The Next Generation

Three ways work will change when Gen Y is in charge.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Part of knowing which way to steer your career is knowing what is changing in the landscape. In 10 years, Gen Y will have taken over middle management; maybe in five years, if my own office is any indication. But I am sure Gen Y will run the show differently. And no matter your age, the more prepared you are for what's coming, the more likely you will be to succeed in working with the new middle management regime.

1. Middle management will work longer hours.

Generation X is known for leaving work early to be with kids. There are a lot of forces driving this. First, Gen X was raised as latchkey kids, and as parents we are very cautious about repeating this. So maybe we go overboard. Neil Howe and William Strauss call Gen X the "extreme parenting" generation, because the women are spending more time with their kids than any generation in history.

Generation Y will not parent as much. First, this generation was raised by helicopter parents, and not everyone thinks that was a great idea (although I think it's fine). So Gen Y is likely to pull back a bit in the parenting realm. Additionally, we already see evidence that Gen Y is laid back when it comes to parenting. For example, an Xer is more likely to make junior eat green beans and a Gen Yer is more likely to think junior will eat veggies later in life without any childhood nagging.

What this adds up to is that Gen Y will feel it's okay to stay at the office during a school play. Gen Y will feel it's okay to work through dinner sometimes. The guilt factor for parenting will be lower than it is for Gen X. And this makes intuitive sense as well: Gen Y has more self-confidence all around than Gen X does, because—and now the world is circular—if you have good parenting, you grow up with good self-esteem.

2. Entry-level employees will avoid technological complexity.

The Great Generation loved their cars. When they got back from the war, they each bought one. One of, say, seven, because they all looked the same off the assembly line. The baby boomers grew up watching their fathers spend their money on toys that didn't differentiate them. And the baby boomers are not the group-thinkers that their parents were. They wanted something special to them. So they customized their cars.

And the kids of baby boomers, Gen Yers, are known for their need to customize: Pandora lets you customize the music on your radio station, and Nike lets you choose the colors for your shoes.

But having more choices is actually not something that makes us happy. It is a distraction from what makes us happy. Research in the book The Paradox of Choice shows that people who are always looking for another choice actually exhaust themselves. And research from Dan Ariely shows that beyond two or three choices, we don't have the processing power in our brain to make a good choice for ourselves, so the energy we use to make the choice is wasted.

So the generation after Gen Y will rebel against customization. The next generation will focus on simplicity and the simplicity will express itself in technology. People will use the same things; they will use them in largely the same ways; and there will be a common vernacular about technology tools that we are missing in today's culture.

3. People will assume employers are looking out for the interests of employees.

It used to be that employers were in the driver's seat. Employers could dictate terms (two weeks of vacation) and career paths (no job hopping). That arrangement worked because it used to be that you could depend on your employer for a 40-year stint and a gold watch at retirement.

Today most people stay at their jobs less than five years, and they depend on themselves to be able to get another job when they need one. Employees are starting to recognize that the old arrangement did not necessarily favor the worker and are looking out for themselves like never before.

The next generation, however, will have so much power in the workplace that the workplace will fundamentally change. The generation after Generation Y might not be tiny in the U.S., but worldwide, that generation is devastatingly small—so small that European and Asian governments are paying people to have kids. Small city governments convene to discuss what they can do to make the women who live there have more than one baby.

National barriers are already coming down quickly. But the barriers will come down hard when the next generation joins the workforce, and the job opportunities outside the U.S. are fantastic. The New York Times predicts an extreme, worldwide shortage of labor by 2015, and this will make young people in such high demand that the current trend to reform the workplace to cater to incoming talent will become more extreme. And the newest workforce will not know anything but compassionate, generous employers run by fewer of the bitter Gen-Xers and more of the chirpy, optimistic Gen Yers.

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