Gen-Y, Gen-Why?, and Gen-WTF?!

As a result of interacting with a number of Gen-yers over the past few years, I’ve developed a sense of when their input can be trusted and when it can’t. MIT’s Josh Hartshorne and Harvard’s Laura Germine recently validated my hunches, providing a great deal of clarity. Two areas are very significant, one of little surprise but the second confirming a number of questions and doubts about Gen-Y expertise.

Older Really Can Mean Wiser
The research by Hartshorne and Germine reveals that knowledge is a developing category. Knowledge takes time to build largely because it’s as much a matter of experience as intelligence. Furthermore, I’d argue that a significant knowledge base requires regular interaction with intelligent, capable peers.  Knowledge doesn’t grow in an intellectual vacuum. So it’s folly to think that Gen-yers, because of their extensive exposure to the digital, walk in with a significant knowledge base.

The so-called Gen-Y knowledge base is a very mixed bag. Because Gen-Yers grew up in the digital world, they often have an intuitive feel for handling the digital. Sometimes what they have to add is significant, but the strategic uses of the digital are well beyond their ken. That shouldn’t be a surprise because most managers from older generations have difficulty thinking strategically.  So though I might ask for coaching and digital insight from Gen-Yers, I’m careful to assess the quality of their knowledge.

One thing I’ve noticed is that Gen-Yers often seem to have a buzz-saw of frustration around the notion of bureaucracy. They rarely seem aware that bureaucracy can be appropriately protective of both individuals and the organization. For example, organizations create salary ranges to control financial outgo, avoid favoritism and protect themselves. Similarly, business process is highly useful for managing performance, strategy and expectations. So there are highly valid reasons for bureaucracy and process. Yet Gen-yers seem to misunderstand the need for organizational process and bureaucracy, expecting privileged opportunity. Sure bureaucracy and process have their weaknesses, but tossing the baby out with the bathwater is a terrible approach. No wonder the older generations sometimes express frustration at millennials in the workplace.

The research, similar to my analysis, reveals that not before the late thirties and even into a person’s forties does a significant knowledge base begin to show itself. Indirectly, that jives with the research on deliberate practice by Ericsson. Expertise in any field takes a long time to develop. So I’ve learned to take most Gen-Y expertise statements with a grain of salt, asking for evidence before I get sucked into fallacious opinions. As you can tell, I’m especially wary of even their digital information, an issue that is typically overestimated.

Mood assessment
The knowledge base of Gen-Yers is no different from that of the youth from any other previous generation. In the area of cultural, psychological and intellectual understanding Gen-yers have a number of serious limitations. Many Gen-yers trust their psychological insights about others—the so-called dispositional orientation—often making it the sole means of interpretation. For example, some dismiss others with a comment such as “he’s really neurotic” or “what a narcissist!” These are limiting interpretations from those who lack the psychological training to be trusted. The flip side of these interpretations can be thoughtlessly positive. “He’s a great guy and you can count on him.” Inferences, opinions and valuations run amuck in most generations, but Gen-Yers can be very quick to draw untrustworthy conclusions in these areas.

The most intriguing results of the study revealed that emotional assessments peak in the forties and fifties. Benedict Carey’s illustration is especially enlightening and amusing.

No one needs a cognitive scientist to explain that it’s better to approach a boss about a raise when he or she is in a good mood. But the older mind may be better able to head off interpersonal misjudgments and to navigate tricky situations.

“As in, ‘that person’s not happy with all your quick thinking and young person’s processing speed — he’s about to punch you,’” said Zach Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University.

A few brighter millennials deal productively with the psychological side of colleagues. Typically they say something like “this is what he’s doing and saying–and I’m interpreting it as. . . . What am I missing? Or, how else can I interpret the behavior?” That leaves me free to ask about previous behaviors, overall work intelligence or even impactful environmental issues. Then, we can discuss three to five similar behaviors and draw what may be a workable conclusion about a specific behavior, what it meant and what it may mean for the future. But mix an octogenarian and a very bright older millennial together and you can come up with some extremely fascinating, peculiarly accurate insights.

In sum, I love working with the generation. But I’m careful of their strengths and weaknesses. Still, their energy and idealism, their differing orientations and attitudes as well as their amusing foibles can be illuminating and highly useful. I don’t forget that we all went through this stuff, thinking that older generations are stuffy and that our insights aren’t appreciated enough. Though there are some generational attitudes and environmental experiences that differ significantly, there are more similarities than differences among the generations.


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