Business Library

Gen Y: The Fuel That Drives the Engine

Michael Harrington - Director of New Training and Strategic Initiatives | New Directions Consulting

Privileged, altruistic, opportunistic, argumentative – just some of the words used by a room full of trainers to describe this newest workforce generation; and as a millennial, I more than likely possess some of those traits. However, as someone who was born on the cusp between Gen X and Gen Y, I feel as though I have a unique perspective that I share with only a few others. That perspective is the ability to relate to the motivations that drive the 18-28 +/- year old crowd, while also understanding the frustrations those previous generations feel.

One of the realizations I’ve had, which was confirmed during this recent training, is that our Gen Y workers have a unique set of drivers that have caused them to develop beliefs that don’t match up to many of us who have come before them. Consequently, this difference has caused many to develop negative connotations … so let’s see if we can build some understanding around why we get so frustrated at this next generation. What are the beliefs that drive the behavior, and managers, mentors and trainers, how do we use their learning preferences to increase receptivity?

The first thing we must realize is that for all intents and purposes this generation is no different than the Baby Boomer generation was from the Veterans – a completely different set of morals and ethics, and a strong sense of individuality and paving their own way. Once we understand that, we can move past blaming the “person” for the attributes and accept that they are simply a product of the world they’ve grown up in. Over the past twenty-five years, events such as 9/11, the war on terror, a tech boom and the recent recession have all played a role in the creation of this generation.

So, how do these events create beliefs – let’s take a behavior that’s common among Gen Y, and back track. We all know that the advent of the cell phone has made everyone’s life a little easier, but it has also created a definite conundrum for employers. Cell phones can be found being used during meetings, trainings, and interviews all across the world, and when asked to turn them off, an assorted number of responses emerge. So why is this? Some may say that it’s because they just don’t care, but I would like to pose a alternate view.

There is no doubt that texting during a meeting is rude, but we must also realize that this generation has been multi-tasking since the moment they could move. They do not perceive one issue as an all or nothing activity; it is simply one of the many things they believe they can do simultaneously (including while they operate a moving vehicle). It’s also not uncommon for them to be around others who also view it in the same way – another tool for them – not one competing for time, but yet, enhancing the time they have. Now if you believe that, you may be as gullible as they are, but remember, we’re talking about perception and the belief that drives the behavior we see.

To dig a little deeper, let’s imagine that the cell phone is not just seen by a Y-er as a communication device, but as a lifeline. I remember getting a call on my cell phone one morning that woke me up. On the other end was a friend of mine who said “Hey, turn on the TV, New York City is on fire.” It was that moment that solidified for me that my cell phone was no longer just a way to stay in touch, but was actually a personalized newscast or “air raid” siren – and as a Gen Y, I consider relationships, values and purpose to be the top ranking motivations that rank higher on the priority list than dependability, marketability and accountability.

As trainers it’s up to us to distinguish between the way a Gen Y learns as opposed to the way he/she prefers to receive information. Recent studies have suggested that because this generation is so in tune with electronics and technology, education will begin to shift to a completely virtual classroom, where learning will take place in front of a television or computer screen.

I struggle with this idea because it goes against what long standing research has told us – that there are three different learning styles; auditory (hear), visual (see) and kinesthetic (do). I don’t however argue that the number of individuals in each one of these categories might be shifting as society begins to adapt more hands-on approaches to developing solutions. However, it would not be a clear and accurate depiction for one to assume that when the radio was invented back in the early 1900’s, every child born around that time automatically became an auditory learner. We simply enjoyed the luxury of being able to sit together as a family and listen to national newscasts – which was a lot more exciting than reading it in the paper.

We know that most people now-a-days would rather gather information through the Internet, use their phones to communicate with friends, share their information on Facebook and tweet about their daily activities, and so the question now becomes, “How do we as trainers use this technology to enhance the training experience without eliminating what we have and start from scratch?”

The other day I was riding in the car with my mother [Deb Mackin] and we began to discuss this new trend. She immediately began to feel as though our new and upcoming clients would no longer benefit from our trainings the same way the previous generations had, because of the quick changing preferences of the learner. I reassured her as a Gen Y that such was not the case.

Sure we need to be able to adapt to the needs of this generation. More can be done online, or through social media, training should occur in a hands-on environment utilizing all that technology has to offer, but we must not forget that we have all three learners in the room. Training must continue to provide workbooks and other reading material, but what if it was done ahead of time as pre-reads, or attached to a training group that was set up on Facebook or LinkedIn. The instructor is an invaluable tool and resource for any student, but could we imagine that the training room could be virtually interactive, followed up with podcasts for additional learning in a particular area.

We know from recent writings that the Gen Y learner is motivated by being on the cutting edge, by feeling like they are making a difference, and through one-on-one coaching from a mentor instead of a “boss”. So how do we use what we know, to help them learn what they don’t know?

As director of new training and strategic initiatives for New Directions, Michael Harrington designs and delivers leadership programs for Gen X/Y employees, develops virtual workshops on the company’s website and has launched new initiatives and resources in training for business and education. Michael also provides New Directions with additional consultation in the areas of teaming, change management and leadership.