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Gen Y: Useful or Useless?

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Is Canadian corporate culture in for a major shakeup? Count me among those who will be on the sidelines, popcorn in hand, waiting for the ground to shake when Guy Laurence, the incoming CEO at Rogers Communication, steps up to the plate. For those not familiar with the current Vodafone UK CEO, one might describe him as the proverbial bull in the corporate culture china shop, radically laying waste to such standard items as offices, landlines and paper on desks. Such cultural changes may foster better communication and creativity for all employees but many observers believe his approach is aimed squarely at Generation Y.

If Mr. Laurence's objective is in fact to Gen Y-ifying his workplace, the question remains whether these tactics work. It appears at though this cohort of employees consistently mystifies and baffles so many older employees, giving birth to an industry of experts and researchers who deem them lazy, self-entitled and in constant need of feedback.

Not everyone buys that generalization, myself included. This confusion over Gen Y, and more specifically how to motivate them, is likely little more than the age-old clash of the young and inexperienced butting up against older and seasoned workers. Who among us will swear they had to walk 20 miles to get to the water cooler back when they were newbies? It's easy to forget how many of us were clueless when we began our careers.

"Having unrealistic expectations of the working world is a product of inexperience not a trait of a specific generation," asserted Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, a job board for students and recent graduates. "An individual with less or even zero workplace experience will be very likely to have some mistaken ideas," she added.

Kendra Reddy, a Toronto-based leadership coach and founder of the firm It's a Big Life! agrees that age plays a bigger factor that era. Rather than "a generation of lazy people who don't have any loyalty," Ms. Reddy describes them as, "questioning, challenging and re-defining how work gets done." As with any generation, there are nuances to this generation that differentiate them from others, but "there's no rule that says every human must follow the same nose-to-the-grind-stone path to the same generic definition of success," she said.

It would seem that the people who spend a lot of time resentfully finger-wagging and generalizing Gen Y for wanting a different life, are themselves perpetuating a stereotype of "angry, narrow-minded old people,'" she said.

Certainly, some Gen Y leaders believe that corporations aren't making the best use of this demographic. Kayla Cruz, a 23-year old in Miami, Florida who runs the Lost Gen Y Girl blog said she began working for a large organization at 19 and was passionate to make a difference but found "a lot of corporate BS gets in the way of that... and while I agree that young professionals need some experience before they can make it to the top of the proverbial ladder, I think that most of them (young professional graduates) can do much more than answer phones and make copies. Job descriptions need serious revamping," added Ms. Cruz, who is currently working on a Master's Degree in Public Administration while working full-time as a regulatory research coordinator.

And corporations may be losing some of the best talent because of these misunderstandings. Ms. Cruz believes the inability of some companies to effectively utilize this group's skills pushes them into more entrepreneurial opportunities.

"Big organizations aren't offering young professionals opportunities to grow and expand their job functions, so they're creating these opportunities for themselves. I, for one, think that's a wonderful thing," she added.

Kevin Shea, chairman of the Ontario Media Development Corporation, agrees. Mr. Shea, who acts as a mentor to many young entrepreneurs through Toronto incubator INcubes, remains in awe of these youthful professionals who bypass large organizations in favor of launching their own.

"In my generation, it was almost drilled into your head to get a job with a big company or a government and work toward that pension. I don't think I can name anyone I went to high school or university with who set out to be an entrepreneur," added Mr. Shea.

Which isn't to say he doesn't have some advice for this younger cohort, including learn how to interview and to not be afraid to send an old-fashioned letter or pick up the phone to get noticed.

Mr. Shea's last piece of advice to Gen Ys is to leave your parents at home. More than once, contemporaries of his have asked him to mentor or give advice to their children looking to enter the workforce and then insisted on tagging along. "Parents today spend an inordinate amount of time being the advance person for their kids. When kids enter the workforce, it's time to let them go."