Are the kids all right?

Are we failing Gen Y? Lynda Gratton discusses the pressures facing this generation.


That week he had not made it home until after 1.00am in the morning and was needed in the office by 7.00am. She was proud of the salary he is earning, but also aghast at the pressure he is under.

I’ve been pondering on her words because I had been in New York to meet up with a team from the University of Southern California to talk about what we really know about the current aspirations and experiences of Gen Y. What we do know is that they are in a tough place. Some don’t have work – and many of those who do, particularly those working in investment banking, law or management consulting - are working ‘like slaves’ (that’s the phrase my normally hard-headed business women friend used of her son).

They are having a miserable time. Over promised, over worked – it’s a generation who don’t trust their leaders or big business, and who have seen wage differentials soar in the last decade. It’s no surprise that my girlfriend’s son says he will leave his company in one more year – and he is not alone. In companies around the world, turnover rates for talented Gen Y are running between 15% to 20%.

Why is this happening? It seems to me that the kids are not all right. Without really realizing it, we (that’s the Gen X and Baby Boomers of this world) are failing to look after the kids at the very time in their working lives when they need support and counsel. It seems to me that there are four ways we have failed them.

The first failure is a direct result of the joined-up global world that they are living and working in. This hyper connectivity means that there is always a client, a project, or a task that has to be finished. When your clients work around the world – there is always one time-zone that buzzing. We have left them at the mercy of extraordinary pressures. There are no boundaries, nothing that protects them from constant work. We’ve failed them because we have not protected them from the demands of a hyper connected world.

The second failure is a result of income disparity. When I was working in my mid 20’s back in 1980, the average CEO in America earned 42 times more than the average worker. For many of the current Gen Y, the figure has increased twelve-fold to 531 times. That creates big problems because it sets out a ‘carrot’ that for most is unattainable if not downright unattractive. It’s also confusing when few Gen Y’s are swallowing the ‘deferred gratification’ creed - work hard now for riches in some indefinable time in the future. It also sways the whole work deal from working because it is interesting and potentially meaningful, to a deal that has at its centre greed and acquisition. When the whole deal is ‘work here and you could be as rich as I’ – the other parts of the work that could be fulfilling and motivating somehow seem less attractive.

We are also failing them because we have obstinately refused to dismantle the traditional vertical, hierarchical structures that some of us designed, and others inherited. Its been over a decade since we realized that uniform pay systems, constant office based work and inflexible working practices are toxic to a generation raised on more flexible ways of being. Yet despite the toxicity, we have simply changed around the margins rather than completely ‘blowing it up’ and designing companies in a more flexible and agile way.

And we have failed them because we have marginalised, discredited and been mean-minded about Gen Y’s use of technology and social media. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a Gen Y in the employment of most businesses is the inability to bring to the office all the ways of being that are common place in their private lives. The way they link up with ease, or rapidly update each other on progress, or get members of their ‘posse’ to help them out, or use the whole world as a resource when it comes to getting things done.

Of course the truly awful aspect is that we have created socialisation processes within companies that are so pervasive and deeply embedded– that within two years these bright eyed Gen Y’s are harassed, sleep deprived and depleted of energy.

My advice to my girlfriend’s son? – run away as fast as you can. What would be your advice?

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