Generation Y – Your most valuable and overlooked workplace asset

My second-grade teacher, whom we’ll call Mrs. Thomas, (to protect the guilty innocent) loved encyclopedias and had several sets sprinkled around her classroom. Particularly, she loved World Book encyclopedias. She loved them so much that she encouraged, more likely pressured our parents to purchase a set for our homes during impromptu parent-teacher meetings. In hindsight, Mrs. Thomas was probably moonlighting as a World Book sales rep to supplement her meager late 80s teacher salary.

This was the world I grew up in – a world of hard back books, blank cassette tapes for recording radio broadcasts, slip n’ slides for summer entertainment, and a dizzying sea of station wagons on every major highway. But sometime after “Saved by the Bell” and before “Dawson’s Creek,” the world around me began to change. Technology was about to flex its powerful muscle. I remember my 17-year-old excitement when I opened the box to my first (and only) Motorola pager, and couldn’t wait to see the bootlegged binary code appear on the tiny screen. I can recall gingerly holding my mom’s first cell phone with awe and wonder, very careful not to press any buttons and accidentally make a call since her plan charged by the minute.

Little did I know that these changes were slight and incremental in comparison to the technology that would come to shape my entire future: the internet—and more specifically, AOL online. The final screech that signaled connectivity was just as loud as me yelling borderline obscenities at my brother for picking up the phone and ending my AOL messenger session. The birth of internet access for all (not just the government) shaped my late teenage and young adult years and defined my generation – a generation that’s been absorbed by the generations on both sides and, sadly, lost its distinction.

Depending on what you read, Generation Y are those of us born somewhere between the late 70s and early 80s—right on the tail end of Gen X and the cusp of Millennials. Before there was such thing as a Millennial, we were Generation Y. Proud of the built-in question in our name, we could as easily be called Generation Why? We are a curious group. We like to dig incessantly to uncover answers to our many questions.

But our generational distinction was short lived. Somewhere in the last decade, demographers figured we were “eh, close enough” to Millennials and the Generation Y label was considered no longer necessary. We got swallowed up by the wave of Millennials entering the work force and the national debate that followed about how best to understand and work with them.

In an effort (perhaps futile) to reclaim our identity, here are a few characteristics that make us unique, valuable assets to any organization – from tech start-up to Fortune 500. Hopefully, leaders and peers alike will be able to differentiate these traits from those of our slightly younger counterparts and start to view Generation Y with new lenses and newfound appreciation.

1. We are tech translators. Our dual citizenship in the analogue world and the digital universe allows us to bridge the gap between younger colleagues new to the workforce and older leaders who may be overwhelmed or disinterested in using Yammer or Workplace by Facebook and are content with dialing into antiquated conference lines for collaboration. Our maturity, experience and general understanding of business practices allow us to speak to our Gen X and Baby Boomer colleagues in a way that doesn’t feel like an emoji-riddled text thread. And then, we can break out the emojis to communicate with our younger counterparts and coach them on engaging with leadership in a more meaningful way.

2. We are vocal and cause-driven. From Occupy Wall Street to the #MeToo movement, we have witnessed the power of voice, coalition, and engagement. This translates well within organizations because many of us are comfortable leading change, challenging the status quo and ultimately improving conditions for the greater good. Our ability to reach multiple generations (see #1) makes us ideal spokespeople for new projects and initiatives

3. We are cultural chameleons. Take a moment and think pop music. Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Brittany Spears – all Generation Yers – have reinvented themselves dozens of times since the 90s and managed to stay on the A list of pop culture for the better part of two decades. We are generally adaptable, which makes us an asset to any organization. Unlike our parents, we often explore various roles, careers, and industries all before the age of 40. Our adaptability allows us to find success in various environments and make meaningful contributions no matter what company or manager we work for.

I’d love to end here with a feel-good message about going to find your closest Gen Yers and giving them a hug for being so awesome. Although my bias is blatantly obvious, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that sometimes our generation can be, well, a little flighty, indecisive, and dare I say, sometimes self- interested. As a leader though, you can turn some of these negative traits into positive outcomes. The key here is to give us freedom to approach complex business problems with new and fresh ideas. We also need stimulation. Because we’ve been on this wild technology ride from dial up to broadband to Wi-Fi (and all the stops in between), we tend to bore easily.

Last year, I posted this on Facebook: “Am I a millennial? If so, I opt out.” Needless to say, the response varied from gifs of exaggerated laughter to red-faced, angry emojis from a few older 20-somethings who were, along with other laments, “so tired of the endless vilification of the millennial.”

Hang in there, Millennials. Hopefully, you don’t end up like us—renamed, nearly forgotten, and absorbed by a younger generation.

This blog post is part of a series of installments on generational diversity in the workplace.

  1. Being a Working Boomer
  2. Lost Between a Polaroid Print and Snapchat Filter
  3. Why are Millennials So Interesting? A Millennial on the Millennial Generation
  4. Generational Diversity in the Workplace
  5. The New Kids on the Block