SEMA eNews Vol. 13, No. 27, July 8, 2010

Gen Y in a Multi-Generational Workplace

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  Nicholas Gregson is a member of the SEMA Young Executives Network (YEN). Visit the committee's website at www.sema.org/yen.

In the automotive aftermarket today, working effectively with coworkers of every generation is becoming more difficult. The automotive aftermarket has a large number of Baby Boomers and Gen X in its ranks, and the number of Gen Y employees and executives is growing every year as more young people come of working age. The problem here is that generational differences and points of view are becoming an obstacle to getting business done. With more and more Baby-Boom generation employees reaching retirement age, it is more important than ever that businesses effectively manage the generations of their employees.

As a young professional born after 1981, you’re a part of Generation Y, as is this article's author. We see things differently than those from other generations. This can either work for us, by allowing ideas from different generations to build on one another, or stand in our way as the generations butt heads. The problem is not just between Baby Boomers and Gen X anymore—Generation Y sees things differently than Generation X, and the Baby Boomers do not agree with either Gen X or Gen Y. It’s no secret that Baby Boomers often feel that Gen X and Gen Y do not have as strong of a work ethic as they do, and many Gen X professionals also feel that Gen Y has a poor work ethic, whereas many Gen Y professionals may feel that members of other generations “don’t get them” and are “out-of-date” and out of touch.

While many boomers' attitude of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” works most of the time, in today’s changing economy and constantly evolving aftermarket, companies must adapt to changing business conditions or go out of business. The “status quo” often just isn’t good enough. Sure, things may work the way they are now, but for how long?

Generation Y up-and-comers who see the need for change are more prepared and determined to bring change to the workplace environment. The unfortunate reality, however, is Generation Y is mostly known for its negative aspects, such as sense of entitlement, technological sophistication and outspokenness, and it is up to you to minimize the impact of these traits on the progress of your career. So, the question becomes, how can you, the young professional, not only break free of the negative stereotypes of your generation and work more effectively with your older colleagues?

It is only natural that friction is bound to occur with so many attitudes and generational differences in play. In my own experience as a member of Gen Y, the view held by many members of the Baby Boom and Gen X of Gen Y is that Gen Y is lazy and inexperienced. These negative attitudes have affected my own workplace interactions and have likely had an impact on your experiences. To advance in the workplace, I have found myself consistently countering these perceived behaviors to work more effectively with my team members, regardless of age. Here are just a few suggestions to help you work more effectively with Gen X and Boomer colleagues.

Technology has become a major barrier for younger professionals to work around with more senior colleagues. Many Gen Y professionals prefer to interact through technology-based methods of communication, such as social networks, instant messaging, text message or e-mail, rather than face-to-face or over the phone—methods traditionally preferred by X’ers and Boomers. While some of your colleagues may be up-to-speed and are constantly Twittering on their Blackberries about every little detail of their day, not everyone you work with may be on the same page.

Take this into account when interacting with other members of your team—a direct face-to-face conversation or a phone call can have a far greater impact than just sending an e-mail, or worse, a text message. Texting generally isn’t a great way to conduct business or build relationships with clients. Furthermore, though professionally written and clear e-mails may work well sometimes, in other instances you may be better served just having a conversation over the phone.

Another factor to consider is the appearance of your work ethic. Work ethic is one of the biggest gripes amongst Gen X and Baby Boomers about Gen Y, so it only makes sense that we address it. In today’s society, constant connection is almost expected, however, at some point we need to put the Crackberry down and buckle down. Your colleagues aren’t likely to take you seriously if you are seen texting or on Facebook or Twitter during work hours, and these things could likely even hurt your job security. While that should be obvious, some members of Gen Y have a tendency to forget that. The exception here is managing your company’s social networking page, which is fine. In addition to simply watching yourself and your level of unnecessary connectivity during work hours, there’s also the question of how willing you are to do things. Are you a hand-raiser, always ready to volunteer for what’s next, or do you simply wait for things to come across your desk? Making yourself available and involved gives you more value and builds a reputation as being a hard worker.

Something else to take into account is generational sensitivity and how you react to your coworkers. I’m sure that you have likely been in a situation with an older person when explaining some technology-related feature and were frustrated by their lack of understanding on the topic. Yes, it may be frustrating, but the key here is to be patient and avoid engaging in condescending behaviors or saying things that imply that someone is "out of date" because it likely will not end well for either party. Even in the best-case scenario, this is hurtful to the other person and it’s especially not a good idea to act this way towards more senior superiors.

The last tip I have to offer is to carefully think about how you are presenting new ideas to more senior superiors—owners, for example. Don’t discount their firsthand business experience. If you need to effect change, the key is to present it in a non-threatening way, building on benefits and laying out the cost and amount of effort making your change will require. Be realistic and professional with your presentation. This will break down resistance and open the door—the first step towards making things happen. Of course, we also have to realize that we are adults and we’re not always going to have things our way—compromise is a key component here.

Amongst all the talk and generational buzzwords, it’s easy to potentially forget that these are simply generalizations based on age. Age simply defines a demographic, not the individual. This works both ways, with Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. Get to know who you’re working with and tailor your interactions to best compliment their personalities and you will likely find that more doors are opened and your path is smoother. — Nicholas Gregson, public relations coordinator of Classic Industries

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