Use Gen X, Y Attitudes to Your Advantage, Employers Advised

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 16, 2008

Blame it on five consecutive generations of increasing affluence and different parenting styles, but generations X and Y entering the workforce don’t want to follow in the footsteps of baby boomers and traditionalists—workers approaching retirement.

The good news is there are ways employers can engage those workers, according to Cam Marston, keynote luncheon speaker at the MetLife Sixth Annual Employee Benefits Conference on “Navigating Change” on April 7, 2008, in Washington, D.C.

Marston shared insights and best practices that he has gleaned in the more than 10 years he has studied workforce dynamics. For one, generations X and Y define success differently.

Time is the currency they value, taking precedence over money. Success equals balance; unlike boomers they do not define themselves by the work they do.

This influences their attitude toward work. They are not interested in following the standard apprentice-to-master workplace philosophy of “paying their dues” to achieve earlier generations’ definition of success.

For one thing, they have “a delayed desire to become the master,” Marston said, noting that the boomer at age 22 is the Millennial, also known as Generation Y, at age 28.

“It’s simply the way our wealthy society has created things,” he said. “Because people are taking longer to grow up, this is showing up in the workplace.”

The matter of employee loyalty also has shifted. Where earlier generations felt loyalty to the company, generations X and Y have loyalty to the boss. Conversely, they will quit the boss, not the company. Building that feeling of loyalty is a key to retaining these workers, according to Marston.

Such insights can go a long way in helping employers reach these potential employees. Some best practices he recommended—replacing the mentoring program with an advocate program, using time as currency and restructuring what promotions look like.

Advocate Program

Mentoring is failing, Marston says, because it carries the whiff of the apprentice-to-master approach rather than the “me-centered” approach that is more appealing to the young workforce and that helps to create that bond of loyalty.

He outlined the differences between the two approaches:

  • Advocate: “How can we help you?” vs. Mentor: “Do this.”
  • Advocate: “What do you need from us to perform your job better?” vs. Mentor: “This is what you get.”
  • Advocate: “What can we do for you?” vs. Mentor: “We have a 15-year probationary period here.”

The advocate, Marston advised:

  • Should not be the boss or anyone in HR. Remember, Generation X questions authorities, and their heroes are people they know or have met.
  • Should have performed this same job before.
  • Should have the respect of the group he or she will be an advocate for. This means that considerations such as tenure and seniority are important in selecting the advocate.
  • Should be allowed to serve in this role and not be penalized for the time spent away from his or her primary job.
  • Asks such things as “Who do you want to meet?” “What do you want to learn?” “Can I get/give any messages for you?” “What do you need, within reason, to make us your employer of choice?”

Time Is Currency

Midwestern Mechanical Inc. has empowered its managers to distribute one-hour vacation reward cards, Marston said, as a better alternative to spot awards.

The problem with spot awards, he said, is they often appear a week or two after the fact as part of an employee’s paycheck. By the time FICA, benefits and other items are deducted, the spot award is more of a speck.

The challenge Midwestern had to overcome was getting managers comfortable with the concept and their reluctance or hesitation to back up praise with the tangible card.

Restructuring Promotions

Marston recalled one employer that had continual turnover as employees were promoted to assistant manager or branch manager. Moving up often meant more of what those employees didn’t want—more work time at the expense of personal time.

The solution: a 6/5/4 plan that rewarded an increasing number of flex hours as employees moved up the hierarchy.

For example, a trainee scheduled to work a Saturday shift was given four flex hours to use as he or she wanted the week prior to that shift. An assistant manager received five flex hours to use in that manner, and a branch manager received six flex hours.

Through restructuring, promotions started to look pretty good.

Marston is the author of Motivating the “What’s In It for Me?” Workforce.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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