Text posted Tuesday, August 7, 2012
One Gen Yer shared this with me: “Somebody told me if you are idealistic when you are old, you are stupid, but if you are cynical when you are still young, then you just suck. I’m definitely idealistic, but I guess I kind of suck too, because I’m also kind of cynical already.”
Indeed, idealism is a privilege and burden of youth. But Gen Yers’ idealism may look very different from that of generations past. All the leading research shows Gen Yers are more idealistic than any other new youth cohort since the first wave of baby boomers came of age in the 1960s. Gen Yers are more concerned about the well-being of the planet, humankind, and their communities than older cohorts were in their twenties. Most Gen Yers say there are causes and values they believe in enough that they would be willing to sacrifice their own time, money, comfort, and even well-being. They often look to values issues when they are considering a new job: Do they believe in the company’s mission? Do they approve of how you do business? This, I believe, is good news.
What is often confusing to managers is that they have a hard time pinning down Gen Yers on the values spectrum in a way they can understand. “When I’m hiring young entry-level employees, I’m looking for a good values fit,” said a senior executive in a leading energy services company. “With this generation, it seems like anything goes, more or less. No respect for tradition, no respect for their elders, no respect for experience, no respect for all the old-fashioned values —discretion, diligence, courtesy and honesty. You pick the clean-cut kid with Eagle Scout on his résumé, and he shows up late to work, bad-mouths his coworkers, and steals the stapler off your desk. Then you look at this long-haired kid who is listening to music on his mp3 player all day and he shows up to work early, works hard, stays late, says ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It used to be that I could pick them out of a crowd. Not anymore. Not with this generation. How do you find the Good ones? I mean the capital G good ones.”
Managers tell us every day that they have a hard time understanding how Gen Yers look at traditional values issues. Are they the new idealists portrayed by some observers, or are they the postvalues generation for whom anything goes? Over and over again, we find that Gen Yers’ ideals tend to be rather idiosyncratic. They are products of an information environment that allows them to mix and match seemingly unrelated or incompatible beliefs. Like everything else in their lives, Gen Yers customize their deep inner values. For example, it is not uncommon to find a Gen Yer who considers himself a person of faith, but not one you would likely recognize. This Gen Yer explained, “I was born and raised Baptist, and I am still Baptist. I go to church sometimes with my parents to supercharge my spirit. But mostly I’m into Buddhist teachings right now. To me there is nothing inconsistent about that. It’s my own religion, I guess.”
Given this inscrutable nature, how can managers identify Gen Yers who are more likely to manifest those good old-fashioned values the senior executive was talking about above: discretion, loyalty, honesty, and self-sacrifice? As he put it, “How do you find the Good ones?”
Our research shows that you can’t and you shouldn’t even try. You simply cannot divine deep inner values from interviews, tests, recommendations, and résumés. In fact, trying to figure out who Gen Yers are deep inside is the wrong tactic. How can you possibly figure out what their mind and spirit are really like? How can you figure out what their inner motivations really are? You are not qualified to do so. And I would argue that it’s really none of your business anyway.
“So, can you teach them traditional values?” the senior executive asked me. Here’s what we’ve learned. You cannot – and should not – teach them what to believe, but you can certainly teach them how to behave. It’s not really your place to teach them values. But it is certainly your place to teach them how to be good citizens within your organization.