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Generation Y: What it takes to attract and get the best from the Generation Y workforce

Generation Y: What it takes to attract and get the best from the Generation Y workforce

Why has so much airtime been given to this generation in particular?

Firstly, their size, a demographically large population, is twice the size of Generation X (Harvard).  Secondly from a business perspective, line managers are describing heightened challenges in managing this generation well.  We consistently hear that there is a disconnection between the management and career expectations of this generation and what their superiors believe is possible - and desirable. Closing this gap is key to attracting and retaining the best talent in what will become an increasingly competitive talent marketplace. So, what are their expectations?

Defining this generation:  strengths and challenges

In contrast with Generation X (born 1966-1976), Generation Y refers to those born mid 1980’s-90’s onwards, those currently in the workplace aged mid-twenties to early thirties.  This generation is described as ambitious, but not at any price. They want significant responsibility and a steep career trajectory, but work/life balance is consistently rated as critical.

The difficulty in successfully managing these seemingly contradictory objectives may explain why this generation may have the highest likelihood of unmet professional expectations of any previous generation. Studies also show that they may be the most narcissistic. Paul Harvey, a University of New Hampshire professor and Generation Y expert, has researched this, finding that Generation Y has "unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback," and "an inflated view of oneself."

He says that "a great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations. They often feel entitled to a level of respect and rewards that aren't in line with their actual ability and effort levels, and so they might not get the level of respect and rewards they are expecting." Interviewing a US male lawyer in his late twenties in a major international firm, “we have been raised being told we are special, through our family, school, and college , then you hit the world of work and no one feeds back to you, no one provides that level of input. I want to go where I am valued.”

This generation rates the social atmosphere at work as critical. They want to work in teams, have friends at work, and critically, have a good relationship with their boss with the autonomy to manage the task whilst their superior concentrates on managing them.

One senior manager at major International Investment bank, describing these challenges, described how his direct reports referred to him and his fellow manager as “Ma and Pa”.

Finally, they will be attracted to companies with a strong reputation for social responsibility, but at the same time, companies who are paying competitively.

Many managers perceive that they lack the time or expertise to deliver against these expectations.  What are some strategies to start to close the gap between Generation Y’s expectations and managements objectives?

Closing the Gap

  • Set clear expectations about the job and career progression early. Historically this generation has been rewarded just for participating, but in business now we need to win.
  • Give best-in-class feedback constantly. This means listening, understanding their perspective and building solutions together where possible. It means describing what they are doing well, and being extremely clear about what needs to change.
  • Give challenging assignments - coach the person instead of managing the task.
  • Be flexible around working hours and home working and find creative win/win solutions to let them explore their passions and interests outside work.
  • Pay at market rate


The key behind all of these is building a culture of trust and collaboration. Nothing in the above list applies solely to Generation Y. Creating a coaching culture will reinforce productivity at all levels, but the importance of these issues for Generation Y makes it even harder to ignore. Giving managers the skills and autonomy they need to create this type of environment and to coach their team is key.  Managing this generation will require most of us to raise the bar.

What has been your experience of managing this generation?  What are the key challenges and wins for you?

Do let us know: email the authors at or

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