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Why Don’t More Employers Value Gen Y?

July 31, 2011

Updated June 27, 2012

I’ve worked in the areas of labor markets and human capital development for over 30 years. Many of the issues now being debated, not just in North America but in Western Europe, were hot topics when I was a young, greenhorn economist in 1982.

How things change – and don’t.

For younger people reading this post, North America’s labor market back in 1982 was an unmitigated disaster. Unemployment soared, especially for youth. Inflation was high double digits, with corresponding sky-high interest rates, something of which today’s Gen Y is clueless.

Fast forward to today, where I’ve started a new career after three decades in government, have four adult kids and three grandkids. I’ve seen a similar scene before: high unemployment for youth. University grads, replete with scary-as-shit student loans, desperately trying to secure a footing in the labor market.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we Baby Boomers, so-called purveyors of the future, are absolutely full of crap.

Read my post on Nouriel Roubini’s book Crisis Economics to understand how Baby Boomers almost destroyed the world’s financial system. Indeed, who do you think is involved in negotiating how to address the U.S. debt ceiling? Yes, it was (and still is) Baby Boomers. Accept it.

I admit to being partially lulled by the demographic “experts” who up to 2008 espoused how Gen Y (and Gen X) would have their way with Baby Boomers. Organizations would have to adapt to the values and work styles of young people. It sounded great as real estate prices soared and as consumers climbed over one another to buy the newest BMW, Apple product or Bose sound system.

Except that it was all BS.

A tad of common sense would have instilled in these crystal-ballers that events don’t always pan out the way you expect.

The Great Recession has had a devastating effect on young people. BusinessWeek, many months ago, wrote a piece called The Lost Generation. Canada is not much better off than the U.S. Canadian politicians stick their heads in the sand, speaking out of their other ends, expecting the public to suck up platitudes and irrational logic.

The Chinese love us North Americans. They’re eating our lunch.

North America’s labor market has changed profoundly in the span of just 10 years. Technological change, globalization and the increasing self-aggrandizement of those leading organizations have dramatically altered the employment opportunities for young people. I won’t delve into the supply-side aspects, such as vocational training and university education. I’m looking at the demand side for labor.

It seems that we’re riding a downward escalator towards the lowest common denominator, where youth and Gen Y work for minimum wage, suffer abhorrent management and must balance two or more jobs while studying or building a career.

My youngest turns 23 this summer. A new college graduate who is working with at-risk teens, she worked part-time since senior high school and throughout college. Indeed, since graduating from college she was trying to hold down three parttime jobs, but due to typical employer inflexibility she recently had to drop one job. It’s a VERY tough labor market for young people.

Of course, there are those who argue that employees are hired at the whim of employees. First off, that argument is absolute BS. If the employer-employee employment contract is not reciprocal, then you face wild swings during labor shortages and surpluses. Achieving the economist definition of equilibrium is a fool’s exercise in labor market futility.

Furthermore, what are we trying to teach young people? That it’s every man and woman for himself or herself in today’s economy? That model is void of leadership and any semblance of trying to co-create organizations that are based on loyalty, shared vision and customer-focus.

When I read business articles or see ads where organizations brag that they’re employers of choice, I start doing the math. It’s fascinating to see how many Canadian companies, including government departments, rank in the top 100.

Don’t think so.

So what’s the implicit message that we Boomers are giving to Gen Y?

While writing the original post I came across an excellent blog post written by Tina Paparone, co-founder & CEO of the unique gift company BeMe, which creates products to inspire girls to embrace their individuality. (Her letter appeared in Under 30 CEO).

Tina gave me permission to reproduce her letter, which contains important messages for Baby Boomers.

Dear Baby Boomers, a Message from Gen Y:

I know you’re not my biggest fan. I’m one of those pesky GenY twenty-somethings that you’ve called “cocky,” “lazy,” and “incompetent.” It appears our generation has hit a nerve, really gotten under your skin. Well, I am writing to you because I feel like we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. Please hear me out.

I’ve thought long & hard about what it must be like from your perspective, and I have some theories about your frustration. I will have to generalize, but from the many papers & articles published about GenY as a whole, I think you will understand. Here it goes-

Many of you were raised the sons & daughters of hard-working middle class Americans & first-generation immigrants. Growing up, you watched your parents make sacrifices & work incredibly hard to realize the American dream, even when fair employment was rarely offered to those not educated in America. As young men, you faced drafts & as young women you had to break down the barriers of inequality in the work place. You did not have it easy but you were determined to succeed. Many of you were the first in your families to receive higher education and entered the workplace hungry for success.

