A Baby boomer's perspective on Generation Y

Managing newcomers is nothing new, says Frank Hayes

When it came to work, the great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko liked to quote his friend Slats Grobnik: "If it's so good, how come they have to pay you to do it?"

Slats had the right idea. I think of him every time I hear someone moaning about how tough it is to manage Gen Y'ers or millennials, or whatever we're calling kids these days.

The moaners are usually baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, who imagine that they were real prizes when they got their first jobs in IT. Their work ethic was exemplary. Their team spirit was unrivaled. Their devotion to The Way It Has Always Been Done was truly a thing of beauty.

In their dreams.

Sure, a few boomers were like that. Generally, they were fresh from a hitch in the Army. After a year or two of being shot at, following orders in an IT department looked positively relaxing. But they were the minority.

Then there were the boomers who spent every spare moment in college in front of a terminal at the computer centre.

They were the ones who invented their own computer languages, churned out ASCII pin-up calendars on the high-speed printers and made the washing-machine-size disk drives waddle their way across the computer room.

Mostly, though, boomers took jobs in IT because it was work, and somebody would pay them to do it.

They were mouthy and opinionated. They knew next to nothing but thought they knew everything. They dressed funny, listened to noisy music and weren't much interested in beating their brains out at work.

That's the crowd complaining today about these lazy, noisy, funny-looking kids with their instant messaging and texting and MySpace and Second Life.

So let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves, OK?

Every new generation is a step ahead when it comes to technology. That's how we make progress in IT.

And every new generation is naive when it comes to the realities of business IT: budgets, regulations, business requirements, training and support costs, even the fact that business — not technology — is what the IT shop is all about.

Managing newcomers to the workforce is nothing new, despite the moaning of boomer managers and the dire predictions of pundits. We have to show them what the business needs and motivate them to turn their technical chops into practical solutions for real business problems.

Does that mean coddling or catering to them? Not unless we're really desperate.

Does it mean turning to Web 2.0? Maybe. If it does, have them figure out the business case for it — once we've shown them how to make a business case.

Most importantly, does it mean bending over backwards to meet the demands that pundits tell us these kids will bring to the IT workplace?

Of course not. They're not as lazy, noisy and funny-looking as we think they are, but these kids are also nowhere near as dumb as the pundits imagine them to be.

They know they're not here for fun — or to make demands. They're here to work.

That's why we're paying them to do it.

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