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Is Gen Y right for project management?

Karen Williams
August 18, 2011

There has been a great deal of publicity about Generation Y: who they are, their mindset, what they want out of life and how to keep them performing in the workforce. Of even more significance is the controversy surrounding the special treatment and conditions they seem to attract—or is that demand?

Many of the perceptions surrounding Gen Y have manifested into reality in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Gen Y now live the brand that demographers and the media have created manipulated for them. This has made many question the legitimacy of the Gen Y category, and whether it actually exists.

I believe there are definitely generational differences. Demographers make assessments based on statistical/census data, which informs them about what the generations are and how they may be defined. The challenge for project managers and employers alike is to remember that this data should only be used as a guide. While it is certainly convenient to categorise people, it is equally vital that employees are regarded for their own skills and abilities, not just their age.

Gen Y is a group unlike any other workplaces have seen before. The question is, how do we as project managers work effectively with them? Gen Y has only recently entered the workforce and project managers, like their organisational counterparts, are still wrapping their heads around this generational group. My advice is that they need to do it, and do it fast, because before long Gen Y will become our middle-management tier.

The characteristics of Gen Y

Typically, Gen Y is your twenty-something-year-old employee who is, at this point, likely be engaged as a graduate, associate or in a support role within the workplace. This demographic is tech-savvy and engaging, and reminds other generations that workplaces can, and should, be fun.

The flipside is that Gen Y has been criticised as being short on skills, demanding, impertinent and disloyal. They often appear to have a blatant disregard for, or maybe a lack of understanding of, rank and file, and tend to question tradition. Gen Y is unafraid to challenge the organisational establishment.

While this description may seem tough, older generations are responsible for the definition and shaping of Gen Y. We, Generation X and the Baby Boomers, have no one to blame but ourselves for creating Gen Y: as a society we indulged them, we relaxed the rules, we taught them that they are equals at home and at work, therefore Gen Y has every right to see the world through rose-coloured glasses. They believe they can question authority because we encouraged them to do so.

Project managers must look beyond the generalisations and, more importantly, the misconceptions about Gen Y in order to sustain their workplaces. Gen Y is an invaluable element of a successful project team. In addition to their youthful enthusiasm, they have the smarts: it is statistically likely that a team member from Gen Y has received more years of formal education than their superiors. Further, as a result of job-hopping, they have had exposure to a number of workplace environments; the challenge is to keep them engaged.

Karen Williams
Karen Williams is the principal of Message Stix, specialists in change management and providers of communication solutions.
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