For years you worked diligently, providing a lifestyle for your family that you could only dream of as a child. All of the things you had to work so hard to achieve, you happily handed to us, your children.

We gladly accepted the opportunities provided to us and as youngsters, always sought your advice. However as we enter adulthood, many of us having graduated college; masters programs; and/or started promising careers, some of us are turning away from the path that has been so carefully laid out before us. As a result, you feel betrayed, taken advantage of, and ignored. You might assume we are lazy & unwilling to work hard to achieve success the way you did. You think the environment of positive reinforcement you raised us in has created an epidemic of spoiled, self-involved young adults.

Am I close?

If it sounds at all familiar, I think we can clear a few things up. First of all, please know that we are grateful for the sacrifices you made for our generation; we recognize everything you did and know that we could not be where we are today without you help. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

That being said, I’d greatly appreciate it if you could consider the below:

1. You are right that many of us do not want to work the way you did, BUT by no means does that imply we do not want to work hard. While we may not be following the standard 8am-6pm cubicle job, modern technology allows us to be productive from anywhere at anytime and we are taking advantage of it. You may not consider tasks like utilizing social media or blogging “work” but believe me, if you are contributing anything valuable, it is!

2. We have different definitions of success than you do. Many millennials are placing greater importance on quality of life than monetary success alone. After receiving top educations & gaining valuable experience, we are passing up some very lucrative, respectable careers, but we prefer to be passionate about our jobs and are willing to make financial sacrifices to get there. I understand your frustration- tuition costs have skyrocketed and you want to get your money’s worth. However, instead of judging the worth of our education based solely on our starting salaries, please try to look at the whole picture. You’ve given us the background to find careers that not only support us but more importantly are fulfilling. Perhaps we are starting our own business or following another, non-traditional career path, but trust that whatever we do, we are not treating it lightly. With the constant restructuring of modern businesses, we are concentrating on building our individual worth by pursuing careers we are passionate about with the hopes to achieve long-term success.

3. (The one that really gets to me.) We’re tougher & more grounded than you give us credit for. When you have gone through such lengths to prepare us for the real world, how is it that you so quickly assume we are making foolish decisions? We don’t expect success to be handed to us on a silver platter; give us a little credit & maybe even a chance to prove ourselves.

4. And finally, we’ve learned from watching you. Like every generation, we observed your trials & tribulations and have learned from them. Perhaps we saw marriages fall apart or witnessed our fair share of mid-life crisis among the neighbors. Whatever it was that influenced us, it is time for us to start our own journeys, make our own mistakes, and eventually give the generation after us their very own list of problems to avoid!

The best way for us to understand & maybe even help each other is through open communication. I hope this is a good start.



If you’re a Gen Y, please take a moment to share your thoughts or experiences, especially possible solutions.

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.
– John Le Caré

Photo by Sue Butler

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2012 5:39 pm

    Most employers don’t care about their workers. They want total commitment and yet keep compensation as low as possible.

    I’ve heard employers say things like, “If you don’t like my policies, let me know. I have a stack of resumes 4′ high of people who want your job.” Nice!

    I’m raising my kids to be entrepreneurs. I want them to aspire to self employment so they can take full responsibility for their career, income and happiness. If nothing else, I want them to know their success is not determined by their employer. Instead, their own accomplishment of self-chosen goals will give them the most personal satisfaction.

    • June 30, 2012 11:58 pm

      As the Global labor market gravitates to the lowest common denominator, workers become more and more like commodities. So much as changed in North America since the nineties and 2000s, when many companies pandered to their employees. Now it’s the survival of the fittest. Even the public sector, especially in the U.S. but also in Canada, is caught up in this trend.

      You’re quite right and astute to instill entrepreneurial work values in your kids.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. August 1, 2011 5:46 pm

    Interesting comments regarding the Catholic Church. Here, adolescence for boys seems to go on until between 35-45, married or not. Most men who marry at 40 marry a woman of 20. Men who marry at 30 marry someone about five years younger. The only men marrying women of the same age are those few who marry quite young and generally from very well-to-do families.

    • August 1, 2011 10:03 pm

      Interesting cultural contrasts. Italian males, from what I know, have a very strong attachment to remaining at home. Must be mama’s fine cooking!

