Viewpoint: 4 Erroneous Assumptions About Young Workers

By Kyra Sutton, Ph.D. June 8, 2021
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Viewpoint: 4 Erroneous Assumptions About Young Workers

​When managers make age-based assumptions about emerging professionals' capabilities, harmful effects ensue. The young workers feel devalued, and their confidence is undermined; they think their managers don't trust them. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that young adults who experience age discrimination feel neglected and deprioritized in the workplace.

4 Wrong Assumptions 

Recently, I held a discussion with about 70 students on their experiences at work. Most of the participants had worked for at least one year, and some have worked for several years. I asked them to describe the assumptions they wished managers would stop making about them at work. Here's what they said.

Managers assume young workers are incapable. Overwhelmingly, the most frustrating assumption managers make is that young professionals can't do the jobs they were hired to do. For some, this means managers fail to acknowledge that they have transferable skills acquired through school or prior work experiences. For others, it means they feel their suggestions aren't taken seriously. Still others feel micromanaged.

  • "In almost every job I've held, managers tend to observe young employees and helicopter over them, me included."
  • "Managers see a young, new employee, and they are wary of their lack of work experience. So they will pile work on them."

Managers assume young workers' free time is unlimited. Young adults become weary when managers think they have no other obligations in their lives and are always available to work. Examples include managers scheduling young workers for overtime, often without advance notice, and expecting young workers to fill in for colleagues who take unplanned absences.

  • "Whenever someone calls out, I am the first one to be called in."  
  • "So many of my jobs took advantage of my hours and scheduled me way too much."  

Managers assume young workers can do their jobs without any guidance or instruction. Young adults often work independently, which is welcomed. However, several young adults were frustrated with managers who expect them to complete tasks without clear directions.  

  • "Managers assume they can just give people something to do without explaining how and expect people to be able to do it with little to almost no instructions."  
  • "A lot of managers and higher-up executives of big companies expect new hires to know exactly what they want … without providing any explanation or sharing examples."

Managers assume silence is golden. Perhaps the most compelling finding was that young adults don't want their managers to assume that if their employees aren't complaining about something, then everything is OK. When asked why they don't speak up at work, young adults said they are never asked. That finding is consistent with prior studies. Here's what young adults shared: 

  • "If we aren't complaining, managers assume we are content. Sometimes it's hard for [young adult] employees to share their needs if they don't have an opportunity to."
  • "Assuming an individual is happy is also inconsiderate, because many employees [during the pandemic] need help in dealing with family, health or financial matters."

Positioning Young Workers for Success

Overall, when young adults feel undermined by their managers, they can't meet their full potential at work. As one young worker shared: "Assumptions are the fastest way of ruining a manager-employee relationship before it even begins."

Here are three steps managers can take to position young adults for success: 

  • Seek out feedback. If managers get into the practice of asking employees for feedback, young adults will speak up. Try asking them what aspects of the job they are enjoying or if there is anything that can be improved. I recommend managers seek feedback from young adult employees monthly. It sends a message that their voices matter.
  • Share templates. In working with young adults, I have learned that they enjoy figuring out how to approach their work. Sharing expectations during the height of the pandemic helped many young adults manage stress. However, as more young adults start new jobs, positioning them for success includes setting clear deadlines and, if possible, sharing examples of deliverables and templates.   
  • Acknowledge their skill sets. Young adults want managers to acknowledge that they have transferable skills acquired through school and prior work experiences. Managers should be mindful that young adults are ultimately demotivated when they are given mundane tasks. While working on monotonous tasks is arguably part of some entry-level jobs, the question becomes what percentage of their work time should be spent on these tasks?

In summary, young adults have a simple request of managers: I need you to believe in me, trust me and support me. Most managers value young adult employees, but it only takes one bad experience to send young adults down a precarious path of "Maybe I don't deserve to be here."

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.

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