Reporting on two particular workplace trends has become de rigueur. One, the number of baby boomers preparing to retire, and two, the professional nature of the green twentysomethings poised to fill the desk chairs of their predecessors.
This generation, known as Gen-Y, echo boomers, or millennials, spans those whose birth years fall between the early 1980s to the mid 2000s. And as workers, they've been described as "self-centered, needy, and entitled with unrealistic work expectations," says Dan Schawbel, the author of Me 2.0 and founder of the Gen-Y research and consulting firm, Millennial Branding.
This unsavory list of descriptors is in sharp contrast with how this generation views themselves, says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, founder of the Rikleen Institute who has been doing a survey on the perceived and actual work ethic of this age group. "They don't see themselves as entitled," she notes. "They see themselves as very hard-working, dedicated, and loyal."
Both Schawbel and Rikleen agree that the contrast in how this generation is described has to do with limited transparency and compromise between various generations of workers. To dispel some of the workplace confusion, here are three of the most common descriptors for millennial employees that may cause conflict:
Members of Gen-Y like to have their work assessed and seek recognition for their contributions. For older colleagues and managers, however, this attitude seems like a constant, cloying need for ego-stroking.
"It has to do with how [millennials] were raised and coached," says Rikleen, who also works as executive in residence for the Boston College Center for Work & Family. "They had a voice in family dynamics, and in school activities … They've gotten a report card in every phase of their life. In school and extracurricular activities, they were always encouraged to do more, and they received constant feedback on how they were doing."
What millennials should do: It's reasonable to expect feedback on your performance, but it's also important to remember that your manager's sole job isn't to manage you. Ask if you can schedule periodic evaluations to discuss your projects and progress.
What older managers should do: Be transparent about how each worker's responsibilities contribute to a large overall project, and remain receptive to giving official evaluations.
Telecommuting and flex-time aren't seen as work privileges to this generation, but rather, work requirements. Some Gen-Yers enter the workforce indignant to receive remote access, demanding an office Blackberry, and inquiring about their summer-hours schedule. Their ease with technology means they also expect leniency to visit social media sites and use personal electronics during work time.
"This is a generation that always grew up with computers," Rikleen says. "So they don't understand why they would need to come in [to the office] every day if their work is primarily done on a computer."
What millennials should do: Although you may be able to do all your work from home, telecommuting is still a privilege, not a right. Don't begrudge an office that doesn't extend this luxury. If a lack of flexibility is a deal-breaker for you, then do plenty of research on corporate culture before sending in a resume. As you progress in the hiring process, begin asking questions about the company's stance on telecommuting.
What older managers should do: Use this generation's tech acumen to the benefit of your company. Involve younger colleagues in developing a social marketing strategy.
Let's say you're a young employee working in an entry-level position. You haven't been working very long, but you no longer feel challenged. This might cause you to jump the gun on requesting a promotion, or to begin job searching. You might see your job-hopping as opportunistic, but older workers probably view it as disloyalty.
According to Rikleen, "millennials measure respect by being heard," while older workers measure respect with experience and longevity. "Millennials [also] expect to develop and move up faster. But what's interesting, however, is that data shows that millennials that felt needed and wanted in their workplace were less antsy [to receive promotions or leave]."
What millennials should do: Subdue the wanderlust you might be feeling. Schawbel says you should aim to work at your first job for at least a year and a half. Ask for new projects, not a promotion, then use that experience to bolster your worth to your current and future employers.
What older managers should do: Be as transparent as possible with your colleagues on how their responsibilities contribute to larger goals. Invite younger employees to brainstorming sessions.
Here are a few additional tips for lessening the frustration and miscommunication between generations of workers:
Managers should … embrace training and development. "Another expectation that millennials bring to the workplace is that they'll have the opportunity for training and development," Rikleen says. "But that can be very shoddy from workplace to workplace."
Millennials should … embrace face time. According to Rikleen, Gen-Y workers "really need to better understand how to communicate with other generations. Informal emails, text messages, and IMs don't always reflect well on a young professional. Face time isn't an annoyance, but a way of getting to know people."
All generations should … avoid the intern-hiring solution. Employers should see intern opportunities as training, and not as a guaranteed gateway into full-time employment with a company. Kerry Chou, senior practice leader with the World at Work, says, "I think internships serve a valuable purpose when they are administered in the spirit in which they're intended."
Schawbel says: "For internships, grab as many as you can. Do two internships in one semester. An internship is not going to turn into a job anymore. It's rare."