  3. August 1, 2011 2:29 pm

    What do you think is the reason for that? I have several ideas on this, and I’d be interested to know what you think about any of them. First, fewer men are willing to commit when then is less societal pressure to do so. I never thought a lot about this until about five years ago, when the Middle Eastern country I reside in upgraded the situation of women with regard to divorce laws. Suddenly, a lot of men started saying they wouldn’t marry because women “had too many rights” –new rights to property in the case of divorce, for example. However, in Middle Eastern society there is a great pressure to marry, starting around the age of 30 for men. It is just not considered acceptable to be a perpetual bachelor because children are considered important. In a family-based culture, it would be considered disruptive to have great numbers of people who never marry, and girls who have babies out-of-wedlock are usually thrown out on the street (if not imprisoned for adultery, as are men in this country, as well). So the fact that Western society no longer PRESSURES people to marry in order to have sex or have children probably is a great deterrent to many men making the committment. I would GUESS that in these cases of people living together and having children, it is 3/4 that the men don’t want to commit, and the women do, but are just putting up with it. I have only known a small number of people who didn’t marry (while having children) for reasons of principle. One woman in America I knew years ago didn’t marry when she became preganant because she knew if she married that man she would end up divorced. Being Catholic, she felt that was a greater sin. Other reasons–does Canada give benefits such as health to couples who aren’t married? (America doesn’t, nor do countries in the Middle East.) If they do, that takes pressure off to marry. Third, I think many people in these relationships (more men than women, however) may be in a situation where they have children with the partner, but DON’T REALLY LOVE that person. They imagine that one day their “ideal partner” will show up and want to be free to go with that person. So these are a few of my thoughts. What do you think are the reasons?

    • August 1, 2011 3:13 pm

      Interesting cultural comparisons. One phenomenon in North America that has captured the attention of sociologists is the Man-Boy – young men who often still live at home, don’t want to commit to a relationship, refrain from pursuing higher education and who just want to keep partying. Women are excelling at university and steadily improving their labor market standing. The presuure they face is at some point around 30 is family formation, only to run head-on into the Man-Boy syndrone. I’ve read and listened to some fascinating analyses of this.

      Young people are running in the opposite direction from the church and formal, traditional marriages. My four kids (22 to 32) are baptised Catholic (I’m Protestant) and want nothing to do with the church. Civil marriage ceremonies or living commonlaw are what appeals to many Gen Y and X.

      High divorce rates among Baby Boomers (all my kids grew up with many of their friends being from divorced parents) turns many young people off marriage. Quebeckers have a specific issue with the controlling Catholic Church, which is why they have one of the lowest birth rates among industrialized countries and regions.

  4. August 1, 2011 7:00 am

    I think Baby Boomers all wanted the same things that Gen. Y wants. If they can find a way to get a better quality of life (and still make a living in America) then go for it. I think when children turn their back on lucrative careers they are making a risky move (from their parents’ perspective) in terms of not having those chances again. However, in some cases, they will have different chances. What most mature parents want for their children is that their children will earn enough money to have a comfortable standard of living for themselves and their families. When this attitude changes is when you marry and have children. At a certain point, you have to provide for your children. If your lifestyle can do that, fine. If not, you might have to take a second job, etc. These days, unlike in the 1950’s (my parents’ generation) it is now acceptable to choose not have children. While I don’t object to anyone doing that in principle, now that I am a parent myself, I do hope my daughter will have children before I die. Why? Not just to be a grandparent, but because the love between parent and child has an even better chance of surviving longer than many marriages. I want my child to be in a good financial situation and have a child of her own to love when I am gone, so she won’t be alone in the world. Also, the U.S. is becoming a third-world country now, in my view, the criteria being the shrinking middle class. Soon there will only be a few privileged and many poor. This is what third-world parents understand and why they are all pushing their children to be doctors. They know that a doctor can always earn his living. I’m not saying everyone should be pushed to be a doctor; I’m just saying that’s the reason third-world parents push their children to be doctors.

    • August 1, 2011 12:06 pm

      Thanks, Lynne, for taking the time to share many observations. It will be interesting to watch Gen Y become parents and how they raise children, for those that choose to do so. One new phenomenon among young people is their growing tendency not to get married but to remain commonlaw, even when while having children. The Province of Quebec (pop. 8 million), which has a separate legal system from the rest of Canada, is seeing a growing percentage of couples raising families while in commonlaw relationships.

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