – psychologists routinely urged parents to tell their kids two things: a) you’re special b) you can do anything you want to do. During the same period, economic times were good, and middle-class children had plenty of everything: toys, lessons, entertainment, “experiences,” media time, and opportunities to build “self-esteem.” (Note: Today, a Google search on “building self-esteem” pulls up 1,360,000 links. An Amazon search reveals 344 book entries for the search term “Your Kid’s Self Esteem.”

This drive to make the Gen Y children “feel good about” themselves became a national imperative, more important than American staples like discipline, good grades, and “try-fail-try again” standards. I well remember the principal of my daughter’s grade school standing in the door at opening bell, handing out “stickers” to boys who had their shirts tucked in, or to girls who said “good morning.”

Meanwhile – despite bestowing many material indulgences -- their double-income parents left many middle-class Gen Yers to their own devices. These children were the first generation plopped into day care and left as latch key kids. In their formative years, the only people these children had to listen to were on television, and the only people they had to talk to were each other.

Meanwhile, the geniuses of the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomer crowd were busy inventing the Internet. While clueless themselves, Gen Y parents delightedly discovered their progeny could master computers with ease. More praise was heaped upon Gen Y for its “brilliant” ability and Gen Y parents gloated about their three-year olds' clicking, mousing, and surfing talent.

Spawned in the glow of television and LED, Gen Y also viewed a lot of advertisements, becoming consumers extraordinaire. Fads of every sort caught their attention (remember Cabbage Patch dolls?). The spongeful brains of Gen Y had no trouble keeping up with rapidly changing images. Parents gazed on in wonder and adoration at their “special kids,” who seemed to know so much they’d never dreamed of or heard about. The accolades of parents, coaches, and teachers did indeed infuse these youngsters with a healthy dose of confidence in their Gen Y view of the world – which, naturally and easily evolved to an irrational belief in the wisdom of their own opinions and experiences. After all, nobody “older” seemed to know a damn thing.

The workplace today is full of Gen Y Twenty Somethings -- or, as a colleague likes to call them, “The Twenty Nothings.” Many of these young adults are hard working and committed (achievement was, after all, a big part of the message). They do, however, display a disconcerting reliance on their own Generation as being the “only ones” who truly “get it.”

What does Gen Y “get”? Pretty much everything they want, hopefully, since they are, after all, “special.” But more significantly, their adoring parents so long delivered the “you’re so clever” message that Gen Y often truly believes Gen X and Baby Boomers have been left far behind the learning curve. Some are more polite than others in talking about “people who are older.” But here’s the challenge: The next time you’re in the Twenty Something crowd, try to count the number of times they allude to their cohort’s “special” ability to perceive societal trends, grasp “the market,” and lock onto “what’s really happening.” To Gen Y, experience counts for nothing and “wisdom” – which absent, over-extended parents and teachers had no time to share -- is a non-issue. No wonder. They learned years ago that “what is” changes faster than a YouTube upload, and fame lasts a lot less than 15 minutes.

The point is: Why Ask Gen Y? Having paid no attention to any generation save their own, Gen Y has a unique non-ability to put any issue into historical context. On the other hand, Gen Y should have an improved ability to put issues into a global context -- and perhaps they do (they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, after all). Sadly, though, many appear to have led insular lives, mainly talking to one another, and relying for life wisdom on t.v. shows like Friends. [A brief sidebar: Friends concisely and accurately represents the attitudes of, and speaks for, this generation. Gen Yers were obsessed with, and profoundly affected by, the show’s notion of “friends” as “all there is.” This insipid show is, no doubt, responsible for at least a portion of Gen Y’s social arrogance. In Friends, parents and authority figures are stupid, neurotic, and lots less smart than the gang of relationship-confused, career-indifferent, self-indulgent, exclusive and exclusionary group of six boys and girls playing at life. But I digress …].

As they've turned out, this “special” generation seems ready to act on their self-aggrandized beliefs. It’s not their fault, of course (we told them they were special and could do anything). But – if you’re an employer or manager -- do beware of the Gen Y notion of their own special insight.

Every generation eventually graduates from the School of Hard Knocks – and, no doubt – the current economic mess is going to be a fast wake up call for Gen Y. In the meantime, do love this charming and charmed, enthusiastic, capable, “special” generation as much as you want ... but don’t believe everything they tell you.

p.s. Generation X kids – the Baby Busters -- had things a lot tougher. They reportedly weren’t happy with their self-centered, fickle, impractical parents who launched social revolutions like a 50% divorce rate, widespread drug use, the Women’s Movement and the Sexual Revolution. This disengaged, cynical generation has a reputation for shrugging and walking away. Curiously, in the workplace, a lot of Gen Ys are “managed” by Gen Xers, which could -- by default -- leave Gen Y more or less in charge. Expect chaos.

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