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Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

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Echo Boomers In More Than Name Only

The Baby Boomer-Generation Y (aka Echo Boomers) similarities, differences and interactions are fascinating and, for some people, exasperating. Joanne B. Ciulla, professor of leadership and ethics at the University of Richmond and author of The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work, wrote an article for the New York Times "Preoccupations" column that grabbed me. Titled "The Work Ethic, in a Modern Guise" (July 1, 2007) and describing her observations of Generation Y students, it points to the attitudes that can translate into shortcomings in the work world. It also conveys an optimism that they will in time prove worthy of running the world.

First the good news: Ciulla lists her students' admirable qualities: creativity, idealism, energy, hard work (all similar to Baby Boomers), technological competence, and "dizzying sociability." This generation is willing to work long hours - if they think it pays off for them.

Even in college, Ciulla says, "having grown up in a society that celebrates consumerism and status," they value external rewards more than learning or the ethic of working hard to do the best job possible. Over 70% of both male and female students in a 2006 survey of college freshman at UCLA said the primary reason they were attending college was to make more money.

This focus on the tangible (monetary) results rather than appreciation of learning or process reinforces the perception of an entitlement mentality and questionable work ethic, whether or not that is so when you drill down to get to know Gen Y individuals. Ciulla points to three traits particularly:

* They think they are entitled to high grades because they put a lot of time in. To me that sounds like the billable hour syndrome rather than valuing the quality of the work product or efficiency.

* Students frequently request a "do over" in order to raise their grades. When they don't do much better the second time, they expect the higher grade anyway just for the effort to redo.

* Most of the students believe they are above average, an attitude reinforced by rampant grade inflation.

If and when the professors allow and reward these behaviors, they are providing a short-term fix of ego-boosting (often to themselves as well when students get to evaluate faculty), but a long-term disservice in terms of preparation for the workplace. The students get no clear concept of how they compare in abilities, and they don't receive the feedback that could lead to improvement and distinguish their strengths from weaknesses.

So then, with their high (perhaps inflated) grades they join the work force, frequently in firms and organizations where their superiors (partners, senior associates and managers) are too busy and/or untrained in how to give good, prompt, constructive feedback in the style and substance that provides a positive learning experience and boost in competencies. The result is bound to be mutual frustration if not a train-wreck.

Like the Baby Boomers, especially in their younger days, Generation Y - dubbed Echo Boomers for their large numbers - want to change the world and may act as though they are all prepared if the Boomers and Gen X would not stand in their way. The reality is somewhat different for many of them. They may be eager. But we saw with Gen X in the collapse of most dot-coms that judgment, maturity and management and financial experience in combination with new ideas, enthusiasm confidence and willingness to work hard are necessary for success. Developing skills is sometimes boring in the learning process.

The generations need to team up bringing an attitude of mutual appreciation to the table. It may not be instantaneous, but it's worth the effort for the long term.

Back to Ciulla's article, she concludes with some advice to Baby Boomer managers challenged by dealing with Gen Y employees. "When you are frustrated with a young employee, imagine the pictures of students in your college yearbook and ask yourself this question: Do these people look like they could someday run the world?"


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2007. All rights reserved

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