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Beware False Prophets: Tempting Good Managers to Make Poor Decisions About Generation Y

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 10:54

By Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM

I was at an industry conference recently, listening to a speaker regale the audience about how to manage Generation Y, as if something was wrong with them. Used respectfully, humour can be a wonderful way of connecting people to the message. Unfortunately, humour can take on a scornful, derisive edge that some people find entertaining; at least for those who are not the butt of the humour. Blind to who was in the audience, the speaker mocked Generation Y for over an hour, seemingly oblivious to members of Generation Y who were not laughing. The caricatures and gratuitous opinions served to disconnect and diminish the speaker in the eyes of this part of the audience. Why do this?

It’s an interesting thing about humour. Self-deprecating humor in small measure can bond an audience to the messenger and the message very effectively. Scornful or derisive humour gives rise to laughter, more probably in embarrassed reaction to something said unexpectedly. Such laughter did not ratify this speaker’s message. When people have time to reflect, to gather their thoughts, they end up questioning why they joined in the laughter. With distance the message becomes vacuous and largely insulting, not only to Gen Y but to people in the audience who had children of that age. If people think there’s a ‘problem’ with someone in Gen Y, taking a good look in the mirror may be salutary. We reap what we sow; disrespect is met with disrespect.

When reflecting on comments that Generation Y are disrespectful, a participant in AIM’s research Beyond Belief: The Management Reality of Generational Thinking commented, “I believe … that we are raised to question everything in life and not to blindly follow orders. Just because we question something doesn’t mean we are being disrespectful … I think we expect everyone to earn their respect regardless of age, gender or position.” (p.18)

Perhaps this is just me but I am underwhelmed by speakers who proclaim a solution to the very problem they are actively cultivating. Referring vaguely to ‘research’ to support their opinion continues the charade of ‘expertise’ on the subject at hand. Pulse surveys in newspapers are pulse surveys. They are not research. Nor is curating the opinions of other curators!

A most compelling observation in AIM’s research highlights the gulf between rhetoric and truth:

“Much of the work on generations has been based on observation rather than large-scale empirical findings … and has resulted in decisions being made by HRM practitioners based on claims in the popular press whose underlying assumptions have largely been permitted without scrutiny.” (p.16)

In seeking answers to concerns or emerging issues it is critical that we seek advice from people qualified to do so. Everyone’s got an opinion, but would you stake your life on it? Hopefully not. Yet, when it comes to criticism of Gen Y or any other generation for that matter, is it alright to leave unquestioned an opinion because it doesn’t affect you? Ultimately it will, so be careful who you listen to; ask the tough questions to ascertain whether it is opinion or well-founded advice. Your success and tenure as a leader depends on it.


Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM is National Director, Research and Thought Leadership at the Australian Institute of Management. Malcolm’s contribution to enhanced management practices has been recognised through coverage in publications ranging from BRW, Asset, InFinance and Money Management to the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.

If you’d like to learn more about generational stereotypes, you can explore the topic further in AIM’s discussion paper – Beyond Belief: The Management Reality of Generational Thinking. You may also like to attend AIM30 Live on Wednesday 30 April – a series of simultaneous forums being held in SydneyBrisbaneMelbourne and Adelaide to reveal and discuss the indisputable findings of this paper.