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We hear a lot of talk about Generation Y in the workplace and how they need to be managed. But are this generation really so different from their elders? Should they be treated differently? Here’s what you need to know.

Who are they?

The exact definition of Generation Y varies slightly depending on the source but more often than not, it means anyone born between 1980 and 1995. The US authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, thought to be the first to identify the specific generation in their book Generations: The History of America’s Future, set this generation as those born between 1982 to 2004, while the accountants and business advisers PwC describe them as ‘Millennials’, on the basis that they entered the workplace after June 2000.

Why do they matter?

They matter because of numbers. Generation Y will form half of the global workforce by 2020 and three-quarters of it by 2025. Depending on the demographics of individual nations, their influence could be even stronger – in India they already account for over half of the population. The under-34s already account for about a third of the UK’s workforce and in some sectors the proportion is even higher – around 42% in the media sector, for example.

What’s the problem for employers?

The difficulty for employers is that Generation Y, generally speaking, are markedly different from previous generations. They have very particular characteristics, preferences and needs – and as a result they need to be managed differently in order to get the best out of them. That makes managing a workforce that is a mix of Generation Y and older workers – Baby Boomers and Generation X, to give them a label – extremely challenging.

What do you mean by different?

Quite a few myths and untruths have sprung up around Generation Y, who they are and what they want at work, so let’s begin with the characteristics that most people agree on:

They have grown up with, and feel extremely comfortable with, technology. This almost goes without saying, but there are a number of implications for the way in which they behave and communicate, which we’ll discuss a little later.

They don’t see a clear line between ‘work’ and ‘home’. You will often see the comment that Generation Y values the work-life balance more than previous generations. That’s not strictly true – the underlying issue is that technology, and smartphones in particular, have blurred the boundaries between work and home to the extent that the two are no longer distinct. This generation can work anywhere and at any time – why should it be between 9 and 5, and in the office? To Generation Y, ‘work’ is a thing they do, not a place they go to.

They don’t expect a traditional career. Their parents may have worked for the same employer for most of their career, or at the very most moved once or twice; Generation Y expects something very different from their career. PwC’s research showed that only 4% of Millennials expect to stay with their employer for their entire career and a quarter expects to have at least six employers during their working life. In fact, they are not committed to working for someone else at all – a very high proportion want to work for themselves at some stage (research by the Intelligence Group in the US puts this figure at 72%).

They are idealistic. According to Intelligence Group, 64% say their priority is to make the world a better place. Other surveys agree (although the proportion agreeing is often lower); what it boils down to is that Generation Y employees want to be proud of what they do and proud of whom they work for.

What are the myths about Generation Y?

They avoid face-to-face communication. This is partly true – according to PwC’s research, 41% of Millennials would rather communicate electronically than in person. But when it comes to their personal career path, face-to-face communication becomes very important indeed – Generation Y want and actively seek out regular advice and feedback, and they want it in person. PwC’s research found that when it comes to talking about their career, 96% of Millennials want to talk face-to-face, compared to 95% of their counterparts from other generations.

They’re lazy.There are always exceptions of course, but sometimes Gen Y youngsters are assumed to be lazy simply because they don’t work within traditional work hours, or at traditional places of work. They see themselves as working smarter, rather than harder, than other generations.

They feel entitled. Again, it might be easy to assume this but it isn’t strictly true. Generation Y is ambitious, certainly, and (with the confidence of the young) expect rapid career progression. PwC found that 56% of Millennials felt they could rise to the top with their current employer.

What does this mean for employers?

There are certainly a number of things that employers can do to get the most out of Generation Y:

Get flexible. According to the Intelligence Group, 74% of Generation Y wants a flexible work schedule. Studies consistently show that the work/life balance is the most important element in retaining Gen Y workers. PwC’s research found that 64% of Millennials would like to work from home occasionally, and 66% would like to work shift hours.

Concentrate on culture. Workplace culture is extremely important to Generation Y – they want to work in a place that is strong on teamwork, with a good sense of community. They also see transparency, in terms of reward and career decisions, as absolutely essential.

Build a brand. The employer brand matters to this generation more than to any before them. They want to work for an employer they can feel proud of. Using social media to spread the word about your organisation and what you do pays real dividends with Gen Y.

Be encouraging. Feedback and constant encouragement not only work, they are imperative to Millenials. PwC found that 41% would prefer to be recognised for their work at least on a monthly basis.

What do they feel about pay?

The good news for employers is that Generation Y rates fulfilment and other non-monetary rewards as least as important as pay. Research detailed in the Harvard Business Review found that the six types of reward ranked as least as important as compensation for Generation Y are, in order:

  1. High-quality colleagues
  2. Flexible work arrangements
  3. Prospects for career progression
  4. Recognition from your boss
  5. A steady rate of promotion
  6. Access to new experiences and challenges.

How do I manage mixed generations in the workplace?

That is one of the most difficult elements as there are inherent conflicts between what each generation wants and how they should be managed. Most challenging of all is that older managers tend to speak a different language to Generation Y and there is a risk that Generation Y see their older counterparts as getting in the way of their ambitions. And each demographic group reacts differently – for example, PwC found in its NextGen study that Millennials are more likely to leave their employer if their needs for support, appreciation and flexibility are not met, while non-Millennials are more likely to leave if they feel they are not being paid competitively, or being developed as they should.

That said, PwC also points out that there are at least as many similarities between Millennial employees and others as there are differences. For example, Millennials want greater flexibility at work but PwC found that a significant number of employees from all generations would be willing to give up pay and delay promotions for the sake of a more flexible work schedule.

The answer is to understand the different needs and preferences of each demographic group of worker, and to do your best to meet them. When it comes to people management, one size does not fit all.

Want to know more? Further reading:

PwC’s Millennials at work:

IBM research: Myths and uncomfortable truths about Generation Y – all the latest research on Gen Y

Rob Ashgar on

Gen Y myths and realities:

PwC’s NextGen: A global generational study:

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Space2BE are a niche management consultancy business supporting clients to improve their performance through people using consultancy interventions; talent management, organisation development, change management and development interventions; executive coaching, leadership & management development and building high performing teams. We are team of circa 35 spread across the UK and working internationally and nationally with businesses and organisations from all sectors. If you’d like to explore how we can help you please contact either Rachel or Karen at: or or telephone 0207 666 3070.