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Gen Y Perspective: Flexibility, Work-Life Balance, and Curb Cuts

In today’s Teach Me Teamwork seminar on managing Gen Y, Bea Fields (the author of Millennial Leaders) mentioned that many managers are taken aback by Gen Y’s demands for flextime, telecommuting, and other work-life balance initiatives. Some companies complain about the lack of work ethic in young employees and wonder how much of a circus work needs to be in order to retain and engage Gen Y. Other companies are adapting, exploring results-only work environments and other-than-traditional-office arrangements.

I am really glad that Gen Yers have the chutzpah and the numbers to make workplace flexbility and work-life balance a front-and-center issue. We’ve seen the consequences of other people’s decisions. We’ve seen people work overtime, weekends, and holidays for companies that then laid them off in resource actions or folded because of market circumstances. Many Gen Yers come from separated families where stress from work took its toll. The lesson? Making a living can’t be more important than living a life.

What do Gen Yers want? Here’s what often comes up:

  • A focus on results, not just face-time
  • The ability to work from home or from anywhere
  • The flexibility to work when we’re most effective, whether that’s early in the morning or late at night

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Workplace flexibility and work-life balance weren’t a Gen Y issue in the beginning. This started with working mothers who found themselves pulled between the demands of family and job. Some fathers were interested in this too, but social conventions stopped it from becoming a real issue. Gen Y of both genders care about work-life balance and flexibility, and not just because of family responsibilities.

I read a lot about work-life balance, and I talk to a lot of people who’ve made decisions either way. I’ve heard how focusing on work can become a vicious cycle: if the rest of your life suffers because of your focus on work, then it’s easier to focus on work and harder to build up the rest of your life to the point where you enjoy it again. I don’t mind the occasional crunch. I want a sustainable pace, and life is too short to work at a company that wants to burn me out instead of help me grow.

Initiatives for workplace flexibility and work-life balance are like the curb-cuts that make cities better for people in wheelchairs: they benefit many more people than the original targets. If you’ve ever rolled a stroller or a suitcase along a busy street, you know how great those curb-cuts are. Flextime, telecommuting, results-only work environments, and other initiatives aren’t just about attracting and retaining Gen Y. They also help companies make the most of other people’s talents: Baby Boomers phasing into semi-retirement, Gen Xers starting to raise their own families, and people who work in non-traditional arrangements.

Flexibility and work-life balance: good for everyone.

Gen Y Perspective: Why Gen Y Won’t Stay at Jobs that Suck

In yesterday’s talk by Bea Fields on managing Gen Y, one of the listeners asked how much of a fun circus work would need to become in order to attract and retain younger workers. The well-known and much-criticized Gen Y tendency to job hop makes Gen Y retention a key issue for companies around the world. Here’s my Gen Y perspective on this issue: when work-life balance is important and career plans are chaotic, it just doesn’t pay to work at jobs that suck.

Why do people work at jobs that don’t make them happy? There seem to be three main reasons:

  • They need the money or the health insurance.
  • They don’t care about the sacrifices they have to make.
  • They see it as a stepping-stone towards a bigger opportunity.

Let’s look at those three reasons from a Gen Y perspective.

Do they need the money or the health insurance?

Many Gen Yers still live at home, so they have less financial pressure. Others live on their own or with friends, but aren’t carrying mortgages or supporting families. True, many Gen Yers experience financial pressure from student loans, credit card debt and other obligations, but most can get by.

What about health care? We’re in the prime of our lives, and most don’t need to worry about losing insurance coverage. Life insurance and family insurance needs are low, because we typically don’t have any dependents. That means we can shift jobs without worrying about not being covered in the meantime.

Why else would people take jobs they weren’t happy in? They might not care about the other sacrifices they need to make, such as working long hours and living under high stress.

I know many Gen Yers who work overtime and weekends, but I also know many Gen Yers who prioritize work-life balance and who make time in their lives for other things. If their jobs don’t allow them to have the kind of life they want, they’ll look for other opportunities. They know that for every company that talks about company loyalty and retention but then turns around and expects an unsustainable pace of work, there are also companies that walk the walk and are really interested in improving workplace flexibility–not just for senior employees, but for everyone.

Why would people work so hard, anyway? The answer is related to the third reason why people stay in jobs that don’t make them happy. They see those jobs as stepping-stones to greater opportunities.

It used to be that you would “pay your dues” in a boring, thankless job, eventually rising in the ranks and gaining a cushy position. Not any more. After rampant downsizing (I mean, “right-sizing”, or “resource actions”, as IBM likes to call it), the failure of even supposedly rock-solid institutions (hello, Fannie Mae!), and the un-cushy-izing of formerly cushy positions such as partners in law firms (who are now subject to the threat of de-equitization) is it any wonder why many people–Gen Y, especially, as we’re making these entry-level decisions–no longer believe in long-term career planning and in paying your dues in a thankless position?

Lesson One in Daniel Pink‘s unconventional career guide The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is: “There is no plan.”

