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Monday, October 15, 2012

Spoiled Millennials In The Workplace

Emily Matchar has written an interesting article on how ‘Millenials’ (born between 1982-99), despite their characterization as pampered and unrealistically self confidant, will change the workplace. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-those-spoiled-millennials-will-make-the-workplace-better-for-everyone/2012/08/16/814af692-d5d8-11e1-a0cc-8954acd5f90c_story.html.  Thanks to them, she says, we will have more flex-time, paid maternity leave, more independence and autonomy, more vacations, fewer working hours; and the workplace will become a more congenial place, closer to home, comfort, and value than it ever was. 

Think again.  The law of supply and demand rules all, and if there is an over-supply of eager, willing workers in a given field, those who are unhappily employed will simply be let go and more complaisant, hungry applicants will take their place.

I recently worked in an organization where there was an oversupply. Although for profit, It was a ‘do-good’ organization which managed health and other social programs in the developing world.  Young workers, armed with newly-minted MPH (Health) degrees from Hopkins, Harvard, or Tulane, and eager to do their part to improve the lot of the impoverished, marginalized, and underprivileged, lined up at the door.  The company paid well but not exorbitantly, the hours were brutal, the workload fiendish, and the ‘work-life’ balance skewed so far towards work that the life part was a joke.  Internal survey after survey showed that the employees were unhappy with their lot; and felt that the solution was simple – hire more people, reduce each employee’s workload, and give them a chance to breathe.

Of course the company did not listen. Its business model was flawless – if you have an oversupply of applicants, then you can extract the most out of them and easily replace them when they burn out and leave.  Companies that are concerned about work-life balance or quality life within the work environment are those which are hard up for qualified applicants and will do anything to keep the ones they have. 

Despite the recession, or perhaps because of it, corporations are eager to hire and retain the best, most talented Gen Y workers. “In this risky economic environment, the energy, insight and high-tech know-how of Gen Y-ers will be essential for all high-performing organizations,” said a 2009 study on Gen Y from Deloitte, the professional services giant.

The operative phrase here is "the best, most talented Gen Y workers’.  In many companies, such as the one in which I worked, the job required little else other than paying attention to detail, getting work in on time, and writing within clearly-marked outlines perfected after years of preparing the same, predictable proposals.  It was not rocket science by any means, and anyone with a modest college BA could do the job.  Not so for IT, advanced genetics, neuroscience, investment banking, and a raft of other high-skill, high-demand jobs.

In the face of these persistent employee demands, and knowing that they never have to do anything substantive, company executives offered a few cheap sops – free milk and cookies in the lunchroom.  Worse, the public stance of the company was that workers would be happy only if they received the plaudits they deserved for their work.  ‘Positive feedback’ it was called – a pat on the back from supervisors and “A job well done!”.  Of course the minions were not so dumb, and only wanted either a salary that was commensurate with their hours of work or less work, both of which the company would obviously not consider.

The result?  Most young workers stayed as long as their will and constitutions allowed, then left.  Of course my company was no different from any other in an oversupplied market, and most of the transferees found the same rigorous conditions in their new jobs. When they left, my company hired other MPHs just as eager to work for a company which did good, and the cubes were always filled with minions who worked until late at night with only a free pizza as a reward.

The current corporate culture simply doesn’t make sense to much of middle-class Gen Y. Since the cradle, these privileged kids have been offered autonomy, control and choices (“Green pants or blue pants today, sweetie?”). They’ve been encouraged to show their creativity and to take their extracurricular interests seriously. Raised by parents who wanted to be friends with their kids, they’re used to seeing their elders as peers rather than authority figures. When they want something, they’re not afraid to say so. And what the college-educated Gen Y-ers entering the workforce want is engaging, meaningful, flexible work that doesn’t take over their lives.

Well, good luck, Gen Y.  I am afraid that these “teacup kids (for their supposed emotional fragility); boomerang kids (who always wind up back home); trophy kids (everyone’s a winner!); the Peter Pan generation (who’ll never grow up)” will be disappointed.  Unless they are willing to work in a quasi-volunteer job and work for a pittance in return for a congenial work environment, they will hit the corporate impact entoleter and bruised and demoralized move from job to job .

Of course this is not true for everyone.  I worked with some extremely intelligent, talented, and ambitious women who were using the company as much as the company used them.  They quickly saw how the business model worked, were willing to suck every morsel of opportunity out of the experience, and move out an up.  They were happier than the less well-endowed because they knew the end was in sight within a few weeks of signing up.

Companies are beginning to heed Gen Y’s demands. Though flextime and job-sharing have been staples of the workforce for a few decades, they are becoming more accepted, even in rigid corporate culture. Radical-sounding perks such as unlimited paid vacation — assuming you’ve finished your pressing projects — are more common among companies concerned with attracting and retaining young talent. By 2010, 1 percent of U.S. companies had adopted this previously unheard-of policy, largely in response to the demands of Generation Y.

There is no doubt that these new demands from Gen Y are heard by those companies for whom demand exceeds supply.  If this is what new, talented, and sought-after applicants want instead of the usual high salaries and pension plans, give it to them.  Anything to attract and keep them.  Unfortunately, most companies (99 percent, as suggested by the above) have no interest in either enhancing salaries and benefits or improving work-life balance.

The American workplace has been transformed during upswings and downturns. The weekend was a product of labor union demands during the relative boom of the early 20th century. The Great Depression led to the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which introduced the 40-hour work-week and overtime pay to most Americans. But now, workplace change is coming from unadulterated, unorganized worker pushiness.

There might be a chance for Gen Y workers to change the workplace even in an oversupply situation, but the labor unions which were able to exact money and benefits from employers through work-stoppages, strikes, and muscle and who could in principle lobby for new Gen Y-specific improvements, are long gone.  In this every-man-for-himself environment, the immutable law of Econ 101 – supply and demand - will rule.

I cannot think of a rosy scenario for the majority of young workers.  Perhaps corporations might actually see the light and ‘do the right thing’, but that would be like asking a dog not to scratch his fleas.  Companies are in business to make money – to increase profits by reducing costs and increasing productivity.  They are not in the business to make life easier for employees unless this will lead to increased profits.

The non-profit world is no more enlightened.  My for-profit company competed with non-profit organizations all the time; and these NGOs were as cutthroat and aggressive as any money-making shop.  While some NGOs chose to limit their size and focus on quality, most others were as interested in relentless growth and expansion as for-profits.  While profits were not the end result for these NGOs, fame, status, and recognition were, and their CEOs  flogged employees just as mercilessly.

Matchar concludes her article thusly:

So we could continue to roll our eyes at Gen Y, accuse them of being spoiled and entitled and clueless little brats. We could wish that they’d get taken down a peg by the “school of hard knocks” and learn to accept that this is just the way things are. But if we’re smart, we’ll cheer them on. Be selfish, Gen Y! Be entitled! Demand what you want. Because we want it, too.

I don’t know anyone who wants to take Gen Y idealists down a peg.  If they don’t rally for reform, no one will.  At the very least, they are making their demands known, and these demands are certainly not those of their parents.  To assume that they will make a difference in an economic environment where supply exceeds demand in most sectors, where labor unions have been neutered or eliminated, and where cost-cutting and recession-based retrenchments will be the rule for many years to come, is unrealistic.

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