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Managing the Gen X/Y employee

By Lynne Curry, Ph.D, SPHR  bio

If you heard a male employee say “Yo, dude!” to a female employee you’d think the comment (check your choice):



Please complete the following sentences:

Patience is a ______.

Good things come to _____ ___ ____.

If you checked “inappropriate” or “insulting” or wrote “virtue” or “those who wait” you clearly aren’t a Gen Y manager or employee. If, however, you checked “affectionate” and wrote “mistake” and “those who play” you either understand or are Gen Y.

The differences in values our differences make

Most of us raised in the Traditionalist (1922 to 1943) or Baby Boomer (1944 to 1964) eras stumble when we find ourselves managing Gen X (1965-1980) and Gen Y (1981 to 2000) employees. The differences? Traditionalist managers expect loyalty, practicality, work ethic and respect for authority from our employees. Those 80 million of us baby boomers born after World War II grew up believing in the American Dream. We believed that rewards come to those who deserve them, that hard work pays off and that the good guy wins and the bad guy loses by the end of the movie. Gen X and Y employees view authority, respect, rules and even right and wrong differently.

What we as Traditionalist or Baby Boomer managers need to learn, and learn fast, are the concrete differences in Gen X and Y employee thinking patterns. Once we learn those, we have the framework we need to effectively manage them as employees.

Gen X

Gen Xers have a sense of immediacy and impatience natural to those raised in an era of rapid change and instant replay television. Unlike their parents, they rarely stay with an employer for more than three years. Says researcher Bruce Tulgan in Managing Gen X, “Before turning 30, Gen Xers are likely to have one pretty good job (maybe two); one pretty bad job (maybe two); at least think about dropping out of the rat race for a while (and maybe do it); at least think about going back to school (and maybe do it); and at least think about starting a business (and maybe do it).”

For Gen Xers, who grew up listening to dinner table discussions about layoffs, downsizing and managers who didn’t treat their parents well, the employer/employee relationship is one of service rendered for dollars paid. Gen Xers consider “dues-paying” an obsolete concept and believe career success requires that they follow opportunity wherever it takes them. As a result, they work for employers as long as they get what they need, which normally means a good salary, excellent benefits, marketable skills and interesting work. Unlike their parents, they won’t willingly sacrifice quality of life for work and money and seek jobs that offer them both.

Gen Xers grew up seeing the president and military and business leaders taken to task for lies. To a large extent, their Baby Boomer parents “sought after them” and “gave them all the luxuries we never had” and their teachers rewarded them for “thinking outside the box.” As a result, they expect flexibility and understanding from their managers and show an innate lack of respect for authority—believing managers need to earn their respect by being willing to take their needs as employees into account.

Gen Xers grew up in an era during which divorce rates tripled and nearly half of their parents’ marriages ended in divorce. These “latch-key” kids learned to fend for themselves after school and now crave autonomy at work and demand that those above them to let go the reins as soon as possible.

Gen Y

Gen Y employees (1981 to 2000) refuse to do the “what” until they hear the “why”. Raised by teachers and parents who allowed them to freely speak their minds, these employees can drive managers crazy with questions such as “why should I believe you?” and “why do I need to do it that way?”

Techno-literate Gen Ys grew up with IM (instant messaging) and watched the Gulf War fought on television screens in their own living rooms. Stimulus junkies, they want instant feedback, rapid results, immediate compensation and often have a stronger connection to the Internet than to their supervisors.

For these employees job security is an oxymoron and a dollar reward today outweighs fifty at the end of the year. Raised in large part by television, video games and their peers, these employees want to live now because they don’t know what the future holds. Further, they’ve seen the bad guy get away with it too many times to buy into the starry-eyed innocence of “all this and more can be yours some day if you work hard and fly right.” Thus managers can’t easily stir their emotions with rah-rah motivational pep talks nor expect them to be deeply saddened by verbal warnings.

Because they’ve witnessed a president shade the truth to get out of trouble and heard endless stories from their parents about Dilbert-style managers, Gen Ys consider most rules negotiable and refuse to treat those in authority with fear, reverence or even respect.

At work, Gen Y employees need jobs that offer excitement as well as a paycheck. As one Gen Y manager said, “If you can’t keep your Gen Y employees engaged and interested, you can’t keep them.”

Managing Gen X and Y employees

Given these realities, what does it take to motive a Gen X or Y employee?

First, don’t expect loyalty. For Gen X and Y, employment is an opportunity/money relationship. If you can, break free from using only hourly or salary wage compensation and pay based on results. For incentives, consider short-term bonuses that reward exactly what you want to see. As example, you might bring donuts for those early to work, surprise those still working diligently late Friday on a holiday weekend with movie tickets or reimburse an occasional lunch for those who always return to their work station within their allocated lunch hour.

Second, given their desire for independence and flexibility and irreverence toward authority, don’t micromanage Gen X or Y employees or hope them to accept your commands at face value. Instead, figure out how to help them self-manage. Further, don’t take their skepticism or questions personally. Instead, assume these employees possess a mental microchip that filters out instructions they don’t accept and realize that employees of all ages benefit from hearing reasons when given rules and assignments.

Third, give them technology and training—so they won’t feel staying with your company equals losing ground in their careers. According to a recent Gallup study, job satisfaction of the Gen Xers surveyed increased from 70 to 84 percent when they received training. Further, 80 percent of Xers stated that training availability was a “major factor in choosing a new job.” If your company hasn’t yet realized the full benefits gained from moving headfirst into the technology age, turn your Xers and Ys loose on this project and you motivate them and benefit your company simultaneously.

Fourth, make your workplace interesting and engaging through participation, forward movement toward goals and competitive-based rewards. You’re competing with video games, the Internet and other employers for your workers’ attention. Fair? Perhaps not. Reality? Yes.

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