There is no plan. If there can be no neat plan from getting from point A to point B, if being the office gopher won’t get you to the corner office, if you can burn yourself out because of overtime and high stress but still be laid off because of unpredictable market conditions, then it makes sense to take a step back, invest in yourself, and do work that creates value and make you happy.

Gen Y knows this: your employer pays you, but you ultimately work for yourself. You are ultimately responsible for developing your own skills, finding your own opportunities, and making the life that you want.

Gen Y challenges for recruiting and retention, such puzzling issues for HR departments all over the world, are really just logical reactions to the realities of the marketplace. It makes sense to pick jobs and organizations where you can create value, learn, and enjoy working. It makes sense to contribute and learn as much as you can, then move before you get moved–whether it’s to another job in the organization, or to another organization entirely. It makes sense to make sure that there’s something in it for you.

Does that mean that Gen Yers are mercenary? No. In fact, money isn’t the biggest reason why Gen Yers leave organizations. Gen Yers are looking for opportunities to make a difference, to grow, to connect, and to work with people they admire. Dot-com-like perks like foosball tables are fun, but they don’t make up for opportunities to make a difference.

The organization that can quickly tap new Gen Yers’ passions and skills, move them into a position where they can contribute in a meaningful way, and help them build the social networks that will make them even more productive–that’s the kind of organization that will be able to easily recruit and retain Gen Y, because that’s the kind of organization that understands what matters.

Upcoming webcasts on social networking, Gen Y

Here are some free upcoming webcasts I’m planning to attend:

Brazen Careerist: Capturing the Hearts and Minds of Young Talent through Blogs
Presenter: Penelope Trunk, CEO & Founder, Brazen Careerist
Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2008
Time: 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM ET
Grassroots Networking: The Pros and Cons of Growing Your Social Network
Panelists: Shannon Baker, HR Manager, Cisco Systems, Inc. Deborah Casaubon, Director, Talent Development, Cisco Systems, Inc. Megan Hundley, HR Manager, Cisco Systems, Inc.
Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2008
Time: 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM ET
Best Practices in Integrated Corporate Social Networking: The Intersection of CSN, Web 2.0 and Talent Management
Presenters: Charles Coy, Director of Product Marketing, Cornerstone OnDemand, Allan Schweyer, Exec. Director & SVP, Research, Human Capital Institute (HCI)
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 2008
Time: 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM ET
I Can Do It Myself! Providing Gen X and Gen Y Employees with A New Breed of e-learning Tools
Presenter: Tom Casey, Principal, The Concours Group
Date: Thu, 11 Dec 2008
Time: 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM ET

Anyone else dialing in? =) Maybe we can share notes.

Notes from the City of Toronto Web 2.0 Summit

Thanks to Aaron Kim’s referral, I participated on a panel about Generation Y and Government 2.0 at the City of Toronto’s Web 2.0 Summit. I told a couple of stories about characteristics of my generation and opportunities (for everyone!) opened up by Web 2.0, including Clay Shirky’s story about 4-year-olds and televisions (hmm, got the details wrong on that one). During the panel, I learned about the City of Toronto’s push towards citizen-centric views of information with their 311 project, some thoughts on using subscriptions, aggregation and filtering in order to deal with information overload, and concerns about digital divides and lack of access to computers or the Net. I also heard a story about how one company uses the Web 2.0 equivalent of a swear jar – people who send attachments through e-mail get poked about how they can be using more effective tools to collbaorate. =)

What went well?

  • People: I enjoyed getting to meet the organizers, the other panelists, and the audience members. People had interesting stories and questions. I particularly enjoyed Mark Surman’s talk about lessons from open source development that may help cities become more open and participative. =)
  • Webcast: There was a live webcast of the event, and Lan Nguyen told me that more than three hundred people from all over Canada logged in to watch the streaming video. Moderators also took questions from the online audience and brought them into the discussion. This was a terrific idea because it allowed more people to participate. People were interested in simultaneous webcasting for all city sessions, and I think that would be a Good Thing.
  • Twitter backchannel: Towards the end of our panel, I noticed that one of the online comments mentioned the #to20 Twitter backchannel. I pulled out my iPod Touch, keyed in the wireless user name and password the organizers gave me, and navigated to the #to20 search page. After I scanned through the previous discussions, I started bringing ideas from the backchannel into our panel conversation. People’s tweets reminded me of interesting points to bring up. I’m really glad I had access to the Twitter backchannel without doing something as awkward as bringing out a laptop, and that I could get to know different aspects of the people I’d just met in person. Good stuff! I’ll be relying on Twitter to keep me up to date tomorrow, as I won’t be able to attend in person and rumor has it that the live webcast requires Internet Explorer.
  • Experience: I’m usually anxious before panels and presentations like this because I don’t feel at all like an expert. Who am I to talk about Web 2.0, or Generation Y, or something like that? I make up for it by reading a _lot_ about the topic, collecting stories, and talking to a lot of people about the topic. This time, I was even more anxious because I’m not a citizen of Canada, I didn’t grow up in Toronto, and I don’t know much about the way the Canadian political system works. But the pre-event call reassured me that they’d be okay with my newcomer perspective, and during the panel, it turned out that I had plenty to share: stories from other organizations and people, ideas I’ve written and spoken about, experiences I’ve reflected on… It all worked out well, and I’m glad I got to share some of what I’d learned. =)
  • What would make this even better?

