An Answer to the Gen-Y Question

As a young professional in the business world I try really hard everyday to fight the stereotypes bestowed upon my generation: lazy, incompetent, entitled. Sadly, for every qualified, ambitious young person I know who is trying to climb the corporate ladder, I know of five more who show up late, in flip flops and spend most of their day surfing the net and wondering why their bosses don’t treat them with the respect they think they deserve.

While the young generation may be ushering a new way to do business, the most successful young people I know are the ones who are following the rules, not the ones intent on breaking them.

Case in point, a recent profile by the Wall Street Journal draws attention to the deconstruction of proper business correspondence by recent graduates and other entry-level workers:

After interviewing a college student in June, Tory Johnson thought she had found the qualified and enthusiastic intern she craved for her small recruiting firm. Then she received the candidate’s thank-you note, laced with words like “hiya” and “thanx,” along with three exclamation points and a smiley-face emoticon.

“That email just ruined it for me,” says Ms. Johnson, president of New York-based Women For Hire Inc. “This looks like a text message.”

As someone who holds a literature degree, I understand the argument that language is constantly evolving, that grammar rules are dynamic rather than static and blah, blah, blah. But regardless of this, I have to ask:

Why are so many of today’s young people lacking basic social awareness?

The Wall Street Journal explains:

The trend may reflect a cultural divide between younger and older workers, says David Holtzman, author of “Privacy Lost: How Technology Is Endangering Your Privacy.” “It’s driven by the communication technology that each generation has grown up with,” he adds. Workers in their 20s and younger are accustomed to online and cellphone messaging, and the abbreviated lingua franca that makes for quick exchanges, he says. “It’s just natural for them. They don’t realize that it’s perceived to be disrespectful.”

Does emotional intelligence not dictate that we communicate differently with different groups of people? Language that would be appropriate for your peers would not necessarily be appropriate for your parents/teachers/professors/bosses. Is this such a hard concept to grasp? Hasn’t this social etiquette been unchanging for generations?

To add insult to perceived injury, young recruits are not only using communicating inappropriate messages, they are transmitting them using inappropriate media.

Some job hunters are earning the rebuke of recruiters by taking thank yous to another extreme — by sending them hastily from their mobile phones. The move suggests an on-the-fly mentality, as if the applicants haven’t taken time to think about why they want the job or why they are saying thanks, says Wendi Friedman Tush, president of Lexicomm Group, a boutique communications firm in New York. “It always says ‘From my Blackberry,’ ” she says. Candidates “should sit down at their computer in a thoughtful way and do it, not while they’re on their way somewhere,” she says.

Most folks over 40—heck, over 30—aren’t familiar with text messaging. So why would someone think it acceptable to text message an older, potential employer? And personally, I agree that as a hiring manager I would not appreciate a hastily written thank you written mere minutes after an interview. It just rings false. I would much rather hire a candidate that shows they can take time, think thoroughly through an issue and craft an intelligent, thoughtful response than a candidate that speeds through a “nicety” while walking and chewing gum at the same time they check their email and scan the latest sports scores.

I think young people today are just as smart, capable and productive as the generations before them. But they are stumbling when it comes to emotional intelligence. And emotional intelligence is what makes good managers, top sales people and successful business people. Until these folks learn the subtle intricacies of social grace, there will continue to be friction between old and young generations.

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9 responses »

  1. I believe that before you go out there and market yourself you first must have REAL enthusiasm for what you are doing! To do that you must know your career DNA, and occupational interests! As a recent college graduate http://www.findyourcareermatch.com has helped me and a lot of my friends get on the right track with our careers. I recommend the site to anyone searching for their perfect career!

  2. Well, thanks to Jon Welch for that great note about findyourcareermatch *rolls eyes*

    As both a member of genY (my email is gener8tionwhy) AND a hiring manager at a mid-level company (I got lucky) I feel like I have more of a responsibility to help bridge that generation gap you mention — on both sides. It could be as simple as proving the crucial value of the internet to higher ups (the benefits of blogging, Google apps, and even recruiting sites like Dayak that help build a team at double speed — it all taps you into the technology of today while saving $). This then allows me to instruct our recruiters to pay attention to those kids that use the Blackberries, rather than avoid them.

    Yes, professionalism is a necessity, but here’s what I’ve learned – you can train someone to be professional. You CAN’T train them to track the pulse of the zeitgeist and connect with their demographics. That’s an innate skill (or it’s learned way before we show up). In brief, GenY could be a gold mine if only more folks brought out the polishing brush.

  3. I think the definition of emotional intelligence here is a little unfair — there is simply a gap in culture between generations that is not based on emotional intelligence but instead is based on a completely different framework of communication and .

    Also keep in mind the internet startup culture — I walked into my interview in a suit and a tie — it was like being a penguin surrounded by toucans. Corporate culture is heading in an increasingly less formal direction — as companies try to get hip to sell product this will happen more and more.

  4. Re: David,

    Showing up to in a suit and tie to a place where that level of formality was not warranted demonstrates that you weren’t able to dechiper what level of formality was appropriate, the very issue of emotional intelligence I am discussing in the post above. (But don’t feel too bad. I worked for several years at an internet start-up and yours was a pretty common occurance).

    When applying for a tech job at an internet start-up, a text-messaged “thx for the IView” would probably be considered appropriate. But doing the same to a recruiter at a Fortune 500 investment firm would be a serious faux paus and could cost the applicant the job.

    My point is that learning to determine the appropriate level of respect and correspondence (i.e. emotional intelligence) is essential to succeeding in business, regardless of how formal or informal such correspondence must be.

  5. Great post. I also agree that there is a gap in generations. I mean just take a look at what is ‘socially acceptable’ now…
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  6. Thank-you for such an uplifting post. I am over thirty, and I see many people people who are much younger than me who have better jobs. I don’t ever think I can compete with the next generation. Not that they are smarter, I’m just dumber and less organized and totally unabitious, but I don’t wish to be poor.

    Now that I realize that the next generation is shooting itself in the foot, this is a win/win for me. Yes, I may be older, but I know how to kowtow properly when it will land me a job that keeps me free of burger grease, mouse shit, and human pus. It might even let me spend a big part of my day commenting on blogs.

    I am going to take heart your post and learn how to text message, type like I’m a c00l d00d and best of all walk gracefully in flip-flops. This way when people your age take over, I can still communicate effectively enough to get another job. One day, a well-thought out, carefully carved stone tablet will not be the way to follow up on an interview. Instead, it will be a quick video shot on a cell phone in a club in between doing test tube shots handed out by a blond in a nurse outfit.

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