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Sibling Rivalry with Penelope Trunk

Apr 2, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

I’m an on-the-cusp Gen-Y worker listening to a stereotypical Gen X-er talk about what Gen Y wants in their careers.Really, I think. What can she teach recruiters about how to manage me and my generation in the workplace?

It’s not that I don’t respect the rat-a-tat, rapid-fire delivery by workplace writer Penelope Trunk, speaking at the ERE Expo in San Diego. Her witty observations appear in her syndicated Boston Globe column and on her popular blog. It’s not her delivery that annoys me; what is bugging me is that for as many times as she completely misses the mark about what Gen Y wants, she also sometimes nails it.

But the painfully obvious takeaway is that her observations about Gen Y are predicated on a classic case of sibling rivalry. Gen X is the typical oldest child who has fought their “parents,” or those Boomer bosses, all their careers.

Meanwhile, their spoiled, overly coddled baby sibling (Gen Y worker) swoops right in and gets everything they want in the workplace.

10 Approaches to Gen Y

Trunk offers a list of 10 approaches to understanding the Gen Y workforce, or what she terms the most “fundamentally conservative” generation to date:

  1. They live with their parents. She claims they use this as a buffer to ensure they can have the type of career they want. And this is bad why?
  2. They job hop. Sure, this might be annoying on the surface, but it’s true that this makes workers more engaged because the learning curve starts flattening a lot faster. As she points out, “HR can’t toss the resumes if a whole generation is job-hopping.” In fact, the “revolutionary” thing to do is stay at a job for seven years; no one is doing that, she says.
  3. They have no loyalty to a company, but they have loyalty to their projects. Gen Y, she claims, is always gunning for the best project and are dedicated to doing well. If you’re a good manager, the loyalty will be to you, she says, because young people are loyal to people who help them.
  4. They ignore school. She claims that “Gen Y realizes that getting good grades doesn’t help you in the world” and are “writing posts about how stupid school is.” Is this anything new? This doesn’t seem particularly Gen Y-centric; after all, isn’t the leader of the free world an admittedly proud “Cs get degrees” success story?
  5. They are entrepreneurs. With 70% wanting to work for themselves, she says, many view self-employment as a safety net. As a generation scarred by the Boomers’ depleted Enron retirement accounts, this shouldn’t be shocking for any recruiter.
  6. They hate entry-level work. She claims that workers used to do “stupid, meaningless work because they wanted to climb the ladder, but now there is no reason for anyone to be paying their dues, because if everyone is job-hopping, it’s not effective.” Spread that work out as much as possible, she recommends, because it is “really arrogant to tell someone to waste their day” with menial work.
  7. They want to leave work a lot. Family comes first before work, she says, noting that this very conservative approach to family is correct because “it’s crazy that we have a workplace set up that doesn’t put family first, so we’re lucky to have a new workforce thinking that. We all believe in that.”
  8. They demand non-hierarchal structures. Gen Y “grew up on teams and think together as a team, and it is completely annoying because there is a hierarchy for a reason, but if you don’t listen to everyone’s ideas, then why are they there?” She points out that research proves that people who work in diverse teams are more effective. Be honest: if you like being at the top of the pecking order, you’re not being a good leader.
  9. They demand constant feedback. “Everyone wants to be told what they’re doing well and what they’re not. It’s time-consuming, because that means you really have to manage people,” she says. Most leaders at the top of corporate America can point to someone who mentored them, she points out. Perhaps Gen Y are living with their parents because their parents are the best mentors of all, though Trunk doesn’t seem to see it that way.
  10. They leave. Young people will leave if not happy, while boomers would “stage a protest, sign petitions, and have a sit-in with their company.” She again points out that “Gen Y love their parents, they live with their parents, they are learning from them. They’re doing everything their parents say. They won’t protest the ‘adults’ at the company, so instead, they leave, because their parents’ basement beckons.”

Gen X can take the basement; I expect my boss to have created a cushier spot up top for us coddled Gen Y workers.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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