Why Gen Y outperforms everyone at work


Maybe the reason that young people are optimistic in the face of a poor job market is that young people can probably do your job better than older people can.

The truth is, non-gen-y-workers have a bunch of shortcomings when it comes to competing with today’s workforce. Management consultant Stephen Denning has a great little history of management in his new book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management. He points out that managers of the 20th century were trained to supervise people to get them to do stuff, to perform tasks. But now that most people are knowledge workers and not semi-skilled workers, we need managers who inspire, motivate, and encourage collaboration-managers, even, who care about the well-being of their employees and strive to make the workplace meaningful. And that’s not a corporate world where the older set is generally comfortable.

Yup, I’m arguing that Gen Y – that age-group that gets dumped on for acting all entitled – can teach everyone something about making it in the modern workforce. A lot, actually, because Gen Y is more prepared and has an advantage over older folks with far more experience. Here are areas where Gen Y can run circles around everyone at work:

1. Productivity

Young people can find information faster and sort information faster than older people. For example, young people are more likely to use the best tool at the best time: They collaborate on wiki-type tools with ease. They crowdsource. They’re aces with downloading software onto the company laptop to become more productive and efficient. Think about it: Younger people don’t utter the phrase “information overload” because they don’t feel it; they benefit from the plasticity of the brain, which has adapted, over their Internet-based lives to process information faster.

2. Communication
It’s popular to worry that Gen Y can’t write and talk face-to-face, but that’s nonsense. It turns out that young people are better communicators than everyone else. A large and long-term study at Stanford shows that the process of writing online, for a large audience, throughout childhood, is a terrific way to learn to write effectively – far more so than the process of writing for a single reader (i.e., the classroom teacher). And while most generations wrote only for school assignments, Gen Y-ers have been writing constantly ever since they could type, which means since they were little kids. The Stanford study concludes that living online makes Gen Y’s communication skills sharper and more effective than those of older generations.

3. Career mobility
Here are some sectors that are getting absolutely killed right now: Banking, manufacturing, real estate, and construction. Sure, young people are in those fields-and others, for that matter, that have been hard hit-but these sectors are crowded with Baby Boomers. And Baby Boomers just aren’t as comfortable as their younger colleagues when it comes to job-hopping. I realize it’s generally easier to job-hop when you’re younger, for all the obvious reasons, but I older people just have to lower their salary expectations, be open to the idea of changing fields, and realize that the in-demand jobs now require skills where years of experience don’t matter: techcommunications analystsself-enrichment educators, are occupations that are booming right now.

4. Career resilience.
Young people use entrepreneurship as a career safety net. And when they don’t earn enough money, they are likely to move back in with their parents, which is probably not a bad thing for them to do (Parents: comments below please). This means that when young people can’t find a job they like, they make their own, and that makes it easier for them to ride out a lousy economy.

Even better, young people are starting companies in their parents’ basement instead of taking entry-level jobs. They are choosing temp jobs over full-time jobs and they care more about where they live and what they learn in their careers than they do about titles and salaries. The ability to live where you want has never been greater, and new resources are popping up to help people achieve this flexibility.

So what can you do if you’re feeling nervous about job security? Congratulate yourself for being realistic. There is no job security anymore; and we all know that age discrimination against baby boomers is rampant (sorry, but it’s true). But here’s the key: No matter how old you are, you can learn Gen Y skills. Learn to communicate as they do, and learn to collaborate as they do. Stop worrying that the younger crowd is getting the jobs you want, and start thinking more like a Gen-y-er. And if you want to know what generation you a really fall into, take this test.

31 replies
  1. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    I totally disagree that Gen Y workers can do my job better than me, in no way shape or form. It’s a situation of not being competent enough to know what competence looks like.

    Perfect example is Dunning and Kruger who argued in their paper, "When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead [] they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine."

    They have no tacit knowledge. Texting your friends,interacting on FB or knowing where to illegally download files is no measure of competence. It’s an illusion of competence.

    Fwiw, I score 18 but was born in 1961.

    • Paul
      Paul says:

      The danger of such thinking is defining competence in generational terms. In fact, I don’t see how you can think this without assuming Gen Y as a priori incompetent.

  2. Emily Van Metre
    Emily Van Metre says:

    I like the idea of our actions being better categorizations than our ages, it makes sense. But, your test needs to be updated! Camera phones and facebook aren’t emerging tech trends anymore — this report (http://www.forrester.com/rb/Research/state_of_consumers_and_technology_benchmark_2010,/q/id/57526/t/2) shows that 68% of Gen Xers text and 36% send/receive photos on their mobiles. And my grandparents are on facebook!
    Some new measures… how about, “when someone starts a sentence with ‘I’ve always wondered if…’ do you reach for your iPhone?” Or maybe, “When you need advice, do post your question online in a public forum?”

