Business Management

Managing the Twenty-Something Generation

In a new twist on an old lyric, baby boomers are calling today’s youth impossible to manage. Is the new generation of workers bringing us to the eve of destruction?

Flipping the sixties axiom “Never trust anyone over 30,” the Woodstock generation has refashioned its own famous refrain into “Never trust any-one under 25.” The result is that the 20-somethings are the newest group to bash, whether it’s about their irresponsibility toward the family, indecisiveness as students, or difficulty to manage as employees.

Did the sixties’ free-thinkers forget what it was like to be young, is the media just bored with baby boomers, or is there a real generational change in values taking place? Not equipped to ascertain social issues, more and more managers are complaining bitterly while the 20-somethings are saying, “Give us a chance.”

Certainly, management methods have changed. They’re more theoretical and psychologically inducing than ever. The attitude toward money of today’s youth is straightforward: Survival is their main goal. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 43% of women ages 26 to 45 wanted to dedicate less time to careers and more time to family, spiritual development, and hobbies. Another survey, conducted among city high schoolers, showed that making a living was tops on their list. Different goals, different economic times. It’s the same old song, with a different meaning.

A closer look at this generational “attitude adjustment” reveals more of a traditional, age-old generation gap than a true change in values.

Take Niki, for instance. As the owner of a New Jersey nail salon, she’s worked hard to own her own salon (which represents freedom) and to earn more profit. She wants to motivate her staff, but thinks they “want it all” too fast.

“There’s such a thing as paying dues,” she says. “I worked hard to pay mine, but the newer technicians want it all overnight. They negotiate for high commissions right up front and say they’ll just work out of their house if they don’t get what they want.”

Enter Joanne. Joanne paid to attend a nail school in Scarsdale, N Y., did a short stint as a booth renter in California, and came back home a year later with the primary goal of finding a job and “getting on with” making money.

“I don’t want to work 12 hours a day to pay my rent,” she explains. “I like doing nails but the owners make plenty of profit off me. Where do I go from here?”

Sound familiar? Freedom? Making a living without someone else making a profit off your back? Same old song.

But there are important differences that managers are grappling with here. The generation that grew up in the depression and came of age in the fifties stressed hard work and feared debt. The next generation gave meaning to the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” Then, the bottom fell out, and from all appearances, today’s 20-year-olds are just plain scared. Add to this the fact that the quality of their education has taken a dramatic plunge.

Says James Silverman, a former New York inner-city school teacher, “What we’re seeing now is the failure of an entire system and kids who are suffering for it. Sometimes, teachers see them as Neanderthals, but the truth is, they aren’t getting the education I got and most of them know it.”

Hiring smart is the most effective management step with this generation. Or, pick a quick and eager learner and bring in client communication specialists and motivational speakers. Ask at job interviews if die individual would attend such classes, making it clear it’s a requisite to employment. Create a plan for educational training and support to let new employees know that you represent a future, not just a job.

As for one-on-one motivation, new wave management suggests some interesting solutions. A December New York Times article advised “parenting” today’s youth to motivate and guide them. Would those of us who are now over 30 have stood for that?

But today’s business managers take a more interpretative view. “If by parenting, you mean showing by example, I agree,” says Kenneth Callopy, a salon owner in Blue Ash, Ohio.

“You mean like being punitive?” asks the manager of a New York Gap store, the employer of primarily 20-year-olds, “That’s insulting to them. And I don’t want to act like someone’s mother at work. I get enough of that at home.”

Mark Foley, a Canadian salon owner, business educator, and motivator for Clairol, has the most clear-headed reaction. “People are individuals,” he says. “There are unmotivated 20-year-olds, but I’ve met go-getters who are ready to burn the house down to become millionaires at 24.”So, are we left with a simple generation gap, the complexities of a populace trying to get out from under the shadow of the baby boomers to establish their own identity, or is all of this just a new twist on the age-old problem of how to motivate young people?

In “Young Women of the 1990s: A Social Values Perspective” (a study prepared by the Monitor Division; Yankelovich, Skelly and White/Clancy, Shulman), women in two age groups —: 18 to 24, and 25 to 34 (representing two generations and thus life stage differences) did not show any value differences that were not outweighed by similarities.

