Generation CrY: Millennials Are “Least Happy” Professionals. They Crave Praise. Wah!

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Millennials (Generation Y) crave praise at work, while their Boomer and Mature co-workers merely want clear directions to do their jobs right, a study by Leadership I.Q., a Washington D.C. firm which specializes in employee motivation states. In a survey of 11,244 workers, only less than a third (30 percent) of employees between 21 and 30 years old recommended their workplace as a place to work. However, nearly half (47 percent) of those aged 61 to 70 stated that they were happy at their current place of employment.

The results came as no surprise to sales and marketing professional Bud Boughton, author of Dad’s Last Letter—Leadership Principles for the Next Generation. Naturally older workers are more satisfied at work, he says. “Those who are 61-70 in this day and age are just happy to be working and receiving a paycheck,” Boughton states. “With issues related to loss of job security, potential deteriorating health, questionable healthcare coverage, and living on a fixed income, why wouldn’t they be happy to be working?”

Writer, consultant, trainer and organizational development specialist Les McKeown also names life stage issues as influences on Boomers’ and Matures’ job satisfaction levels. “Most of what the [Leadership I.Q. study] is alleging about Gen Yers is simply a matter of time and experience,” McKeown maintains. “Of course workers in the older age groups are more satisfied and more likely to recommend their place of work—by the time you are [between] 60 and 70, you’ve learned through experience what real job satisfaction is and lost the fevered idealism of youth that imagines a paradise at the end of every job search.”

McKeown adds that Boomers and Matures have “discovered what real satisfaction is” for themselves, and they have carved their careers in a fashion to ensure that they have ended up somewhere where they are happy. “What sort of an idiot 60-year-old is still wandering around trying to find out what job might make them happy?” McKeown jokes.

The survey examined satisfaction levels of employees in the public and private companies, and at health-care institutions. Leadership I.Q. Chairman Mark Murphy stated publicly that results indicate that those under age 30 require more praise than their older counterparts, and encouraged doing so, adding that giving praise boosts job satisfaction, productivity, and costs nothing.

Boughton, whose twenty year career includes experience at companies including Procter & Gamble, Xerox and IBM, bristles as these conclusions. “Maybe [Millennials are] unhappy because from their birth they’ve been coddled and cajoled into thinking that they would never have to meet anyone else’s expectations in life as long as they did their best,” Boughton argues. “Many of these young people are the same kids who grew up playing in youth soccer leagues where every kid got a trophy at the end of the season just for putting a uniform on! They weren’t told to go out there and win, they were told to have fun and do their best, that winning wasn’t important,” Boughton, a coach and former college athlete, contends.

“It is never fair to generalize,” concedes Boughton, “but this is a generation that grew up with a better lifestyle than any previous generation in America and unfortunately, in too many cases, had parents who were more interested in being their friends than in being their parents.”

What about the natural trappings of this young life stage? “Life stages are clearly part of the difference here, but many Millennials entering the workforce have a misperception about some of the realities of life,” Boughton says. “They are the epitome of the ‘instant gratification’ syndrome having grown up on microwave food and having lived a third of their lives at Internet speed. Now, combine this with the idealism that typifies any young person in their twenties or early thirties, and one can understand why they are less than satisfied in the workplace today.”

McKeown takes another approach to understanding Millennials. “There is clearly a mixture of both—’Generation Y’ singularities and simple life cycle realities,” McKeown states. “However, I believe the second (simple life cycle realities) is a much stronger contributing factor than most analysts give credence to—primarily because it isn’t as good a ‘read,’ and doesn’t feed into the cult of the consultant.”

McKeown is critical of research that perpetuates the notion that specialized consultation is required to understand every new crop of employees that enters the workforce. “I really think this latest Leadership I.Q. survey is a crock, as much of the Gen Y nonsense is,” McKeown says. “Yes, they are a distinguishable group, and yes, they do have distinct characteristics, but the conclusions the survey practitioners have drawn are laughably simplistic, and frankly, designed to perpetrate the myth that high paid consultants are needed to ‘educate’ employers into how to treat this ‘new generation.’”

Millennial Care Instructions

Les McKeown, organizational specialist, concedes that there are ways to best understand the workplace dynamics of Millennials. He shared his top tips via email. Here they are, verbatim. Enjoy:

To manage Millennials, and to get the highest productivity out of them, there are some distinguishing characteristics that need to be taken into account. Here are the top five:

  1. They’re a meritocracy. Boomers “drew within the lines,” “played the game” and arduously worked their way up social and ladders. Xers ignored the “system” and broke (or tried to break) social and career paradigms. Gen Y accepts the need for order and structure, but it needs to be open, transparent and based on merit. Try to play “dead men’s shoes” with Gen Y, use favoritism or make unfathomably weird promotion decisions, and they’ll be gone in a heartbeat.
  2. They’re social extremists. [Millennials] flock well. They use social networking skills and tools all day long (after all, they invented it), and the workplace environment needs to reflect this: Lots of cross-functional activity, kaizens (continuous improvement) and communication. Silo-d, plodding, communication-starved environments scare them, and won’t keep Gen Y employees.
  3. They’re ‘default-agnostic’. Boomers were by default ‘pro the organization’. Xers were by default anti-the organization. [Millennials] start as agnostics. If it’s a good idea, they’ll do it. If it’s a bad idea, they’ll say so. They’re not big-eyed optimists like the Boomers, or bitter malevolents, like the Xers (there’s a hint of generalization, there) they are genuinely open to simply do what’s best. That means office politics turns them off. So does any expectation that they “swallow the company line.” Yers drink the Kool-Aid a lot less than Wired and Fast Company would have us believe.
  4. They’re information-driven. They can get it all on Wikipedia and fringe, niche sites (Google and Youtube are so Gen-X!) that they expect exactly the same at work. For many Yers, their first day in a large organization is like trying to get an Internet connection in China. It’s possible to get information, but the quality of it is so thin as to be laughable. Managing Yers means giving them the information they need to get the job done. Make them plead for it, or don’t give it to them, and they’ll find somewhere else.
  5. They’re curious. Yers won’t sit in that box you want them to work in. They want to get out and about, ask about stuff, see how stuff works. They’re an “open-source” generation who are used to cracking and hacking stuff all the time.

They are wary of anyone who tells them they “can’t go there” or they “don’t need to know that.” Managing Yers on a “need to know” basis is an oxymoron.

Now, that doesn’t mean that they don’t understand boundaries—a Millennial will understand as well as anyone why they don’t need to know the Coca Cola special recipe to work on the bottling plant, but the boundaries have to be reasonable, transparent and based on common sense.

What does this all mean? Workplace solutions are simple. To boost productivity and ensure happy Millennials, give them clear direction, access to the information they need to do their job, encourage and provide the infrastructure for them to collaborate with others, build good amounts of discretion and room for initiative into their job description, and managers should be prepared to make their case and not expect unquestioning loyalty.

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