  3. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Great post butcept it’s not true:). At least not yet. Give them another 5-10 years in the workforce and with any luck it’ll become true. Right now there’s too much self-centered drama in the cohort.

  4. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    Eh, based on my experience it depends on the person–which means its not generational.

    BTW, I come out as Gen Y. But given how limited that test is, it only means I’m an early adopter.

  5. Julie
    Julie says:

    I’m 45 and scored 18 on the test (without cheating.) My husband is 54 and he would score higher because he could get points for some of the things I didn’t.

    I think that one area where Boomers have an advantage is that all that fast processing can make a person unable to actually make decisions based on logic. If someone else (in this case, the internets) is always solving the problems and all you have to do is look up an answer, what does it matter what kind of great ideas you have? Isn’t there something to be said for “use it or lose it?”

    When you have to learn from the ground up — my husband is an IT guy who had to build his own cables because you couldn’t go buy them at the corner computer store or online back in the late 1970s — you end up with a knowledge base that cannot be replicated by a google search. He is constantly amazed at how newly-graduated IT people are totally unable to see beyond the end of their degree program. They can’t solve problems. And it’s never their job to do so. (Not in the job description.) Maybe that is the fault of the education system? I don’t know.

    I’m not saying that Gen Y-ers aren’t smart or capable. But many of the Y-ers I’ve come in contact with can’t write a coherent sentence to save their lives, even with spell- and grammar-check software.

    It’s hard to say who is actually correct here, because you can come up with a study that will back any point of view.

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      One thing that often gets left out of this kind of statement, too, is that being fastest does not necessarily mean being best–or even being adequate.

      I encounter a dismaying number of Gen Y members who can’t use the tools that are supposed to be almost instinctive to them (I’m talking basic web searches here), as well as a great many who can’t figure out whether they’re getting good information or bad. This is one of those analytic skills that develops with practice, and that takes time.

      Obviously we can point to people who are bad at this in every generation, but it is something that most people get better at (to one degree or another) rather than worse at as we mature.

  6. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    The social security age will soon be increased to 67 and probably will go higher than that. The medicare age will probably also be soon increased. Within the next 20 years, people will have to work until they are 70. So what are ‘old’ people supposed to do? They can’t just retire at 50 because they’re not at the cutting edge of technology. All work as walmart greeters?

  7. Helen
    Helen says:

    I agree that you can’t generalize to this extent. You just have good and bad workers, good and bad attitudes in every generation. BUT, I do see the shift in thinking when it comes to a greater emphasis on work as a means of personal fulfillment, and a more equitable work/life balance. Managers who get this and BELIEVE in it will be very successful I think.

  8. Diana
    Diana says:

    Oh, come on! “Young people can find information faster and sort information faster than older people.” ??
    I’m 57 and have been using a computer since 1987 (I know, I got a late start). Some of us boomers have been riding the wave all along. We have not been lying in the sun getting a tan. As far as finding info is concerned, I’ll race ya!

    And we all know how bad television and movies can get when left to people with no life experience, but plenty of youthful enthusiasm! Depth and breadth, Penelope, not speed. I think the workforce should stay mixed up, the old with the young. Best of both worlds.

    • Jim C.
      Jim C. says:

      I agree. It’s what you might call the Wikipedia Effect, i.e., the ability to gather utterly unreliable and unverified “information” from a set of dubious sources.
      That doesn’t make Gen Y good at sifting through their data and making intelligent decisions.

  9. Sonia Jaspal
    Sonia Jaspal says:

    Hi Penelope,

    This is an interesting post, specially when I see it from an Indian society perspective. The Indian boomers were the first generation born after independence. They had authoritarian parents, lack of financial and economic resources, and a society struggling to come to terms with the new found independence. Hence, they focused on getting qualifications, secure jobs and money and retained the old Indian (very hyporcitical) value system.

    The Gen X was born as the second generation, with a little more flexibility and awareness in thinking. Rather than struggling to have electrictiy, they got to see TV, movies etc, and the real focus was on understnading western culture. Their focus remained on qualifications and money, but they decided to explore the world. Got qualifications from US etc., stayed in other countries. But still most of them were stuck in a time wrap of Indian value system. They stayed in US, but wanted the girls to be conservative, not date, kiss etc. ( bad for health :))

    They Gen Y has grown up seeing India as a progressive country, were they are seeing India becoming a global power. So not only are they not subservient and obediant, they think they are top dogs who can rule the world. And chose which ever value system they prefer. So the double standards are getting thrown out of the window, and they look quizzcally at boomers and Gen X.

    Gen Y is mentally denfinitely better geared for the international market than boomers and gen x. They interact first, build relationships, and then may ask the person their country, religion etc. To boomers and gen x, that is the first or second criteria in decision making, after money, whether to be friends with the person.

    So I think besides technology there are a whole lot of other factors which boomers and gen x need to learn. These are the new soft skills for the global world. And learning and adaptability to these soft skills will make a difference in effectiveness in life and job.