  • Focus: A development issue pulled my attention away during the last panel session, which was a pity because it seemed like an interesting one.
  • Planning: I really should get into the habit of asking for the registration list or even just looking speakers up so that I can have richer face-to-face conversations with them. Names alone are hard to search for. The next time I help organize a conference, I think I’ll ask everyone for blog addresses, Web addresses, profile links, or a short self-introduction… Hey, maybe I’ll do that for my tea party! =)
  • Linking: Should’ve found the webcast URL before the event and posted it on my blog, so that more people could tune in! I’ll keep an eye out for recordings. =)

Lots of people to follow up with, lots of conversations to continue…

Reality check! Things are awesome

Dan Pink shares this reality check from the comedian Louis CK:

It’s easy to take progress for granted. Amazing things become commonplace. It’s even easier for Generation Yers like me to ignore all the leaps and bounds. We grew up with the Internet – how crazy is that?

But there are so many opportunities to experience wonder and gratitude, even for simple things like going to the supermarket, taking transit, borrowing books from the library. People wonder why I’m so happy–well, that’s it! Everything is amazing. =)

And heck, I’m still profoundly thankful that someone figured out how to domesticate cats. <grin>

Everything is amazing. Are you happy?

Young and savvy

Over at My Two Dollars, Diane Hamilton wrote a post decrying how Millennials “have been raised to expect immediate gratification” and that “everyone is bending over backward to meet their needs” (which popular media has been harping on for a while). She proposes adding more financial courses to colleges and K12, developing personal finance books geared towards younger kids, and sharing mistakes and lessons learned with kids.

Heh. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but want to stick my tongue out at popular media when it paints Gen Y with too broad a brush (and yes, that applies even when they’re bringing out the “Gen Y Will Save the World!” stories).

Especially when it comes to Gen Y and money. It’s true that more and more people are struggling with student debt. In many countries, younger people felt locked out of the real estate market because older people had more assets and could bid up house prices. Now they feel locked out of the real estate market because of less access to capital and lower earning power. And of course, there are many younger people who have moved back with their parents in order to save money, a phenomenon much remarked-on in popular media.

Two words: sub-prime mortgages. Who got the economy into that mess, anyway? ;) But this is the world we’re growing up in, so we’ll just have to help fix it.

But you know, it’s not that bad. =) Here’s what I think about money and my generation: Most of us have seen way too many people make way too many mistakes about life, about money, about all sorts of things. It doesn’t mean that we won’t make our own set of mistakes, but it does mean that we’re generally not as clueless as media paint us to be. ;) The Gen Yers I’ve talked to keep tabs on their spending and plan long-term investment, look for ways to be frugal, and are pretty darn good at using all sorts of new tools to manage their money and learn more.

Then again, I’m weird, and maybe many of my friends are weird too. ;)

Schools: while I’m all for introducing more real-life education into schools, parents should take responsibility for teaching their children financial savvy. Children can have the best lessons in school, but if they come home to parents neck-deep in credit card debt and still spending on unnecessary things, or who laugh at the idea of saving for the long-term for people in their twenties, something’s wrong with that picture.

Don’t just share your mistakes. Share the good things you do. Share your decision-making process. Share your goals, too. Lead by example.

I’m really lucky to have money-savvy parents. My mom and my dad set up their own business, funding all of their growth from a little capital they had saved up and from reinvested profits. My mom taught me how to use the envelope method to manage my money without feeling constrained by a fixed budget. She also taught me never to carry a balance on my credit card, to resist the temptation to spend excessively on consumer goods, and to plan for the long term. Both my parents taught me to spend where it counts.

It’s not hard to do something like that too. Instead of getting all worried about Gen Y and immediate gratification, practice conscious spending and reflective action yourself, and you’ll teach people of all generations along the way.

SO:

  • Gen Y isn’t all that bad.
  • People can teach other people through example, and parents should definitely take responsibility for helping their kids learn. And it’s not that hard–just do the right thing yourselves, and share what you’re learning.
  • Try to avoid popular overgeneralizations. It’s easy to take one of the polarized perspectives from popular media (“Gen Y is bad!” “Gen Y is good!” “Gen Y is just the same as everyone else!”), but you can miss out on more thoughtful discussion.

As for Gen Y being spoiled kids at work–you have to wonder how many of the things we ask for are common-sense. ;) Work-life balance is something I think a lot about, but it’s good for everyone. Focusing on results rather than on face-time–again, that’s a business best practice. Wanting opportunities to be engaged, to do work that you’re passionate about? That makes sense for everyone, too.

My team would be the first to tell you that they adapt to me at least as much as I adapt to them, and they’d also be quick to reassure you that this is a Good Thing. ;)