In other words, in terms of sources of self-esteem, the meaning of family, the role of work and leisure, and attitudes about grooming and fashion, the study showed that the two generations had no significant differences.

The primary change the survey did reveal is that women, regardless of age, once achieved a sense of self through their performances as wives and mothers, then tried to have it all (enter Superwoman), and now want balance between careers and family lives.

Attitudes about work, as well, showed a change for women as a whole and little difference for women between ages 18 and 34. In the 1950s, most women saw “women’s work” as home-centered. Today, women have relaxed their need to go bionic and are paying more attention to their families. Go back to the Gallup Poll that showed women are fed up with trying to be supernovas.

Could it be that the baby boomers who lived through the career rhetoric, became more balanced, shifted out of overdrive, and in doing so, made it easier for the young woman in her 20s not to feel overly pressured to “win” in the workplace? And, could it be that having paved the way to allow a younger generation a full range of choices, the women who went through career overdrive are becoming queen bees, thinking, I worked harder at her age?

A distinct possibility. And isn’t “I worked hard at your age” a familiar refrain? Generation to generation, we worked hard and we want them to earn it similarly.

While this may be an oversimplification, the fact remains that each generation has considered the upcoming one to be less motivated, less driven, and more irresponsible. Its been the state of things since the first generation gap and will likely continue until time itself ceases.

So, the next time you think the roaring 20s are ruining your business, look back to the Charleston and go out and twist the night away. It can’t hurt, and you might even loosen up at work. Then, consider the following simple tactics for determining and delivering what motivates young individuals:

The Cash-Driven Employee. This person is simple to spot. She asks for raises and counts tips meticulously. For this individual, help her set monetary goals, then determine the number of services she’ll need to perform to meet them. Or, select an object she wants, such as a new car. Translate the item into dollars, then into services and retail. Help her determine how long it’ll take to purchase the item and hold weekly goal-meeting sessions.

Get her input on how she thinks she can earn more. Suggest that she help plan salon promotions or offer to promote her. Develop a new winter pedicure treatment together and try to get five new clients a week to try it. Make a big deal the first time she meets her goals and encourage her to beat them next time.

The Praise-Driven Employee. Most everyone responds to praise for a job well done. Lay it on thick and watch for whose face glows most. Give this person praise at every opportunity. Reward the little things that managers overlook because they expect them, such as handling of a difficult client, sharing tasks, keeping a work area neat. This is not parenting, it’s conditioning and positive reinforcement. The praise-driven employee responds well to the old Dale Carnegie “feel-good” tricks too. Without being false, find something good to say to the person about herself. Does she look great today? Do you like her new earrings? Tell her so, and you’ll have her and yourself feeling good.

The Emotion-Driven Employee. This individual wants you to care about her life and she will show it by expecting you to understand her problems and share her joys. She’ll be personal (sometimes too personal) and will discuss her life situation with you. Always share her joys; as for her problems, be simpatico, but to a point. You aren’t a licensed therapist, nor do you need to be a best pal. If you suspect that her poor performance is related to personal problems, speak to the employee alone and ask. Listen, show concern, but make it clear that while you’re very sorry to hear about her problem, you hope she’ll try to not let it affect her work.

Ask if she would like to work longer hours to take her mind off her problem or make more money to solve her problem if it’s financial. (This may keep her from bringing up problems ever again.) Find out what she needs, give a small “carrot” for encouragement, and let her know that tomorrow is another day — one where you expect her to be back on her feet.

As for all individuals — twenty-something or sixty-something — everyone wants to feel like part of a team but also be viewed as a unique contributor. By sharing knowledge, asking for employee input, and praising ideas (however impractical), you’ll meet the human needs that are important at any age.

Like it or not, if you have employees who are much younger than you, you are both a role model and an obstacle, in their eyes. Be an example. Don’t just say, “Look at me,” play the part to the best of your abilities and know when to get out of the way when someone else’s star starts to rise.

Says Callopy, “I’ve made my mark. Now, the greatest feeling is when I help someone young make her way. It’s the biggest reward imaginable.”

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