    My two cents.


  10. ROFLCatDown
    ROFLCatDown says:

    The ability to process information quickly isn’t really the same as being able to use that information to create an effective solution.

    Youth and exuberance has nothing on old-age and treachery.

  11. Epictetus
    Epictetus says:

    Why make your loyal readers go to BNet? Are you thinking of diluting your focus on this blog, or perhaps stopping? I am not interested in BNet, I am interested in this blog because it is 100% you.

  12. Molly
    Molly says:

    Your post is interesting, but even more interesting are these comments it’s inspired. People are *so* passionate about proving this assertion right or wrong. It definitely seems like one of those “hot button” topics that generates a lot of controversial conversation.

  13. Diahann Boock
    Diahann Boock says:

    While I agree with the areas you pointed out, I think you missed the boat in one area — they are still inexperienced in strategic decision making. They may get it done faster, prettier and communicate it well, but often it is off the mark. But, with time comes experience, and they will get there.

  14. Claudia Putnam
    Claudia Putnam says:

    But do they know how to think through a product launch, or do they make stupid-ass decisions like launching a a major company’s flagship product during a keynote address at a conference at 7 PM, on a Thurs, because, well, “our CEO is giving the address,” even if this means half the world will be on its weekend? This is where inexperience and a self-centered worldview take you.

  15. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I felt very complimented seeing as how I am a part of Generation Y, I’m not used to the positive view of our behavior. Often older generations complain about our frequent use of the internet and complain about how text messages degrade communication. The most positive trait is flexibility. I found myself learning how to use a typewriter at work because they needed someone to fill in pre-printed forms. But I’ve also been able to quickly fix a computer so another employee could get back to work instead of waiting hours for the IT guy.

    Yes Gen Y is inexperienced, but in this job market we’re still having trouble on all sides getting over “the age thing.”

  16. Iain
    Iain says:

    Sigh, I wonder why I bother reading posts like this; full of half-baked assumptions and polemic barely backed up with facts. So, a new generation thinks they’re the bee’s knees and those old folks should move out of the way and let the real movers and shakers through so some real work can get done. And the oldies complain about how the young think they’re owed everything and aren’t prepared to pay their dues. What’s new about that?

    Productivity: Isn’t that the amount you produce based on the effort you put in? Crowdsourcing and knowing the right online tools doesn’t necessarily help with that. Focus and directed effort do, and they aren’t age related.

    Communication: I didn’t take the conclusion from the article on the Sanford study that large amounts of online writing made the students communication skills sharper and more effective than those of older generations. The researcher did say that their writing was about instantaneous communication and audience. The writing I see from younger people I work with has the same mistakes I made when I was their age. But I became a better writer by having much better writers challenge my work and force me to improve it. I used to be a journalist, and subeditors are ruthless. Any writing practice is good and does help, but you don’t get good feedback and mentoring from writing online for yourself.

    Career mobility: I was onto my third career by the time I was 30. That was in 1988. What’s new?

    Career resilience: funnily enough, a lot of people become more flexible in their careers once the kids leave home, just like young people without children are. I know a lot of people my age who are self-employed or work as contractors. But, the only reason we get (high paid) work is because of our considerable experience and the reputations we have built up over 15-20 years or more in the trade.

    Good luck, Gen Y’ers, with working smarter than we do with your confidence and enthusiasm. I’ll give you a tip though, those sound decisions us oldies often make are based on things we’ve learned by making a lot of mistakes you are probably yet to make. The trick is to learn from them.

    I took the test. It’s very US-centric and I fail to see how a quiz about your online media usage is a strong indicator of your work habits. I scored 15 and I would have got higher if my parents were still alive, I didn’t have a proper camera to take photos with, and MySpace wasn’t a rubbish site with appalling usability. I’m 52. What does it prove?

    We need to get over these age-based distinctions. I know amazingly creative, flexible people in their senior years, and unimaginative dullards in their 20s. This sort of discussion doesn’t help, although the comments are fun to read!

  17. Robert
    Robert says:

    I totally agree with one thing, that managers and supervisors tend to manage people on what they do, the taks they do. My supervisor manage the little things, very little things. But they don’t know how to motivate and lead people.

  18. Jennifer Ellis
    Jennifer Ellis says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I have no problem going to BNet. I think it is perfectly reasonable to redirect us there, especially if you are getting paid to do so.

    I feel like this post is mostly divisive, which is not that interesting. At 26, if I am confident in my work performance, it doesn’t matter how many older employees disagree with what you are proposing here. However, if I am confident in my work performance, I don’t necessarily need to be celebrated with quite this much enthusiasm, either.

    Those who belong to Gen Y know where our talents lay (and where we need to grow) and those from other generations will mostly disagree and tune this out anyway.

    Perhaps it is aimed at a different readership?

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